TORONTO – Toward the end of her days as a student-athlete at the University of Guelph-Humber, Jaime Vieira began considering possibilities for the future.
Coaching softball had gotten her through trying times as a teenager, when two rods were inserted into her spine to correct scoliosis, and offering lessons or running clinics at a private facility was probably her only path to get paid doing it, she figured. Staying involved on the field was one part of her plan, and another was building on a kinesiology degree by pursuing a Master of Science, using it as a springboard to eventually teach at a university.
“That was kind of my path,” she said.
Her dream, however, was different.
More than anything, Vieira wanted to coach full-time, a paid position at an American college, perhaps, or a job one day in the major leagues. Baseball was her passion and a career in the sport really appealed to her, although it felt too impossible to pursue.
“I thought I’d be setting myself up to fail if that would be my path,” she said. “I was talking myself down and being like, ‘You're OK, you could settle for being a teacher and doing this on the side and coaching in the summers and with (Humber).’”
Fate, as it turned out, twisted those plans and instead of chasing an alternative to the dream, she’s now living it as a hitting coach in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Vieira will be based out of the club’s Player Development Complex in Dunedin, Fla., likely focused on hitters in the Florida Complex League, although she’ll have her hand in a number of different tasks, too.
Working for the team she adored growing up in Georgetown, Ont., “was a pinch-me moment,” said Vieira, while becoming the first woman hired by the Blue Jays as a coach gave her both a sense of pride and responsibility.
“I want young girls to see that I have this position so that if they are playing baseball or playing softball, or if other women want to work in baseball, they know it is possible,” she said.
Demonstrating precisely that, Vieira is the latest woman to break through the industry’s longstanding gender barriers.
She did get that Master of Science from York University after graduating from Humber, while remaining on as an assistant coach with the Hawks. And she was prepared to expand on her biomechanics thesis on the relationship between the spine and a baseball swing through a PHD when she spotted a job posting at Jays Care Foundation.
The position involved working with the Girls At-Bat program and included helping coach Indigenous youth and kids living in poverty or with a disability. Intrigued, she applied, seeing it as a now-or-never chance to explore a baseball-adjacent career.
A job offer followed, she bailed on her doctorate to accept and fully immersed herself in the role, opening some eyes along the way.
In between her tasks at Jays Care, Vieira arranged coffee meetings with members of the baseball operations staff, letting them know about her coaching background and Master’s in biomechanics. Steadily, she made an impression and before the 2021 season, Jeremy Reesor, the club’s assistant director of baseball operations, forwarded her the posting for an internship in the department.
She applied immediately, and when the offer came, she just as quickly accepted, even though taking it meant giving up a full-time job with benefits for a lower-paying role that had an expiration date.
“It should have taken longer for me to decide,” she said, “but it really wasn't a decision.”
Vieira mostly worked with the club’s hitting department, putting her biomechanics knowledge to use in research studies while also contributing hitting evaluations for the draft. But she also used fitness and bat-sensor data to come up with ideas for players that were passed along to coaches and co-ordinators.
“She’s made pretty consistent contributions throughout the last year-plus,” said Joe Sclafani, the club’s assistant director, player development. “Her background and expertise meshed well and (minor-league hitting co-ordinator) Hunter Mense, in particular, started getting more comfortable with her, asking her questions.”
Eventually, the Blue Jays brought her to the complex as one of the six instructors at a fall a swing camp for about 20 minor-league players. Rather than passing along her findings for other coaches to relay to players, she gave hitters the information directly. While Vieira wondered if the camp was “a little bit of an interview for me,” Sclafani said the focus was on “who can make the biggest impact for us, and we felt that Jaime fit that mould, especially with her skillset.”
“She fit in seamlessly,” he added. “She asked good questions, had a good approach in how she talked to players on what she was looking for, like how she could help them in that space.”
As the Blue Jays worked through their minor-league staff for 2022, Vieira once again attended Major League Baseball’s Take The Field event, a program run by Torontonian Elizabeth Benn aimed at finding opportunities for women in the sport. That led to interviews with other clubs for roles around development coaching and biomechanics analysis before the Blue Jays presented her with the coaching opportunity.
“I'm really excited to get to work with the younger players,” said Vieira. “I have worked with the college age group for a while now, and I take pride in not only making them better on the field, but better people, and I think I'll get that opportunity here as well.”
Vieira’s approach to players is influenced by Ian McLaughlin, who coached her on the Halton Hawks club team and brought her on as an assistant at 16 when the spinal surgery sidelined her, as well as Duaine Bowles, the head coach at Humber.
In dealing with players, she draws upon the difficulties she had as a student in trying to understand how they learn and then adapts the information to their needs.
“It's really hard to do at times because you have so many people in a cage and you have to connect with all of them,” said Vieira. “But that's something that I take a lot of pride in, knowing the players, understanding what motivates them and twisting the way I coach to benefit them.”
That’s what the Blue Jays saw during that camp in November and the combination of both her technical knowledge and her ability to translate it for players led to her hire.
“She brings a really good approach to how she goes about things, how she connects the dots for all the things that we have available,” Sclafani said. “She's going to have her hand in some of the hitting lab pieces. We’re looking forward to seeing how she continues to grow as a coach when she has her own players and she's trying to develop the action plans and what drills we're doing and all of those things. It's going to be exciting.”
Especially so for Vieira.
She fondly remembers attending a skills camp at the Dome with her Halton Hills team as a pre-teen and now she’ll have a hand in grooming players trying to get there. “As a kid, you say, ‘Oh, I'm going to play baseball in the major leagues or I'm going to coach,” she said. “And then it wasn't just a dream for me.”