Stephanie Wilka lands perfect job with Astros
A 10-year-old girl sits in the stands at a baseball stadium in Florida. She watches her older brother step to the plate, just a few games away from the end of his collegiate career. She had watched him play for as long as she could remember and they shared a deep bond rooted in their love of baseball. Her brother, who she viewed as a baseball star, had never hit a home run during his college days. Until that afternoon.
She watches his deep fly ball sail over the left-field wall and splash into the waterway outside the stadium. After the game, he jumps into the waterway to retrieve the ball; he wants to sign it and give it to their father, the man who coached him in little league and, along with their mother, instilled this love of the game in his children.
Stephanie Wilka, now 28 and the coordinator of amateur scouting for the Houston Astros, knew even then that Thomas' home run signified something more.
"He had been gone for college and my other brother was just getting ready to leave. It was like this end of an era in our family of this childhood that we'd spent together at baseball games," Wilka said. "Here's my brother, and he hits his first college home run at the end of his college career, gives the ball to my dad and I think, 'What now?'
"And that's when it first occurred to me that I didn't want that part of my life to end. I wanted it to go on, and maybe working in baseball was one of the ways that it could. [I could not imagine] not being a part of the game."
Wilka spent her days as a little girl on the baseball diamonds of Southern California, watching Thomas and her other older brother, Kenny, play. By age 5, she started operating the scoreboard for their little league team and tracked the number of runs and outs, a tradition that continued through her brothers' high school games.
"The parents of kids on the team would keep official score, so they helped if I needed it," Wilka said. "It was great -- a group of teammates and their younger siblings and parents who had come up from little league to high school baseball together. I remember it being like an extended family, and it's one reason I love baseball."
"In baseball, there's a lot of competitiveness and hard work and fast pace. The hardest part is being ready for that and adjusting to that and making sure you're working hard -- and that applies to males or females."-Stephanie Wilka
Wilka doesn't remember being without the game in some way. Growing up in Oceanside, baseball represents family.
"It's a family thing. We all love baseball," Kenny Wilka said. "Maybe it's a tragedy, but I don't really think she had an option. I remember going to baseball games from a very young age. Our dad coached my little league team. It was just ingrained in us to be passionate about it."
It started with Wilka's grandparents. Her grandmother's brother lived in the small community of Chavez Ravine and was forced to relocate his family because of Dodger Stadium. Her grandmother embraced the Dodgers as soon as they moved to Los Angeles.
"The game itself espouses a lot of the values I've grown up valuing and that my brothers have been taught and they've taught me," Wilka said. "It encompasses family for me. I had the gift of being able to share the game with them for so many years. It's still very familial and very American and just the good things about our culture and this game that is our pastime. It really is that for me. I lived all of those great things about baseball that we all love.
"It's not a story. It's a lifetime."
But as much as Wilka loved baseball and dreamed as a child of making it her life, she didn't always think that working in the game would happen.
"I don't think it ever occurred to me that I was going to work in baseball," Wilka said. "I knew that I wanted to work in sports and it would be fun, but I don't know that I actually believed it was a possible reality for me. It's something that was always so close to me that I never wanted it to go away. I wanted to keep it in my life and my lifestyle."
Though she admits her love affair with baseball waned a bit in high school -- Wilka excelled as a softball player -- she reconnected with her passion while in college at Harvard.
"My brothers were gone and I took a little hiatus," Wilka said. "It wasn't because I fell out of love with baseball; it was just because it wasn't in the form I had grown up loving. And then I swung back. I missed it too much in college, remembering how important it was to me and wanting it back."
She began a relentless pursuit of her goal. She looked at jobs in sports (even working briefly at ESPN), but knew only one sport represented her ultimate destination.
"I just really wanted to be a part of baseball," Wilka said. "So I flew to the winter meetings [in December 2004 during her senior year at Harvard] and somehow got the guts to talk to people even though, of course, I felt like I was bothering them, like they didn't have time for me. I still had the guts to do it anyway and eventually it stuck."
The networking paid off. She met with longtime baseball executive Mike Port, who passed along her résumé to some teams, including the Red Sox. The Red Sox liked what they saw in the 2005 Harvard graduate and offered her an internship. Appropriately, Wilka was sitting behind home plate at a Harvard baseball game at Fenway Park when she "got the call" from the team.
"Her quiet and gentle nature belied a passion for baseball that was revealed as soon as we started to dig down into the origins of her love of the game," said Dr. Charles Steinberg, senior advisor to the president/CEO of the Boston Red Sox with whom Wilka worked closely from 2006-08. "You saw that the deeper you went, the deeper the love was. The success and popularity of baseball in general and the Red Sox in particular sometimes draws people to the perceived glamour of the job. In Stephanie's case, she was ready to roll up her sleeves and do anything and everything without question, without hesitation."
Though she sought a position on the baseball operations side after the internship ended, Wilka ended up working for Boston's community affairs department. Steinberg, who was then Boston's executive vice president of public affairs, chose Wilka to take a leadership position with the Lindos Suenos (Beautiful Dreams) initiative, the team's community outreach program in the Dominican Republic.
