Jessica Mendoza, 36, is the first woman to serve as a regular analyst on a national baseball broadcast, on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball. The native of Camarillo, Calif., was a four-time All-American outfielder for Stanford's softball team and a two-time Olympian, winning the gold medal in 2004. She broke ground in the Sunday Night Baseball booth in August 2015 before taking a regular seat there in 2016. Mendoza discussed her path to the booth and her role as a pioneer for women in baseball with Carroll Rogers Walton.
Q: Did you have any dreams of broadcasting early on?
A: I grew up with Vin Scully; that was the voice of our home, with the Dodgers. But my brain never went to TV. It was definitely sports-focused. I wanted to play . . . I remember telling everyone, "I'm going to be Brett Butler; I'm going to be this leadoff, quick contact guy, in pro baseball." Finally someone like a teacher said, "Oh no, men play Major League Baseball, not women." And I was crushed because that's really what my dream was. I literally could picture myself in the batter's box in Dodger Stadium someday.
Q: How did broadcasting eventually enter the picture?
A: During my career (with the softball national team) I was getting interviewed by ESPN for the World Cup, which was in Oklahoma City, and after the interview they said, "You should really get involved in television. You're super passionate, you're articulate with the way you describe things. You'd be great." I laughed it off because I was (busy) playing . . . At the same time, softball had boomed on the collegiate level, and ESPN went from covering maybe a dozen games to hundreds and they needed analysts. I got a phone call that next winter and was asked to audition to be the lead softball analyst for ESPN. I remember telling my agent, "I have no experience in this." But my agent said, "It's an audition, it's not going to hurt anything. At least try it." So I did. I flew out to Charlotte, where their ESPN regional is headquartered . . . When I auditioned, I realized, "Wow I could really do this."
Q:How did you get into football and baseball?
A: After a few years, Ed Placey, who's the head of our college football coverage, was watching a women's College World Series game and said, "Hey, we'd love to have you come into college football and report." I decided to try it . . . The next year they hired me to be the reporter for the men's College World Series in Omaha. From there, I basically convinced them to let me be a sideline analyst instead of a reporter. I told them, "I just want to break down plays. I get the reporter job, but I'd rather do more." Everything I wanted to do was more hitting-based and inside baseball stuff. After that, I started to do a couple Major League Baseball games as a reporter and did the same thing. Coming into the game, I'd (ask), "Do you mind if I do more analyst stuff?" I credit Phil Orlins at ESPN who is our senior coordinating producer. He said, "Yeah, but if you're going to be an analyst and you really want people to take you seriously, I think we should put you in the booth."
Q:What was your reaction when he said he wanted to put you in the booth?
A: I knew (I had) to be best analyst that I can ever be because any mistake I made (people would say), "That's why we don't have a woman in this." It helped that the first game was a Monday game in August, (without) a lot of eyes. I snuck in under the radar. That was the first time a female had been in the (baseball) booth for ESPN, (but) no one said anything. There was no PR around it. It was nice. I remember Dave O'Brien the play-by-play (man) in commercial break about the fifth inning was checking his phone, and there was all this reaction on Twitter. He said, "Has any woman ever done this before?" I said, "No." No one even that I was working with realized this was a moment, which was perfect. So we just continued to do the game. It was that week that Curt Schilling posted a (controversial) tweet and got suspended, and they needed someone to fill in for him on Sunday night. By Wednesday they had called me and asked if I could do Sunday Night Baseball. That's when I felt like, "I think I'm going to throw up." In a few days (I was) going from a Monday game that I had five months to prepare for, to a game that was our biggest show. But I couldn't say no. I believe to this day, the things that really make you scared end up being the most incredible, even if you fail.
Q: How did you handle the fear?
A: My way to deal with nerves is to over- prepare. I (want to) feel like when the red light goes on, there's nothing else I could have done to prepare for this moment. Now I've just got to let loose and be myself. It's a confidence that comes with preparation . . . I knew it was going to be hard. I didn't play the game. I didn't know the guys the way that the guy sitting next to me, Aaron Boone, grew up in the game. He knows everybody. I had to walk in a clubhouse and introduce myself over and over and over again.
Q:How did you prepare in the three days before that first Sunday game?
