Jen Yorko grew up a sports nut, playing in the backyard with her two brothers and going to Cleveland Indians' games with her dad. It led her down a path that saw a stop on the college softball field, a cameo on the DIII women's soccer pitch, and now the front office of minor-league baseball.
Yorko — a 2007 Lake Erie graduate — was named the general manager of the Cleveland Indians' Class-A affiliate Lake County Captains last fall. She is said to be just the seventh active female GM in minor league baseball, a sport that has 160 teams throughout 17 different leagues. To be one of seven is a pretty big deal. "It's amazing how many females look at another female in a role that has been typically male dominated and they instantly feel there's a better opportunity for them since another female has achieved it," Yorko said.
But let's slow it down a bit. This journey all started in that backyard playing baseball with her brothers. Let's track the climb of the Captains' first female GM in the history of the organization.
Jen Yorko, the little leaguer
Yorko was always a trendsetter. Remember those two brothers she always played in her Painesville, Ohio backyard with? Well, one was older and the other was her twin. While the twins watched their older brother develop in little league, the two began playing the T-ball circuit together. Even though there was slow-pitch softball in town, her dad worked nights, so the twins played on the same Little League team after T-ball to make things easier on her mother.
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From ages 9-12, Yorko played on the boys team with the other girl bypassing softball and playing Little League. By the time she turned 13, fast-pitch softball had found its way to Lake County, Ohio, and that's when a career that took her through college as a student-athlete began. "I loved every day of that grind," Yorko said.
But it was also those Cleveland Indians games her father took her to that played a role in where she is today. Sure, she loved the game — Sandy Alomar, Jr. is her all-time favorite — but at a young age, there were other things that caught her eye.
"I loved watching the game but was also always curious about everything else," Yorko said. "The in-game promotions, giveaways, concessions offerings, signage in the outfield, family day, merchandise at the ballpark. Pretty fitting for my shoes now."
The consummate DII softball player from Lake Erie College
Yorko's student-athlete career didn't begin on the DIII collegiate softball field, but it ended there in impressive fashion. She began at another school, but eventually found her way to Lake Erie, then a DIII program that has since made the jump to DII.
She played softball for the Storm and turned out to be a fantastic athlete thanks to an early lesson from her dad in her Little League days.
"When I started playing baseball I wasn't the one that hit the most home runs or stole the most bases, but I could do both," Yorko said. "I wasn't the best center-fielder or shortstop we had on our team, but I could do both. My dad always taught me as a kid to know each position and to be familiar with it and when I needed to play it, I could focus those weeks really putting in the extra work."
Yorko became an all-conference player and even did something that would keep her name part of Lake Erie history forever. Primarily a catcher and shortstop — because of those early lessons from her father — she learned how to pitch along the way. "I was far from our best pitcher, but I could throw a fastball slightly off the plate and a few other junk pitches," Yorko said. Whatever the case, Yorko will be forever known as the first Storm softball pitcher to throw a no-hitter. How's that for a Jack-of-all-trades?
But those lessons didn't stop there. Yorko trained with a bunch of friends on the women's soccer team and even played a little indoor soccer to stay fit for softball season. Enter her senior year, and when the Storm soccer team was decimated by injury, who stepped in?
Yorko, of course. "I played my senior year as a backup to give the starters a little break when needed."
It was around the same time that Yorko interned in the box office for the local minor-league ball club, the Lake Country Captains.
From college softball player to MiLB general manager
After graduation, she was promoted and took over the Captains' merchandise store called the Cargo Hold. Another stop as the head of the organization's ticket department led to her 2016 promotion to assistant general manager. And finally, she became the first female general manager in the organization's 16-year history.
Notice anything familiar? It's almost as if those lessons her dad taught her on the baseball field may have been a metaphor for something larger.
"He was right," Yorko said. "Working my way from intern to GM has been a similar story. Every full-time position we offer, I have worked directly with or held that position on my own. I take every experience I earn and learn and work to make it better. In MiLB it's so important to the small front offices to be versatile and willing. Working on the Captains Front Office team is no different than being the team player I grew up being."
And now, Yorko embarks on 2020 in charge of the team she was a mere intern on just 13 seasons ago. She's not simply in a position to make a mark on Minor League Baseball, but every young woman that has the same dream as she once did.
It's the role she's more than ready to tackle.
"Now that there are female coaches in professional sports, the number of women that are qualified is going to grow so quickly because there's a feeling of an open opportunity," Yorko said. "These women are great role models for other females finding their career path.
"For me, I'm not the first female GM in MiLB and there's currently one other female GM in our league. I've never thought of myself as a trailblazer; I'm happy to keep plugging along and doing what I can to make our business more efficient. If being the first female GM in Lake County makes me a role model for another female wanting to achieve the same, I'm happy to connect with her and offer any help I can along the way."