Meet ESPN’s First Female ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ Analyst
Looking for an excuse to devote your Sundays to watching Major League Baseball? Try Jessica Mendoza.
Mendoza, who became the first female analyst to call a nationally-televised MLB postseason game last October, is now a full-fledged member of ESPN’s flagship Sunday Night Baseball team. For those hoping to see women play a bigger role in the league, watching Mendoza rise to such a visible position in baseball has been an inspiration—and perhaps a reason to tune-in.
A former softball star, Mendoza was a four-time All American at Stanford, played in the pros—National Pro Fastpitch—and twice represented the U.S. in the Olympics, bringing home a gold medal in 2004.
Her career as a broadcaster began in 2006, when she started covering softball for ESPN, first breaking into baseball in 2012, when the network needed someone to fill in as a sideline reporter for a college game. Mendoza hit it out the park and went on to work her way into the booth—and ultimately, the world of the MLB.
Mendoza sat down with Fortune to talk about why her softball background makes her a unique baseball analyst, how she handles internet trolls, and what we should be excited for this season.
The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Sunday Night Baseball kicked off in April—how’s it been so far?
I think it’s about being able to come in and know that I have the entire baseball season. For me it started back in February, spring training, being able to go to a bunch of different camps, talk to a bunch of different players and managers. I just couldn’t wait for the season to start. Now that we’re in it, it’s been amazing. Traveling, the games, the preparation, the intensity. It’s a lot in a really great way. There’s just so much that goes into one night of baseball.
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You had an extensive and amazing softball career. What’s different about calling baseball vs. softball?
There are not a lot of differences. The obvious is seven innings versus nine—a softball game can be a lot quicker. The pitching is probably one of the more obvious, because it’s different. But to me as a hitter, everything’s the same: the approach is the same, the spins, what you look for, the mindset, the strategy. I was nervous the first time I did a baseball game—how different would it be? You don’t really know until you jump in and you’re in it, even thought I’d been around the game so much. To me it’s been seamless in that way. I’ve never felt like, ‘Wow, like I didn’t understand that because it’s baseball.’ With certain questions I might ask, certain things I might learn, I feel like my viewpoint is unique and I like adding that to the broadcast.
What do you say to critics who say that you didn’t play in the MLB, so you shouldn’t be analyzing the game?
I think that’s why I’m here. We have baseball players who do a tremendous job of analyzing the game, but I love that my background is a little bit unique. I think, for the viewer, they appreciate that, because not everyone watching is an ex-MLB player. So my goal is to speak to the broader audience, to bring in stories personalizing the players—or maybe I have a question about a certain pitch angle that I want to dive into and explain it in a way so that if you’re sitting at home and know nothing about baseball, I want to catch you. Stop changing the channel and be like, ‘This is kind of cool, I never knew that before.’ On Sunday Night Baseball, we’re trying to reach the audience is a bigger way, not just the niche baseball guy, but everybody.
How did you first transition into broadcasting?
When they first asked me to start doing college softball games I was so nervous. But I’ll never forget, I auditioned for ESPN, not sure what to expect. I remember sitting watching a game—a pseudo game because it was an audition—and calling it and the adrenaline rush that i got. As an athlete that’s just something that you crave, you crave the pressure. To me that’s the bottom of the seventh inning—thats like the bases loaded moment. That’s why you play. Now that I’m retired [from softball], I feel like I enjoy broadcasting in that sense. Yes, everybody’s watching, yes, there’s a lot of pressure, but I like that responsibility. I like that feeling of, you have to do it now, there’s no do-over.
You’ve been the first woman to do so many things in baseball. People are constantly calling you a pioneer and a trailblazer—are you tired of that?
There’s no way I could get tired. For me, as much as I just want to be just Jess calling a baseball game, regardless of being female or not. I’m excited for when that day comes, I am. But I also realize that have this responsibility. So when I talk about the pressure that I put on myself, a lot of that is that fact that I realize that I’m one of the first. And there are women who have been women before me who have done a great job—Suzyn Waldman, doing the Yankee games, she does radio for them. There are so many successful women who have opened these doors—I don’t want to shut it. I put the pressure on myself to do an awesome job to keep that door open and provide more opportunities, whether it’s for women or maybe it’s just the non-‘this fits in a perfect box’ of an MLB analyst.
Where else would you like to see women make progress in the MLB?
First on my list is the front office. I’d love to see the first female general manager. The fact that you don’t need to have the background of playing the game—we’ve seen now that some of the best general managers have been from more of the Ivy League background. To have a female in that role is not very far away.
Female sports journalists get some horrific treatment on social media—something I know you’ve had to deal with. How do you handle that?
To me it’s about content—something that I can sink my teeth into. Whether it’s overly positive or overly negative, if it’s not going to help me get better, if it’s not something I can control—like being a female… What I look for is, if there’s criticism, is it backed by something like, ‘I didn’t like what you said about his back foot?’ Then I listen. But if it has to do with my gender or if has to do with the fact that that you just don’t like me? It’s not easy to read stuff like that, but at the same time I find myself just moving on. It’s 2016: Buckle up, because there are a lot of women doing a lot of pretty cool things.
What do you think about the pay gap in women’s sports?
That’s another one where I feel like it’s equality, it’s a no brainer: If you’re doing the same job, you should get the same pay. I understand that it’s a path to get to that point, but I love that there are women out there bringing it to the forefront. Whether it’s the women’s national soccer team, whether it’s actresses—women not being afraid. For so long, I felt like it was like, I’m just happy to be here. Now we’re finding the strength to say this isn’t right.
Okay, back to baseball. What should we look forward to this season?
You gotta go with the Chicago Cubs. They haven’t won since 1908 but they are on this ridiculous hot streak! You have to think about the pressure on this team, the expectations. They’re handling it. They just love them game—defense, offense, pitching, they’re doing it all. Will this sustain perfectly throughout the season? No. They will have their bumps. But right now, it’s not just Chicago behind this team, it’s the country.