Conventional wisdom would dictate that being an elite athlete and a network sports broadcaster would require completely different skill-sets, one distinctly separate from the other. Jessica Mendoza would disagree.
Mendoza, 35, became the first female to call a Major League Baseball game as an analyst on ESPN and the first woman to call a postseason game. Her first full season as an analyst for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball— joining the new crew of Dan Shulman, Aaron Boone and Buster Olney— begins this weekend with the Mets visiting the Royals in a re-match of last year’s World Series.
In an extensive interview with Awful Announcing, Mendoza chronicled her journey from athlete to broadcaster, constantly pushing and striving to obtain her current groundbreaking role.
An exemplary softball career, winning an Olympic gold for Team USA after an other-worldly four years at Stanford, helped her immensely in preparation for her second career as a broadcaster.
“There are so many similarities that I didn’t think [there were] just as far as pressure for me,” Mendoza told Awful Announcing. “High pressure moments, being able to think clearly when you feel like everything is on you. Even my approach— from my pregame meal to how I prepare— all of it is exactly how I prepared as an athlete. Mentally, it’s almost hand-in-hand.”
Mendoza had zero broadcasting experience when in 2006, ESPN approached her about covering college softball for the network. She had always been a go-to interview for ESPN as a player, and people who spoke with her suggested that she give broadcasting a try.
ESPN producer Meg Aranowitz had Mendoza come in to audition, pulling up a game from the year before.
“I was a little nervous about the thought of putting an unfiltered mic out there,” Mendoza said. “Are you sure you want me to talk? Anything could come out of my mouth at any moment.”
After the audition, she knew right away that it was something she wanted to do more of.
“I found that there were so many things to talk about, so much background,” Mendoza said.
“I love the idea of being able to dive into a game.”
Mendoza went on like this for several years, but wanted more. When Kyle Peterson went from the sidelines to the booth in 2012 for ESPN’s college baseball coverage, they brought Mendoza in to fill that role.
Peterson was not your traditional sideline reporter. He broke down some tape and offered commentary, and Mendoza also wanted to become what she called a sideline analyst. She was likely going to be pigeonholed into the role of a typical female sideline reporter, but Mendoza wanted to talk hitting.
“Thank goodness I had some amazing producers, young guys that were like ‘yeah, sure,’” Mendoza said. “This had not been done. They never had a female break down a hitter during a College World Series.”
They had Peterson and Orel Hershiser, both pitchers, on the broadcast, so they called on Mendoza to talk about hitting.
“That’s when it clicked for me, how the transition was easier than I thought,” she said. “I never came across something that was a glaring difference. So they started utilizing me as an analyst.”
In addition to college baseball work, Mendoza was doing quite well as a sideline reporter for ESPN’s college football coverage. This left her with one of those classic, cliche career forks in the road.
When her contract was up, she talked with other companies about sideline work. Mendoza had some very good offers, she said, to be an NFL sideline reporter. It was the norm, she said, for everyone to aspire to be part of a network’s NFL team. It meant you had made it in the business.
Mendoza made it clear that she had different aspirations than the NFL.
“Baseball is where I want to be.”
So she asked ESPN if they thought she could have a role down the line as a baseball analyst. They said yes. Mendoza stayed.
“I wanted to be part of a company that could look at me in the eye and say let’s see what we can do with you being an analyst. And no one else could do that,” she said. “And I had companies literally say ‘is ESPN willing to do that? You should definitely stay with them. That’s not gonna happen here.’”
Mendoza said that other networks told her that they could lie to her and say that she had a chance to be an analyst down the line, but it would merely be an empty promise. So in 2014, Mendoza began appearing on the Monday editions of Baseball Tonight in addition to her work in college football and college baseball.
Her role began to slowly expand into sideline reporting work for baseball where, again, she pushed to be a sideline analyst. Even though she was a sideline reporter during an Angels-Mariners game, she’d be breaking down how Mike Trout hit. Mendoza was enjoying success in this role, but she wanted more.
There was no blueprint for a female TV analyst in the MLB world— ESPN had never done it— but everyone wanted to figure it out together.
For several months, ESPN had planned for Mendoza’s first game in the booth to be a Seattle-Oakland game in August. She had gone to Oakland to meet with the A’s, then to Los Angeles to watch the Mariners in preparation for her big debut. Then ESPN changed their minds, switching the big night to Aug. 24 when St. Louis visited Arizona.
Mendoza was understandably nervous, but producer Ken Sullivan was very helpful to her, allowing her to do all the elements of the game and the prep she wanted to do, including a feature prior to the telecast with Diamondbacks slugger Paul Goldschmidt.
“ESPN isn’t perfect by any means, but I applaud them,” Mendoza said. “They never acted like it was a big deal.”
Mendoza received a lot of support as she prepared. Jay Rothman, a lead producer at Monday Night Football and the overseer for baseball, had no doubt she could succeed.
“He was just huge in kind of internally, early on, just saying ‘you’re someone who should be a part of this. I want you to keep pushing.’”
ESPN analysts Eduardo Perez, Dallas Braden, Chris Singleton called and reached out to her, asking if she needed help with a team or a hitter. Play-by-play announcer Jon Sciambi hooked her up with general managers.
“I’m sure there were guys that weren’t as excited, but the ones that were just went above and beyond,” she said.
The historic game began, with Dave O’Brien doing the play-by-play. Twitter started buzzing during the third or fourth inning, she was told, and O’Brien looked at her and asked “have you done this before? Been in the booth?”
“Nope, not for Major League Baseball,” Mendoza replied. “And he was like, ‘has any female ever done it, here at ESPN?’ Nope.”
Mendoza tries not to pay attention to social media during or immediately after her games, because she feels that Twitter’s feedback just schews to the extremes, whether positive or negative.
“They can say things that are extremely positive to extremely negative and all these horrible things,” she said. “So to me, social media never gives a true sense of what I need to hear anyway.”
Mendoza’s first game was a critical success. Mendoza began getting calls for media interviews, but still doubted whether she would get the opportunity to do this again. Then Curt Schilling got suspended and ESPN asked her to call that Sunday’s Cubs-Dodgers game from Los Angeles.
“I don’t think I ate or slept for the next two days,” Mendoza said, not used to the quick turnaround. “I think it was good in the sense that all I did was home in on those two teams. I didn’t really have a chance to think about, ‘I’m going to be on Sunday Night Baseball, this is a big deal.’”
As if her broadcasting SNB wasn’t big enough, Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter for Chicago, the first in the program’s history. Mendoza barely even thought about the monumental moment, focusing on the details, like Arrieta’s fatigue level and how the Dodgers would try to break it up.
That passion and attention to detail gave Mendoza an extension on Sunday Night Baseball for the rest of the season, including the American League wild card game between the Yankees and Astros. Her preparation processes she learned as an athlete helped her block out the nerves and the noise before her broadcasts.
After lobbying ESPN for a full season of baseball work in 2016, Mendoza was surprised when she was put on the SNB crew full time in January.
“This is the game of the week. This is, to me, 26 straight weeks of the best baseball,” Mendoza said. “We are going to be able to talk about not just the two teams every week, but talking about the major storylines and the landscape of the sport, like Monday Night Football does.”
With an athlete’s mental mindset and the analytic chops to break down baseball with anyone, it seems like this will only be the beginning of Jessica Mendoza’s pioneering broadcasting journey.