Nobody knew it at the time, but when Ronnie Gajownik took over as first base coach of the Amarillo Sod Poodles last season, it was a steppingstone in minor league history.
Less than two weeks ago, Gajownik was named the manager of Hillsboro (Ore.) Hops, the high Class A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the parent club of the Sod Poodles. Gajownik became the second female manager in minor league baseball history, following Rachel Balkovec, who became the first female manager last season for the New York Yankees low Class A affiliate in Tampa, Fla.
After a year on staff in Class AA Amarillo, Gajownik will now run a team from the top position. It’s not something which had been a career goal.
“People always ask if this was my dream job and I go back and know some people might say their dream job is being CEO of a company,” Gajownik said. “It’s something you can attain and growing up I never saw this. I didn’t really think this could be a dream job. I never gave it the time of day.”
Gajownik played college softball at the University of South Florida and in 2015 was a member of the Team USA women’s baseball team which won the gold medal in the Pan-American Games.
She eventually got into coaching and latched onto the Diamondbacks system, and in 2021 was a player development intern and video assistant at Hillsboro, a frequent stop in the D-Backs chain for prospects before landing in Amarillo. Gajownik was assigned to coach in the Arizona Rookie League complex for the 2022 season, which officially put her on a coaching track within the organization.
“After my first year with the Diamondbacks working in Hillsboro, I thought to myself I really could be a coach in professional baseball,” Gajownik said. “I had been a coach the previous five years in softball and an instructor throughout my college years, so I really decided it was a possibility. There’s a lot of people who went into it and made me the person and coach I am today to be able to put me in this position to be the manager of the Hops.”
Fate then stepped in last May, bringing Gajnowski to Amarillo. Sod Poodles first base coach Javier Colina was hit in the foot by a line drive from Corbin Carroll (now playing with the Diamondbacks) and was injured severely enough to take time away from the team.
Enter Gajownik. She was called to Amarillo from Arizona to fill in for Colina on what looked like a temporary basis but turned into something more.
“I wasn’t expecting to be there for the entire season, but it worked out well and I fit right in,” Gajownik said. “They were confident in the job I was doing.”
Gajownik absorbed what was going on around her from the Sod Poodles staff.
“I had a great staff last year,” Gajownik said. “That was my second season with (pitching coach) Shane Loux, who I was with in Hillsboro the previous season. He’s a great communicator. Shawn Roof has a great infield mind and is really confident in the words he says with the players. He takes his job very seriously. Travis Denker is a great baseball hitting mind. You’re always learning from people around you and I was fortunate to be around some great minds in Amarillo last season.”
Roof will return to manage the Sod Poodles for his third season starting in April. Colina will come back to coach first as well.
Gajownik will be missing, and Roof thinks the team benefited from her presence.
“I thought it was great when I found out she was coming,” Roof said. “Obviously we hated to leave Javier when he got hurt. In my time with Ronnie in spring training, she definitely earned everybody’s respect. She has a great presence about her. I knew she was going to fit right in and there were no hiccups.”
A situation like that could be ripe for sexism in the macho world of minor league baseball. However, it helped Gajownik that some of the Sod Poodles were familiar with her if they’d spent the previous season in Hillsboro.
“I’d obviously been around them in Hillsboro and they knew the type of person I was,” Gajownik said. “I think coaching comes down to the person that you are and being able to help the players. It’s not like I was a new face they did not know. We got familiarized with each other in a couple of weeks and it was just like it was if a man was to go in there.”
Gajownik is now embedded in the Diamondbacks system, at least as far as her familiarity with the Hillsboro-to-Amarillo track. She’ll almost certainly be managing players in Hillsboro who will be promoted to Amarillo before the 2023 season ends.
Having spent most of last season in the Texas Panhandle, Gajownik can dispense some advice on what to look forward to in Amarillo.
“This one restaurant has great pizza rolls and a great happy hour so I’m going to tell them that’s a place to go on Mondays for sure,” Gajownik said.
“Obviously it’s a little bit of a bigger stage and you’re going to have some great minds up there,” Gajownik said. “Also pack a really comfortable pillow and blanket for the really long bus rides. They have teammates and friends throughout the organization so they’re definitely going to get an idea without even talking to me.”
Gajownik is headed on a traditional path in terms of coaching within the Diamondback system. It could even be said she’s following in the footsteps of Roof, who managed at Hillsboro from 2017-18.
Roof thinks Gajownik is up to the challenge.
“You definitely knew that she was going to have some chance to manage in her future,” Roof said. “She has a chance to do just about everything in this game so it’s not a surprise one bit. She’s going to be ready to go.”
Gajownik said she hasn’t necessarily been aiming for a managerial job at any level. She’s more interested in living in this moment.
“I don’t really look at the future in all honesty,” Gajownik said. “I like to be where my feet are at. I’m confident in the person I am and the job I’m doing. I feel like I hold myself to a pretty high standard. I’m not just representing myself but the Diamondbacks organization and the Gajownik family name.”
The Diamondbacks have been developing top prospects, especially in the outfield, for the past couple of years, and Hillsboro and particularly Amarillo have been key stops in their minor league chain.
Gajownik is familiar with both places and their differences, as Hillsboro is a spacious park where extra base hits go to die, and Amarillo’s Hodgetown is a launching pad for hitters, especially for right-handers with the wind blowing out of the south.
Knowing that means Gajownik can prep hitters on what to expect from Hodgetown. After a season in Amarillo, she also has Roof’s ear.
“That familiarity is always huge in this game when you have someone you can lean on and trust in their evaluation of players,” Roof said. “Our organization does a really good job of hiring hard-working people at this level of the game. We do a really good job of staying in constant communication in letting people know what’s going on at the different levels.
“By the time they get sent to us I’m sure she’s going to give us great info on the players. It’s going to hopefully be a smooth transition and she’s going to prepare those guys for the Double-A level. That familiarity is going to be huge for her and our players in preparing for what it’s going to be like to come up to Amarillo.”
The big question is, could Gajownik someday be managing in Amarillo, or someplace higher? She doesn’t have any place specific in mind.
“I don’t have an ultimate goal,” Gajownik said. “I want to be in a job I look forward to going to every single morning. It’s kind of following the river of life. You’re going to go down rapids and it may rain a couple of times and be beautiful some days. You’ve got to stay on it and where you’re at is where you’re at.”