Bianca Smith made headlines when she was hired in January 2021 as the first Black woman coach in professional baseball’s history. CNN, BBC and People Magazine were among the outlets that ran stories about the newest Boston Red Sox minor league coach.
Two years later, Smith left the Red Sox organization to much less fanfare – leaving a multi-year offer on the table because she says she didn’t feel challenged.
“They wanted to send me back to rookie ball and I had no desire to be there, so I decided to take my chance,” Smith said in a phone interview with The Athletic. “Everyone I know who stays at rookie ball (for a long period of time) does so because they have families and they like the lifestyle. I was ready to travel more. My passion is (game) strategy and rookie ball is almost entirely player development.”
Smith isn’t giving up on getting back to MLB. She’s pivoting. The 31-year-old moved to Japan last summer and is coaching elementary and middle school baseball through the JET (Japanese Exchange and Teaching) program, which she called a “bucket list” item. Smith also recently accepted a job with the Great Britain women’s national baseball team and the 23 and under Great Britain baseball team.
Smith’s goal for this part of her coaching career is to be a sponge, soaking up as much information and different experiences as possible. Defensive strategies and baserunning are Smith’s passion, a style of baseball that’s more popular in Japan.
By the end of this year, she will have coached in five countries on three continents. In addition to learning Japanese, Smith is working on learning Chinese and Korean.
“Everyone (in MLB) speaks Spanish now, it almost feels like a requirement,” she said. “But how many coaches do we have who speak those languages? There are so many players coming from here, and more on the way, and all the Asian players typically have is their translators. There’s a huge focus on baserunning in Japan and I want to bring that over. It’s the idea of getting different experience and adding tools MLB doesn’t have.”
Smith made her decision to leave the Red Sox in late fall of 2022, which meant that most other teams had limited openings for the following season. Smith wasn’t surprised that she didn’t immediately land another job: The rookie-level positions are often the last ones open.
This offseason, though, was another story. Smith applied to several open positions and says she didn’t get an interview.
“That was surprising,” said Smith, who was open when she was hired by Boston that she had bigger goals: To be the first Black woman coaching in the Major Leagues.
A graduate of Dartmouth, where she was the only woman on the club softball team, Smith has two graduate degrees — one in sports business, the other in sports law. She interned with the Cincinnati Reds, Texas Rangers and Major League Baseball and served as the assistant coach and hitting coordinator at Carroll University in Wisconsin before the Red Sox hired her.
“I don’t want to say anything bad about the Red Sox, I loved my time there, but there’s a part of me that believes if I had come in as any ethnic male I would have advanced,” Smith said. “I don’t like the attention, I try to be modest but I do realize that my resume is crazy. I had to go through a lot just to get that rookie ball job, and that’s why I was surprised that I didn’t get a team interested in talking about a position after everything I’ve done.
“Looking back, I do believe I would have had more of a chance to advance if I wasn’t a woman in the game. There could have been stuff behind the scenes that I didn’t know about. But every industry has politics to deal with. As far as on the field, I didn’t have any issues.”
The Red Sox declined to comment on specifics of Smith’s contract offer, but Red Sox director of player development Brian Abraham said, “Bianca ultimately decided to pursue other opportunities within baseball which we respect and (we) certainly wish her the best. During her time with the Red Sox it was exciting to see her continually grow as a staff member. She was a pleasure to work alongside.”
Even if Smith doesn’t get an offer from a pro team, she has a contract in Japan until August 2026 that affords her the opportunity to be picky about what to do next.
Smith says she no longer has dreams of being a big-league manager, and in a perfect world would prefer to be a base coach. Less attention, more strategy. Smith shied away from the blitz of media that accompanied her historic hire, and went a month and a half before making it public that she had left the Red Sox. She says she now has some regrets about that.
“I didn’t appreciate the opportunity of that attention,” said Smith, who started a blog called Go Be The First to document her adventures abroad. “I grew up with the belief that coaches should be behind the scenes, but now I do wish I had done more with (the attention) and used it as a platform. It’s not just about me not being in pro ball, it’s the fact that I was the only Black woman. And now there’s no one for Black girls to look at.
“I’ve had a chance to step back and think about what I’ve done. I kept telling people when I got the job, ‘I’m not done yet, let’s talk about it later.’ Obviously, I’m still not done, but I have done something that nobody has done before. I’ve had a couple of interviews here in Japan with different papers, that not only was I the first Black woman in MLB, but now I am in Japan coaching here. Now it’s hit me that, ‘OK, I’ve done something that’s pretty amazing.’ I can see that and still want to do more.”
Smith said she misses the players she coached and that she’s still in touch with many of them, as well as her former co-workers.
“Most of them understood and supported my decision. They know what my goals are, how ambitious I can be. Maybe (I’m) a little impatient, but I don’t have any ill will,” she said. “It’s harder to get back into pro ball than I thought it would be. But I don’t regret my decision (to leave). I think I’d be more upset in a job I was unhappy in where I’m not growing.”
(Top photo of Smith in 2021: Billie Weiss / Boston Red Sox via Getty Images)