By Carter Cromwell
August 24th, 2022
When Gretchen Aucoin was hired as minor-league player development coach by the New York Mets in January – thereby becoming the Mets’ first female on-field coach – it might have seemed the culmination of a long-held goal steadily worked toward over time.
But it wasn’t.
“I’ve never been a goal-setter,” she said. “Most the goals I would set for myself would probably be too safe or easy – or possibly the other way . . . too far-fetched. Either way, I see goals as limiting and disappointing. I’ve just tried to give my best every day, control what I could and let the rest happen.”
The position with the Mets was – to borrow from Hemingway – something that happened gradually, then suddenly. The opportunity arose in a short period of time, but things had happened beforehand that, unknowingly, positioned her to take advantage of it. So it’s best to rewind to her high school days in Mississippi.
Then, Aucoin starred in basketball and on high-level softball travel teams in California and Mississippi, was named the state’s female athlete of the year in 2012, and also graduated with high honors. In a tournament, she hit a home run far over a leftfield fence that had been moved back prior to the start of the event. That caught the eye of a coach from Texas Tech and eventually led to a scholarship offer.
At the time, then-Tech coach Shanon Hays said, “She’s a fantastic athlete, 6’0 feet tall, runs well, throws hard. She’s . . . one of the most talented kids I’ve ever recruited. We expect her to make an impact.”
And she did. As a freshman, Aucoin was 6-3 on the mound and batted .317 with a .414 on-base percentage. As a sophomore, she had a 14-9 pitching mark, a .999 OPS as a hitter, and was named to the all-region and all-conference teams. That year, she was voted to the all-Big 12 second team and to the NFCA Division I All-Central Region team. Over two seasons, she was 61-30 on the mound and posted a .936 OPS at the plate.
She chose to transfer after her second season because of a coaching change at Tech and ended up at Tennessee. The Volunteers reached the NCAA College World Series during her junior year and advanced to the Super Regionals in her final season. Individually, she was 9-2 on the mound and a .317 hitter with a 1.026 OPS.
Following graduation in 2016, and still not sure of her eventual career path, Aucoin initially decided to go for an MBA at Belhaven College in Mississippi while serving as a graduate assistant coach for the school’s softball team.
“I thought I’d do that and just see what happened,” she said.
And the unexpected happened.
While on the way to Belhaven, she received a mass email from the coach of the U.S. Olympic handball team. The message was aimed at recent graduates who had played basketball, softball or soccer and who were perhaps interested in handball.
“I thought it was amazing – the idea of merging skills from my two sports into a third,” Aucoin said. “The tryout was at Auburn University in Alabama, which was on my way home, so I gave it a go. There were only three people at the tryout, and I was invited to be in their residency program. I would get in-state tuition and get an assistantship to work with the softball team on research related to that sport. It was a great opportunity, but I realized after a while that it was too much to juggle – teaching, helping raise money for the program and training full time in a sport I’d never played, so I had to drop handball. It was a short-lived experience but incredibly impactful.”
Aucoin remained at Auburn afterward and earned a master’s degree in kinesiology in 2018. Still, she was again facing an unclear future. Then an opportunity to play softball internationally happened.
“In early 2018, I got a message from a former college teammate asking if I was interested in playing for a team in New Zealand beginning that fall,” she said. “At the time, I was thinking of perhaps being a prosthetic technician, but I hadn’t committed to any career plan, so I thought ‘Why not?’”
Then, in June of that year, the coach of the Cleveland Comets of the National Professional Fast Pitch League contacted her out of the blue and said he needed a pitcher, right then. Again, she thought, “Why not?”
“Within a week, I packed up everything, went to Cleveland for a couple of months, and then went to New Zealand,” she said with a laugh.
She was in New Zealand for the 2018-2019 season, earning her league’s most valuable player award, and then Italy happened. She played for the Bussolengo club in Verona during the summer of 2019 and helped lead it to the Italian championship and the runner-up spot in Europe’s Premier Cup competition.
“She was a major part of our success that season,” said Craig Montvidas, an American who coached the club for two seasons. “She’s very, very disciplined and one of the most professional players I’ve coached, and I’ve coached more than 20 Olympic athletes, pros in the U.S., and national team players. You’d give her something to do, and you knew it would get done. Coaching would be very simple if all players were like her.”
In July 2019, during a break in the Italian season for the Olympic Qualifiers, Aucoin even found a bit of a “side hustle” – playing on her older brother’s baseball team in Germany.
“It was another one of those things that just happened,” she said. “He’d played overseas for a while by then. The club had had a softball team at one point and he and I had joked about me playing for it, but they’d dropped softball by the time I went over there, so I played baseball.
“That was the first time I’d played baseball,” she said, “and it helped open my eyes to the fact that girls could play this sport. I didn’t think about it then, but I now see it as maybe a steppingstone to what’s happened with the Mets.”
First, though, the steps led back to New Zealand where she was voted the tournament’s most valuable player when Auckland won the 2020 championships, and MVP when she pitched the Auckland-based West Waves to the Fastball 45 national title later in 2020. She also became the first to pitch a no-hitter in the tourney.
