It may have come as a surprise to some fans tuning in to Monday’s match-up between the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks to hear a woman in the broadcast booth — the first woman, in fact, to ever be a Major League Baseball game analyst on ESPN. But for Jessica Mendoza, who will reprise the role this weekend when she steps in for Curt Schilling on Sunday Night Baseball, it wasn’t so surprising. It all started with baseball.
Her dad was the head baseball coach at a local college and Mendoza was the bat girl. “I was at the field every day, in the dugout, I went to all the team dinners,” she said. “I thought I was a part of the team at like 5 years old — to the point where I would take bubblegum and pretend it was chewing tobacco.”
While Mendoza admittedly felt some pressure heading in to Monday’s game, she was prepared for the job by a lifetime of “firsts” and “onlys.” She was the only girl on her first baseball team and, after switching over to softball, became one of the best American players ever — a four-time All-American at Stanford and two-time Olympic medalist. She was the first female broadcaster for ESPN’s College World Series and, last year, became the first woman analyst on Baseball Tonight.
She’d been chomping at the bit to get into the major league booth since Mike McQuade, who oversaw baseball coverage for the network at the time, first approached her about the idea a few years ago. “He said, ‘I just don’t see why it only has to be men that call the games,’” Mendoza recalled. “To know that there are people in high positions that feel that way made me feel good.”
And once the seed had been planted, Mendoza’s mind was made up. She knew she was going to have the chance to call two games this season (prior to Schilling being pulled from his slot) and felt the pressure, more from herself than the network, to do a good job. “The pressure I felt was I didn’t want this to be for any female, not just myself, a one time thing. I really want to do it well,” she said.
Network executives say they didn’t approach Mendoza’s debut any differently than they would have with a new male announcer. “There’s certainly no additional scrutiny from us. As is the case with all of our commentators, we prepare every individual based on their unique skillset and ability,” Phil Orlins, senior coordinating producer, said via email. “Jessica is as accomplished and knowledgeable as any analyst out there.”
Talking to Mendoza, it’s clear that she’s eager for people to know just how knowledgeable she is. While she had an extensive playing career of her own, she isn’t able to fall back on familiarity with a certain ballpark or experience playing for a certain manager the way former-MLB-players-turned-announcers are. In her week of preparation, she watched as many games as she could, focusing in on the team a national audience is likely to be less familiar with, the Diamondbacks. She got there early to meet with players and managers. If she talked about Paul Goldschmidt, she said, she wanted to know Paul Goldschmidt, know his swing.
And while she might have felt the nerves in the first inning, by “about the fourth inning I was like, I’m in love. Awesome,” Mendoza said, adding, “it might have been the time they brought the churros out.”
When the comments about her gender started rolling in, because they always do, Mendoza was prepared to give the remarks the attention they deserved. “My mom got mad because some guy said, ‘you belong in the kitchen’ and that made me laugh,” she said. Learning to laugh off the blatant sexism was a skill she was forced to develop to stay in the male-dominated field. Mendoza recalled working as a sideline reporter at the College World Series and doing something she’s vowed not to repeat: Searching her name on Twitter. “People were so mean about, like, the way I look, finding really particular things,” she said. “My husband, who was with me, said, ‘never do that again’ and I won’t.”
The feedback she received on Monday night, however, was “so overwhelmingly positive.” And clearly her employer agrees. “She had a terrific telecast on Monday Night Baseball this past week and when an opportunity presented itself to join Sunday Night Baseball this weekend, we thought it was a good fit,” Orlins said. Add to that the PR bonus of replacing a man who tweeted a meme likening Muslims to Nazis with a woman fresh off garnering headlines for breaking down another of the many barriers that remain in sports.
Mendoza has a complicated relationship with her role as a barrier-breaker. In a year that has seen several women reach aspects of the sports world that had long been off-limits — Becky Hammon becoming the first woman to coach an NBA Summer League team, Jen Welter becoming the first woman to hold any sort of coaching position in the NFL, Michele Roberts becoming the first woman to lead a major sports union — Mendoza is of course proud of what she’s accomplished and shares the desire to celebrate their collective achievements. At the same time, however, she says she wants to be evaluated as any other person in that position would be.
“I just want to get to a point where its like, oh she knows what she’s talking about, he knows what he’s talking about, so it’s not this huge deal,” she said. On one hand, Mendoza understands that the attention she’s getting is valuable not just for women and girls to see a woman succeed in a boys club like an MLB broadcast booth, but for men to see that, too. “On the other hand I don’t want it to be such a big deal because I want it to be the norm. How far are we right now from this being the norm?”
In and out of the broadcast booth, the landscape of major league baseball remains overwhelmingly male. There are no female coaches or umpires. Only three women have held the position of assistant general manager, and there’s yet to be a female general manager. As for Mendoza, calling a few major league games this season is far from the pinnacle. Not content to merely hold her own among her male counterparts, she wants to be a uniquely good analyst, and perhaps shake the entire sport up in the process. “I look at baseball and I want to see it change a little bit,” she said. “It could use a little bit of an infusion of something different.”