A: It was, ironically, a Dodgers game, so I just planted myself at Dodger Stadium. They were playing the Cubs. Offense is where I am obsessed, so I really dove into the Dodgers offense, all their hitting, their coaches, their manager at the time, Don Mattingly. Ironically, Jake Arrieta ended up throwing a no-hitter (for the Cubs), the first and only time on Sunday Night Baseball we've ever had a no-hitter. I had more notes on the Dodgers offense. (But) the day before, when I was at Dodger Stadium, (I got some help.) Navigating a clubhouse is not easy, even doing it now, a couple years later. It's awkward. It's weird. You're trying to talk to people who don't want to talk to you. They're changing. I'd never been in a clubhouse. So I'm trying to talk to people, get info, but no one knows who I am. Here I am a woman trying to ask them about how they load. (ESPN reporter) Buster Olney recognized, "This is probably hard for her," and helped me out. He introduced me to Jake, and he and I ended up talking for 45 minutes. He went into his slider, cutter, all the different things he does. Then I ended up calling his head coach from (Texas Christian), (whom) I'd just covered in Omaha, (Jim) Schlossnagle. I spent two hours on the phone with him . . . I felt like that game I was really prepared, but it had a lot to do with the fact that I did get help.
Q: So the opportunity you got was no gimmick. This was you advocating yourself?
A: I give so much credit to every producer I pitched that (to) because I never went high up. It was always was the producer working that game. I never had one who said no. In Omaha (at the College World Series), even Karl Ravech, who was (doing) play-by-play said, "Let's just open up Jess' mic. She's got all this info. Why do we keep throwing it down to her?"
Q: Did you ever worry it might look like a publicity stunt by ESPN?
A: Coming into the 2016 season, my biggest ask of them was exactly that: I don't want this to be, "Hey look, see, we put the woman on. It was great, it worked out, let's move on." I wanted to have a legitimate place. We actually renegotiated my contract for another three years . . . That told me what I needed to know. So even though I'll hear, "They're just trying to be politically correct," I know John Skipper, who leads our network, wants me there because of what I'm saying, not because of (my) gender.
Q: Have you had to cut back on your Twitter use, given some of the flak?
A: What I love about social media or what I did love was I could connect with all kinds of people. I was very active and would read, even if it was a negative comment (because) it was simple for softball, like, "Oh, you want Florida to win." I quickly noticed after doing Sunday Night and getting more exposure on baseball just how hateful people could be. That's where it started to get to me. After Sunday night, I wouldn't check Twitter for a good 48 hours. That's when it was the strongest. Here would be an influx of, good and bad, whether it was men or women like, "I love that you're doing this, this is so awesome, you're amazing." That's not true. I'm not amazing, I'm just doing it. Or someone that's like, "I absolutely hate you; I want to hurt you because you're a woman." I didn't want either of it. So I've had to change my relationship (with Twitter). I'm a very confident person. (I thought,) I'm in my 30s, I have kids, I can handle anything. And I realized I couldn't. I did care ultimately if someone wanted to hurt me, and it did start to affect me.
Q: I've heard you say you focus on feedback from people who matter, like your bosses and co-workers. Do you also take solace in how players react?
A: Yeah, my biggest thing is just for them to be respectful, just to understand I did play. I might not have played for the Dodgers. I was talking to Chris Taylor with the Dodgers, and I grabbed a bat and said, "You're doing this reverse bat tip thing in your stance. How? Why?" It was hilarious. We were in the clubhouse and everyone is staring. He and I went into this 15-minute hitting session where he's talking about his front leg. That's all I want, not, "Why are you talking to me about hitting?"
Q: During a recent broadcast, you pointed out Jason Heyward had gotten beat on the inside fastball last year moments after he hit one into the gap. You were making calls without leaning on replay, like how Paul DeJong was hunting a fastball a few pitches before he hit one out for a home run. Is that your experience as a hitter talking?
A: It's just not being afraid to learn, not being afraid to admit, "I don't understand, Madison Bumgarner, how you throw your curveball that looks like a slider but then has more depth and has a 12-to-6 rotation." I think that helps the sport, too, not always having people assume that everyone sitting at home watching this game understands that Madison Bumgarner might throw two variations of his curveball. I want to (educate people) in a way that's entertaining and cool because baseball is cool. But we have to point out the stuff that makes it cool.
Q: How do you handle the responsibility of wanting to keep the door open for other women?
A: I know it's bigger than me. This is about all of us, and just the sport in general. It's important. I care about baseball, and I care about more girls and women getting opportunities. I also care about the sport representing everyone who wants to watch. This isn't a sport for men to watch. This isn't a sport for white men to watch. This is a sport for everybody. I want to help represent that and to have a different view. The things that I get geeked up on to talk about are sometimes different. So I just try to be confident in that, and in knowing that this is definitely bigger than anything I'm doing for myself. What if one girl hears me on a game and wants to be a CEO of a company or do something where she sees a lot of men and (thinks), "You know what? Women can do it, and they can do it well." n