"The compassion and sensitivity that she displayed was really noteworthy," Steinberg said. "It was this compassion and sensitivity, as well as the passion for baseball, that prompted us to have her come down to the Dominican Republic for Lindos Suenos. A pure community heart in the context of baseball, and a pure baseball heart with a conscience for the community, is her interesting and special blend."
During her two years in the Dominican Republic, Wilka engaged in the hands-on, grassroots program and also studied the impact the team's community efforts had on the Dominican population. Along the way, she led the effort to build baseball fields in Boston star David Ortiz's hometown of Haina and at an orphanage in San Pedro.
"I'd go to the field every day, literally painting in some instances, literally shoveling and doing manual labor to get the fields completed," Wilka said. "Anything from start to finish, top to bottom that would go into renovating a little league baseball field. I was sort of the utility guy."
After Steinberg left the Red Sox to become executive vice president of marketing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, he invited Wilka to visit him in Los Angeles to catch up and meet members of the executive team. She so impressed the Dodgers' brass that they offered her the opportunity to become the first executive director of the Dodgers Dream Foundation from 2009 to 2010.
When Wilka had a chance to join Houston as its new coordinator of amateur scouting this past offseason, she didn't hesitate. For a team that hasn't finished above .500 since 2008 and posted a league-leading 106 losses in 2011, the role of scouting and player development has never been more important.
"It's an amazing time for this organization," Wilka said. "The energy and the intelligence and the amount of work going in, and the really thoughtful intelligent thinking going on here, is amazingly motivating and it's very attractive. This organization is really moving in a great direction, with a lot of great people working hard to get it there. Who wouldn't want to be a part of something like that?"
Wilka is just one part of a major offseason makeover in Houston. With an eye toward rebuilding for the future and the team's upcoming move to the American League West in 2013, new owner Jim Crane cleaned house. He hired a new general manager, Jeff Luhnow, the former head of scouting for the Cardinals who brings a forward-thinking, sabermetrics-focused and data-intensive approach to scouting and player development.
This is where Wilka plays a critical role. Although she herself is not a scout, she is one of a handful of women working on the baseball operations side at the major league level and helps coordinate coverage for all the team's amateur scouts.
"[My role is] focused on the systematic collection of all information relevant to the draft, and there's a lot of information," Wilka said. "That would include performance data, our scouts' opinions, their scouting reports, medical histories, mechanics evaluations, psychological evaluations and even things like basic demographic data ... and multiply all of that times close to 1,000 for all the prospects that are on the radar."
Wilka replaced Mike Burns, now an area scout for the Toronto Blue Jays. She had to get up to speed quickly on processes that had been in place for months in advance of June's amateur draft.
"Stephanie has transitioned smoothly into a role that was in midstream when starting in January," said Astros assistant GM of scouting Bobby Heck. "She has had to get her arms around a lot of moving parts and has hit the ground running. There are 23 scouts out in the field and myself, so for her to come and adapt so quickly to the multiple processes that were well under way without disrupting the synergy of the staff has been her biggest contribution to date. Keep in mind, when Stephanie started, we were more than halfway to this upcoming draft in June."
Despite her résumé and the law degree she received in 2011, Wilka's hiring made waves in January when a male sportswriter reported the Astros had hired a "former cheerleader from Harvard."
"For me, I laughed," Wilka said when asked about the story. "I didn't know how else to react. Well, I mean, it's true. So, it's sort of funny that that was the tagline. I think it got people to read the story, so I can't blame them for that. And I think it was very fair what he wrote in the substance of the article. I think, in general, we all just chuckled a little bit and went back to work. We stayed focused and it was just good for a laugh."
Wilka has always seen a role for women in baseball, going back to her days of keeping score for her brothers' little league team.
"Two of our best players on my little league team were girls," said Kenny Wilka, who is the director of sports medicine and head athletic trainer at University of Wisconsin-Parkside. "Girls at 11, 12 and 13 are typically stronger and faster. For Stephanie growing up, it was natural for her to see a girl on the baseball field. The person who was hitting the home runs was the girl, so it was pretty natural for her to see that. Why wouldn't girls be involved with baseball?"
Although she works in an area of the game dominated by men, Wilka hasn't felt out of place with the Astros.
"In baseball, there's a lot of competitiveness and hard work and fast pace," Wilka said. "The hardest part is being ready for that and adjusting to that and making sure you're working hard -- and that applies to males or females. I haven't felt like being a woman has been relevant, and I think that's really just a tribute to Bobby [Heck] and our area guys. There's just so much to do and he's got so much going on, and he does a great job of motivating us to do great work."
When asked about her career path to date, Wilka laughed. Although she had always dreamed of working in baseball as a young girl, she couldn't have imagined her path -- from earning a psychology degree at Harvard to her years in the Dominican Republic to law school -- would have led to this role.
Still, she believes this is the ideal position for her.
"I've always aspired to be on the baseball operations side," Wilka said. "The position I'm in now -- if I could have crafted or designed the ideal position for me right now -- I think this is it. It's a perfect place to really make a contribution in creating efficient systems and making sure that our scouts do what they do best, which is scout. The efficiency I can bring is nice, but I get to do it while absorbing this incredible amount of information from these guys who are amazing at these jobs. And there's such a high, heavy flow of information that there's a lot to absorb. It's a perfect place."