‘I love going to work’: Alyssa Nakken completes quest for fulfillment as MLB’s first female coach

From the moment she donned the orange and black uniform of the San Francisco Giants, and stepped on a major league field to coach, Alyssa Nakken’s legacy as the first woman to coach for a major league team was secure.

Groundbreaker. Trailblazer. Barrier-buster.

They are platitudes Nakken accepts gracefully, and the impact of her appearance in an overwhelmingly male-dominated space is not lost on her.

As Nakken charts her path from slugging first baseman at Sacramento State to the grounds of San Francisco’s Oracle Park, she sees roadblocks placed in her own mind, that prevented her from even imagining her current reality was possible.

Now, at 30, she looks back and sees her 22-year-old self asking a question – What do I want to do with my life? – so many others pondered and perhaps shirked.

She sees a recent college graduate and prosperous but unsatisfied young woman “having a very big breakdown” while having coffee with her mother in their hometown of Woodland, Calif., 83 miles but a world away from San Francisco.

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And as she exudes the pride of working for a coaching staff whose driving principle is admitting they don’t yet have all the answers, Nakken wants young women who may follow her to know that it’s OK not to know.

“People getting out of college and trying to figure out, quote unquote, what their real job is going to be, I’m not too far removed from it,” Nakken said in a telephone interview with USA TODAY Sports. “I remember the sleepless nights of being down on myself for not being sure what I wanted to do.  Whether you want to coach or be in a male-dominated industry, this shows that if you continue to pursue careers or hobbies you like to do, and you put that passion behind it, doors will start to open.

“Now that women and girls will see it’s something they can do, hopefully it’s not this specific thing, but, ‘Oh yeah, even if I don’t see that specific career, I can go out and create it or create that network around me to be who I truly want to be.’”

Nakken’s existential crisis struck while she was working as a financial advisor, earnestly enjoying the interactions with those planning their financial future and gleaning from their experiences inspiration she’d apply to her own life.

Perhaps it was too inspiring: The tales of clients traveling the world and changing careers shattered her mindset of, “OK, I’m going to start now and this will be my career for the rest of my life.’

“I thought that was what you had to do: Work 9 to 6, have weekends off.”

Instead, Edward Jones’ loss became the Giants’ gain.

Nakken enters the dugout before a game against thPadres at Oracle Park (Photo: Kelley L. Cox, USA TODAY Sports)

Nakken had assumed her arc in athletics would take her from travel softball through college, and that it did: She slugged eight home runs, produced a .934 OPS and earned conference scholar-athlete of the year honors in her final year at Sacramento State.

As she sought more from her life, a fact-finding trip to the University of San Francisco proved more inspiring beyond learning about their post-graduate sports management program. A meeting with longtime USF baseball coach Nino Giarratano and assistant Troy Nakamura reminded Nakken how much she missed athletics.

So she worked days and went to school at nights in her new home, grinding out an advanced degree and landing an internship with the Giants that eventually led to a permanent position. When the club hired Gabe Kapler as its new manager, part of his on-boarding process was a January conversation with Nakken, whose purview included various employment development initiatives.

By the end of the conversation, the dynamic shifted: Kapler wanted her on his coaching staff.

It was a historic hire, less surprising given Kapler’s well-documented penchant to zag while others zig. He’d already hired Kai Correa, a former Division III player who did not play pro ball and had no big league dugout experience, as his bench coach. Correa, 31, would be younger than several Giants veterans.

So, too, is hitting coach Donnie Ecker, 33, whose background is steeped in biomechanics and human movement research.

Kapler did retain longtime Giants coach Ron Wotus from Bruce Bochy’s staff, adding some grit to his new age thought lab. For Nakken, the hiring of first base and outfield coach Antoan Richardson might have been most notable.

They work closely together on baserunning, outfield positioning based on that day’s opposing pitcher and how best to steal 90 extra feet on the basepaths when possible. More notably, Nakken says Richardson excels at challenging her own processes. And she sees his unique ability to connect with players on a roster with players of all pedigrees, from veterans on the downside to recent waiver claims only now getting their first real shot.

The 19-person staff converges in a manner that’s not exactly Abraham Lincoln’s League of Rivals, though it is secure in the belief its leader will consider their input.

“Having the diversity of thought – people with different experiences and backgrounds to attack things from different angles–- is really beneficial,” says Nakken. “There’s a lot of coaches on our staff very specialized in their craft, but if you look at their background, they have a real variety of experiences and professions.

“To bring that to the table allows us to ensure no stone goes unturned. And Kap is all about collaboration and leadership and different voices. And he’s stayed true to that. You’ll often get leaders who say that, but he does stay true to that.”

Kapler was a controversial hire in the Bay Area for a number of reasons, from his not-quite .500 record in two years managing the Phillies, to his mishandling of sexual assault allegations levied against a minor leaguer while he was the Dodgers’ director of player development.

Thursday, he committed a gaffe that evoked memories of his Phillies tenure, making a mound visit moments after his pitching coach. Rule 5.10 (1) states a pitcher must face a batter if visited twice by a manager or coach in the same at-bat, in the same inning.

Kapler opened his press briefing Thursday with a characteristic mea culpa, saying the mixup was “100% my responsibility.” The sequence won’t alleviate concerns among Giants fans he is somehow the anti-Bochy, who won three World Series titles from 2010-2014.

For Nakken, Kapler’s relatively open book was appealing.

“It was really Kap who opened my eyes that I could do something like this,” she says. “I knew it was somebody I wanted to work alongside. He’s extremely transparent and constantly searching for a wide variety of perspectives.

“Now, I think it’s silly that I never thought I could do something like this.”

It has been a whirlwind since January, starting with spring training in February, to keeping contact with players during the nearly four-month industry shutdown due to COVID-19, to reconvening for summer camp in July, a period Nakken says the staff was “extremely grateful to come to work every day,” not knowing what tomorrow might bring.

That uneasy feeling lingers, with eight teams having games postponed due to positive COVID-19 tests, the 60-game season lurching along.

Yet even if the plug gets pulled, Nakken has already received a crash course in the grind of a season. Getting to the ballpark early, sneaking in a workout with fellow coaches before players arrive, meetings upon meetings upon meetings and then oh, it’s game time.

Then, there are the indelible moments, like when Wotus gathered the staff in the catacombs of Dodger Stadium and opened a bottle of red wine for a quick toast to Kapler’s first win as Giants manager, which was also a first for so many of the coaches.

“This is my job,” says Nakken, “and this is work, and I love going to work every single day.”

Not that she didn’t before. It’s just there was so much more to do, that she did not realize.

Like surfing. The California native, who grew up in land-locked Yolo County, had never climbed on a board until she took a solo trip to Panama three years ago and got hooked. Now, she’ll sample the breaks at nearby Ocean Beach, although the break “is a little big and gnarly for me, being a beginner,” so she’ll scamper south to Pacifica’s gentler conditions.

“It’s very symbolic to life, with the ups and downs,” she says. “You paddle so hard for a wave and sometimes you don’t get it. And if you’re crashing hard, sometimes it’s not so fun.

“And then, you get those moments where you’re riding the wave and it’s the best feeling in the world.”

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