Baseball may still be a man’s world, but ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza is working to become one of the best game analysts — male or female — on the planet.
The two-time USA Olympic medalist and former Stanford softball standout and record-holder will be in the TV booth at Fenway Park tonight alongside Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone, and sideline reporter Buster Olney to call the final game of the Red Sox-Yankees series as part of ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” team. This is Mendoza’s first full season in the booth after she was tapped to fill in for Curt Schilling on ESPN’s Sunday MLB telecasts after Schilling’s suspension last season. Before getting fired in April, Schill was bumped to ESPN’s Monday Night Baseball broadcasts with Mendoza being named to the 2016 SNB team full time.
“I never thought of it as trying to fill his seat by any means, but definitely I think about Curt and what he brought to the table as far as being an analyst goes,” Mendoza told Dirty Water Sports about her time at the World Wide Leader with Schilling. “I always enjoyed how he was never afraid to ask a question during the broadcast. He did a really great job of throwing different ideas out there, different thoughts, you as a viewer were now involved. He’s Curt Schilling, he could know everything, but there were times when he was like, ‘Hey Kruckie, what would you do in this situation?’ I’m always thinking: What’s going to make someone really want to watch this game especially when many times throughout the game, because the slow moments, I think [Schilling] would challenge the broadcast which then in turn challenges the viewers just to get the brain going. What would you do if you were the home manager in that situation? If you were the batter? If you were the pitcher?
“Before I did my first game, I just wanted to pick his brain a little bit about sitting in that seat and what he felt like he brought to that to broadcast. To me, Sunday night is a totally different beast. It’s the national game of the week and I reached out to a lot of people to gather information because I wanted to take it incredibly seriously. But Curt was someone I felt like just didn’t always go down the beaten path and I think it work for him as an analyst. He didn’t know what he was going to say and I think that can be refreshing. He was far from cliché.”
As much as Mendoza wants to be viewed strictly on her performance as a broadcaster, she realizes that it’s still a hot topic of discussion that she’s the first female MLB game analyst on a major network.
“I don’t have the answer regarding when it becomes about me as an analyst versus me as a female analyst,” Mendoza said. “But I do understand the role that I’m in. As much as I want to just say, ‘Look, all I want to be is just who I am,’ which is genderless in my opinion and just someone who is trying to talk about baseball in a unique way but in a unique way because I’m just different, not just necessarily because of my gender. At the same time, because I am a female, knowing that there’s an opportunity here to educate but also knowing that there’s other women out there, and men, too. Understanding that just because you don’t fit into the box that your supposed to be in — in any kind job or position — doesn’t mean you can’t do it. That applies to any gender, any person and honestly the world that we live in today, if you were going to be the president of the United States, or if you’re going to be a doctor, or if you’re going to be an analyst for major league baseball games, you don’t have to check off each of these boxes any longer. That’s more the important messaging that I’ve taken on that I just to be aware of and talk about to young people.”
— Jessica Mendoza (@jessmendoza) May 2, 2014
To get the focus taken off her gender, Mendoza knows she’s still got a lot of work to do to hone her craft.
“There’s still a long way to go within this job,” she said. “The reason I retired from softball was because I felt like I felt like I did everything I could do within within the game and that felt good to me to walk away. With this, before I could ever think about doing something else, I would want to really get to the point where I where I feel like I’ve done the absolute best job I can do as an analyst. I recognize that there is so much growth that I have left. I get it. But I get excited about our Sunday night team because we are doing things that are different. I would love for us to build for the next few years, something that could be great within the game.”
Mendoza appreciates the give and take — and push back she gets — with Shulman and Boone in the booth. The rapport the team has was on display in Houston last Sunday night when in the 12th inning Mendoza suggested the Astros infield stay back for the double play possibility with Jackie Bradley Jr. at the plate. Boone and Shulman quickly disagreed, saying the right move was the play the infield in, and the speedy, lefthanded hitting Bradley was not a player should count on being able to double up.