“Gretchen was initially brought over to replace me when I stopped playing,” said Sammi Parks, an American living in New Zealand who played with Aucoin one season and coached her for two. “I wasn’t involved with softball during her first season, but we had become friends and I came back the next year so I could play a season with her. She’s definitely someone you want on your team. Not only was she a terrific pitcher, but she was one of the best batters in the country and a great fielder, as well. She was too good to keep out of the lineup.
“Gretchen has a very mature approach,” Parks added. “She’s always striving to be the best but also knows when to take a step back mentally and analyze situations. She understands what she needs to do to succeed.”
Aucoin had originally planned to play again in Italy, but the 2020 season was canceled because of Covid-19, so she stayed in New Zealand. Later, she assumed a role in Wellington as the Lower North Island softball development officer, another step that broadened her resume and helped prepare her for the opportunity with the Mets.
“I’d done some similar work for the Auckland club before that,” she said. “It involved helping run a lot of camps, and I enjoyed it. It was good experience, but I realized after a while that I wanted to get more from the personal and career development perspectives. By 2021, I knew my playing career was getting closer to the end. I was getting ready to retire and wondering what I could do back in the States.”
And that’s when the gradual became the seemingly sudden.
Aucoin had been passively following the social media presence of Rachel Balkovec, who in January was named by the New York Yankees as the first female minor league field manager. Balkovec had a month-long mentorship program for women, to which Aucoin applied and was accepted into in November 2021.
“Until then, other than talking to college coaches, I hadn’t known where to start to figure out what I would do back in the States,” she said. “I’d figured the natural thing would be as an assistant softball coach. But, seeing Rachel’s journey and what she had done, I became interested in her mentorship program.”
Once she got into the program, Balkovec helped with guidance on a variety of subjects, including goals, breaking down and rebuilding her resume, and whether to return to the U.S. to pursue other opportunities.
“Rachel presented a number of opportunities in the States,” Aucoin said. “She looked at my resume and thought I’d be a perfect candidate for a job one of her co-workers [Jeremy Barnes, now an assistant hitting coach for the Mets] had asked her about. He had asked if she knew any women who were interested in applying for a player development opportunity.”
At the time, Balkovec told Barnes she wasn’t aware of any obvious candidates, but that changed after she met Aucoin and saw her resume.
“She asked me if I had thought about switching to baseball, and I said no, but that I wasn’t opposed to it,” Aucoin said. “That started the conversation.”
Balkovec said she was most impressed with Aucoin’s overall demeanor – “very intense and no-BS. She has so much potential as a coach after playing as such a high level. I know she’s lacking experience, but it doesn’t matter. Someone took a chance on me when I was lacking experience because they saw the same thing – work ethic, overall demeanor, competitiveness, understanding the environment in high-level sports.”
Aucoin sent her resume to Barnes, had a telephone interview with him, and also talked with Kevin Howard, now the Mets’ farm director.
“At the time, I was packing up in New Zealand and saying good-bye to everyone, although I had nothing secured at that point,” she said. “I was just taking a chance.”
She flew to Chicago in early January for a coaches’ conference. Knowing Rachel Folden, a minor-league hitting coach for the Chicago Cubs, she got her perspective. Then, at lunch the same day, she got the job offer from Howard.
“Suddenly, my whole perspective at the conference changed,” Aucoin said with a laugh. “It went from job-hunting to networking. It was great, since I was tremendously jet-lagged.
“So this all happened over a two-month period, from my decision to start looking for something else. Baseball wasn’t something I thought about when left U.S., or while I was in New Zealand. I’d always wanted to come back to the U.S, but I never expected this. I knew women were in the majors, but never thought of myself being one of them.”
And yet, that’s what has happened. Aucoin is a player development coach based at the Mets’ minor-league development facility in Port St. Lucie, FL, and she’s occasionally filled in as a coach with the Class A Port St. Lucie Mets. She describes her role so far as that of jack-of-all-trades – handling charts, hitting fungos, keeping statistics, throwing some batting practice, sometimes serving as a first- or third-base coach during games, and more.
“The more, the merrier,” she said. “I’m here to learn a lot, soak it all in and be as useful as possible.”
While softball and baseball have some clear similarities – to her, the strategy in the two sports is very similar, and she understands the necessary mental approach – but there are also differences. Aucoin said the biggest thing she’s had to grasp regards baserunning – leadoffs, secondary leads, etc. The pitching is obviously different, and, having never played the outfield, she’s had to learn about that. And, she’s had to get deeper into data and analytics than she had previously. Hitting, too, she’s found to be very individualized.
But . . . “It’s exciting, day in and day out, to be in player development,” she added. “I’m like a sponge around these guys. I enjoy the learning.”
And while this all happened in a short amount of time, she hasn’t been knocked off-kilter. She’s moved around enough and been in enough different environments that she has the ability to adjust quickly to new situations.
Her attitude, Parks says, is to “live life and see what happens. She gauges how she feels in the moment and works toward that. She’s going for what fulfills her.”
As Aucoin noted wryly, “It’s safe to say that my life has changed significantly for six months at a time over the course of 3-4 years.
“My time has been temporary everywhere I’ve been. I haven’t had the luxury of thinking five years, three years or even a year down the line, and I’m really thankful for that. It’s allowed me to be fully invested wherever I’ve been. The only thing that has surprised me [with the Mets] is that little or nothing has surprised me. This feels like a new home. I’ve had a lot of those across the world, but I’m thoroughly impressed with how this has felt so natural, so quickly.”
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