Peoria Chiefs assistant coach Whitlock sees her groundbreaking role in pro baseball as ‘a blessing’
When the Peoria Chiefs open the Midwest League baseball season Thursday night at Dozer Park, they'll make some history.
Filling the role as fourth coach will be Christina Whitlock, making her the first woman to serve as an in-uniform assistant in the St. Louis Cardinals organization.
“It is a blessing, it is a blessing,” said Whitlock, who previously had been working as a “tech fellow” at the Cardinals’ training site in Jupiter, Fla. “It feels like I've just taken that next step and the fact that the Cardinals, (director of player development) Gary LaRocque and the front office, believe that I have what it takes to take this next step. It's an honor.”
Growing up, the former Tina Plew played youth baseball in Vista, Calif., north of San Diego. She switched to softball in high school, with an eye on earning a college scholarship. She earned All-American accolades as a catcher at the University of South Carolina, helping the Gamecocks reach the College World Series for the first time in 1997.
“Fast forward through many collegiate coaching experiences, the game called me back into baseball. So I've kind of come full circle,” she said.
Whitlock is among a growing number of women forging careers in affiliated pro baseball. Last season, Alyssa Nakken of the San Francisco Giants became the first woman to coach in the majors and Rachel Balkovec became the first manager in the minors, with a New York Yankees farm team.
“As far as being a trailblazer, a game-changer, a difference-maker – right? – all of those things, I think each one of us bring something to the table that's going to be impactful in some way, either to the game itself or to an individual player. That's really what we're hoping to do,” said Whitlock.
Whitlock has faced her share of challenges, becoming a single mother to two young boys when her husband Brian died in 2002. Raising two sons while also pursuing a coaching career was anything but easy.
“Anybody that goes into a career that they're passionate about, there's always going to be a tug of war, right? There's always going to be a struggle with balance; there's always going to be the unknown that you can't plan for,” she said.
“As a single parent, I faced all of that. Would I change it? No, because I think that everything that I went through, again, is going to prepare me for what lies ahead.”
In the past few years, COVID-19 not only delayed Whitlock’s minor league assignment but it also claimed the life of one of her mentors, Cardinals scout Charles Peterson.
“Just 2020 in general was a tough year because everybody was dealing with a lot of personal things in regards to a very unknown situation,” she said. “It kind of compounded things. Baseball was really the last thing I was thinking of, in regards to it was more so just making sure my family was good and then just healing from that loss of a good colleague.”
As far as on-field challenges go, Whitlock says the fact she’s a woman isn’t really a part of it.
“I think it's not even a gender thing, it's mainly just an ergonomics thing,” she said. “I'm 5-3, so sometimes just picking up the signs around a first baseman who's probably 6-5, those are some of the challenges that I face. This might be some of the ergonomics of the game and just finding a way to allow for my job to be done in the most efficient way possible.”
Second-year Peoria manager Patrick Anderson said having Whitlock on the staff is a development opportunity both for her and the Chiefs players.
“We're just getting to know her, just like she's getting to know us,” said Anderson. “She's going to facilitate to help the players out, and that's what we're here for. Having an extra hand as a coaching staff to facilitate the needs for these players is so important.
“She's going to throw some batting practice – she threw really great at practice, it was awesome to see in spring training. She's going to hit some fungos and coach first base and help out with some of the either outfielders or base running stuff. So she's really excited to do that, and we're excited to be able to have her.”
Whitlock said she’s been fortunate in that she hasn’t experienced any “discriminatory interactions” from male players and other coaches. That has allowed her to soak up as much information as possible.
“I want to learn how everything, from what the grounds crew is doing to the front office here, to the procedures that we go through, pregame to postgame. All of that and everything in between, I want to learn a little bit of everything,” she said.
Whitlock sees the significance of playing her part in growing diversity in baseball, offering some advice to girls and young women interested in a career in the sport.
“If it's something that you would like to do, that you need to just do it,” she said. “We're living in a time where there's opportunity, and if you're going to choose to do it, you need to choose to do it with longevity in mind. I think that that's going to be the key to keeping this going for women and minorities, just have longevity.”
Whitlock hopes her time with the Chiefs puts her on a path to the big leagues.
“Absolutely, I would love to be a major league manager or on a major league staff,” she said. “I know there's a lot of other positions that will help me prepare for that. So I'm willing to consider all of those options as well: I think there's the option of a battery coach or a bench coach or a pitching coach, and then obviously manager positions as well. So I think there's a lot that lies ahead that could be the door that leads to the next opportunity.”
Does Whitlock see a time in the near future where a woman is managing an MLB team?
“Yeah, I do. I do.”
Chiefs season preview
Anderson believes the Chiefs are in store for noticeable improvement after posting a 56-76 overall record last year.
“The pitching is the key, and we have a handful of pitchers – if not a bunch of them – that are really exciting,” said Anderson, who added new hitting coach Casey Chenoweth employs an aggressive offensive approach.
The Chiefs’ pitching staff will feature a pair of highly touted names in Tink Hence and Cooper Hjerpe. The MLB Pipeline website ranks the right-handed Hence No. 3 among Cardinals prospects (behind former Chiefs Jordan Walker and Masyn Winn) while the lefty Hjerpe was the organization’s first-round draft pick last summer.
“Whenever you have pitching, it gives you a chance, right? We're really excited about some of the arms we have going out there, all of them to be honest with you,” said Anderson. “We have some interesting pieces defensively and offensively. So it's just a matter of putting it all together.”
The Chiefs announced some new stadium policies at Dozer Park for this season, most notably cashless concessions and digital ticketing.
The stadium box office will only offer digital tickets for single-game purchases. Fans buying tickets online will have a print-at-home option, while those buying at the park will receive their tickets through a text message.
All concession stands will only accept debit or credit cards, including the suite level bar and lounge area. Cash will be accepted at concession stands on the Education Day and Splash day midweek day games on May 3, May 10, and June 2, and the team store will also accept cash.
The team will also begin enforcing a clear bag policy on April 17. The Chiefs will give out clear bags prior to this Saturday’s home game against Cedar Rapids.