“I was texting with Dan [Shulman] this week about reminding both of them that — and not that it always has to happen on air either — but I never want them to feel like they have to think, ‘Well, I don’t want to make her look bad,’ Mendoza said. “Some of the biggest conversations we can ever do are the ones where we don’t agree. That’s what lends itself to the viewer is to have an opinion. In that case in particular, I actually ended up agreeing more with them because I think Dan brought up a good point [on the Astros infield playing in]. My point was more of me thinking that the Astros should have enough confidence in their own offense. Because to me, I would think, ‘We’re going to score no matter what in the bottom of the inning, so let’s play for the double-play.’ I hadn’t focused in so much on the speed of the player so when they brought up the point of Jackie Bradley Junior, I felt like they had a valid point. Otherwise, I would’ve pushed them even further and said [laughing], ‘No you’re wrong!’ But that’s why I like me putting myself out there. The disagreement is what TV needs sometimes.”
Baseball fans can also disagree on everything from ESPN’s decision to have Mendoza in the booth, to what she has to say when she’s in it. With the national focus this week on how some women in sports are harassed by anonymous accounts on Twitter, Mendoza shared how she handles the hot topic of social media.
“Right after we get off the air I know the first thing that everyone seems to want to do is check their phones and see what the reaction was because more people are locked in at that moment,” Mendoza said. “With Twitter, right when we get off the air is when I find the strongest reactions to me — good and bad. Some people are like, ‘Oh she’s awesome’ and others are more like, ‘I hate her, shut up.’ It’s definitely the most extreme time and neither direction helps me. What I need at that point is to just watch the game myself, talk to my producer, and get my own analysis on how I do it based on the people I’m around. I like to interact online again later in the week, and I don’t end up reading tweets from those first 24 hours. Later, it’s usually a little more calm — or just human — and I feel like those [tweets] help me because it doesn’t do any good if it’s just strong reaction and reactionary because you’re not going to get any substance. I like when [the tweets] have substance. It’s engaging, but if it’s just based on what I look like or what I sound like and all of that, it’s not going to help me and I can’t pay attention to all of that. My big thing is, I’ll just stop reading it as soon as I start to feel it gets beyond the surface. I’m a passionate person so you can get underneath my skin.
“I remember when I was doing the men’s college World Series in Omaha. That was my first time really breaking down hitters and doing analysis in a men’s game and I was on the sideline with some beautiful women that were doing the sideline reporting. I couldn’t get over how everyone just couldn’t get past the way I looked. Everything was about how I looked all the time whether they like this dress or they hated my lips. And I would read this stuff and they would constantly compare me to the other reporter and it got to where it would get in my head and it was mean. Some of it was just so mean, I was thinking ‘Does anyone hear what they’re saying? Is anybody listening?’ So many of the remarks were based on my body and that’s the difference. Even when men get attacked — and they totally do on Twitter — it’s rarely about how they look. That was the part for me where I stop, when it gets to my body and what I look like. I can’t control it. It’s who I am and I feel like I’m a very confident person. The last thing I ever want to be conscious of is how I look. I know that for a lot of women, it’s part of why maybe they value themselves or not value themselves based on their looks. I know for me, it’s definitely more about what I’m saying. With Twitter, I stop when anyone just starts to come at me about the things that I can’t control.”
This weekend was Mendoza’s first time witnessing baseball at Fenway Park and she’s got a few special features planned as part of the Sunday night broadcast.
“I have a great producer in Andy Reichwald who’s new to Sunday night baseball this year as well. So, he came up with the idea of doing a Mendoza Line — something that I would hone in on that was a little off the beaten path,” she said. “Last week, I focused on Venezuela and the influence the country has on a lot of the Houston players. This week, I want to do something with David Ortiz and call it something like “Papi’s Lessons.” What’s interesting to me is the evolution as a player and a mentor throughout his career. Just listening to him last week talk to Travis Shaw and the advice he gives younger players, even if it’s something as simple as where he stands in the batter’s box. I remember when he smashed the phone at the Orioles game in 2013 and Mariano Rivera called him and said, ‘You don’t do that.” Now, he’s that person. I want to come up with something that’s really about his lessons he shares with the Mookies the Xanders without forcing it out of him.”
Weather permitting, you’ll get to see the Ortiz feature and hear Mendoza break down the Red Sox-Yankees showdown tonight. And then you can let her know how she did via Twitter. Just wait 24 hours. And try to be human.