It’s intimidating to be sitting with Jessica Mendoza, especially given the setting. It’s a beautiful summer Sunday afternoon, and we’re in a private booth at Fenway Park, overlooking batting practice.
But the thing about Jessica Mendoza is that while she’s incredibly impressive, she’s also warm and welcoming. She talks to me like a friend, so her resumé – All-American collegiate softball star, gold-medal Olympian, mother of two sons, baseball operations advisor to the New York Mets, the first female commentator for both an MLB game on ESPN and in MLB postseason history, to name a few of her accomplishments – while still hanging over us, fades into the background, and we just chat.
Mendoza, who played college softball at Stanford before becoming a starting outfielder for Team USA at the 2004 Athens Olympics, grew up playing with boys, so she’s keenly aware of the differences between the teams of her youth and her current ESPN and Mets teams. “It flips. It’s something I think about whenever I go back to covering softball, it’s just different.” When I press about what she means by ‘different,’ her answer is what you’d expect: “There are some things where you can kind of just let your hair down with the girls, and you don’t have to worry about anything you say being perceived differently. It’s definitely been a transformation.”
Transformation, indeed. Jessica Mendoza is the daughter of a baseball and football head coach. All of her softball coaches were men who grew up playing baseball. She then took the opposite route, from softball to baseball. Interestingly enough, it meant going from being one of the boys, to becoming the role model for girls.
But unlike many girls who grew up playing sports that were traditionally “for the boys,” Jessica Mendoza always felt like one of the boys: “The irony for me is, I grew up almost the opposite, I played on all-boys teams. I played baseball. I was on the sidelines with the guys. It was always, ‘she can hang,’ and me sitting around with a bunch of dudes chewing tobacco, which I thought was bubblegum. That was my childhood. It wasn’t really until I got to this job.”
“This job,” meaning ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Mendoza is in a three-person booth with Yankees slugger Alex ‘ARod’ Rodriguez and Matt Vasgersian. When it comes to blazing a trail in broadcasting, Jessica is the pioneer. With ESPN, she became the first female broadcaster for the College World Series and the first female commentator for an MLB game, and most recently, the first female commentator in MLB postseason history.
As if she isn’t busy enough, this year, Mendoza became an advisor to the Mets, reporting directly to new GM and former sports agent Brodie Van Wagenen, another person you’d consider as coming over from the other side. Her new role focuses the technological side of the game, as well as player evaluation and health and performance. “It’s been fun,” she tells me, “Especially to be within an organization, to see the front office. The game has never been like it is now in regards to the front office, in how much the front office dictates things that happen on the field. To get to sit in the room and see how that all works is awesome, and to be able to provide input to help change and move the team forward is awesome.”
Mendoza is far from the first person in sports to juggle multiple roles, though her new job garnered a fair amount of backlash from “fans” who consider it a conflict of interest with her role as a broadcaster. It’s worth noting that the same people have nothing to say about her costar ARod being a special advisor to the Yankees, and fellow ESPN analyst and former Red Sox and Cubs star David Ross being a special advisor to the Cubs. But Jessica Mendoza is focused on balancing her life, not the backwards backlash. “It would be really hard if I was in the front office for say, the Jets, and you’re working two different sports. But in baseball they kind of go hand-in hand, they’re very interlinked in a lot of ways. It’s just more time. How do I and my family add another job and give time to everything that still needs time.” I bring up the saying about having as many hours in a day as Beyoncé and she laughs, “We work on it.”
As we watch the Red Sox prepare for that night’s game, we talk about the challenges facing the sport. Baseball has to become more accessible and relatable in as many ways as it can if it wants to survive. Both of us, like most people and, I learn, MLB itself, are fans of mic’ing up players. “Everyone’s on board,” she tells me, “but it’s up to the teams and the players themselves. For sure, we at MLB had meetings all this year heading into the season, specifically [regarding] the Boston Red Sox, getting them to be more accessible. We did all kinds of stuff with them during Spring Training, like with Mookie Betts not just being mic’ed up, but having an earpiece so he could hear the booth.” ESPN is doing its part highlight the human side of baseball, implementing more player stories to help fans connect more deeply with their favorite teams. Mendoza is particularly proud of the pitcher interviews her SNB costar Buster Olney has been doing: “These interviews when pitchers come off the field, [it] has never been done. Buster’s been able to interview a couple as they’re going down the tunnel, and stuff like that is great. Getting a pitcher raw, right after they’ve just been taken out, what their emotions are, what they’re feeling, that’s huge.” Her passion for the game is evident in this moment; she wants baseball to be the best it can be for everyone.
Most of our time together is spent talking about what it’s like to be a woman in sports media. Jessica Mendoza is well aware that she is a role model for girls and women, and she doesn’t shy away from that, she embraces it. “Going back to the importance of being relatable, people that are watching are not just guys. There are women, there are kids. We talk about how we reach a younger audience, how we reach more people. There are things I might gravitate towards that a lot of women would, also. To be able to have a diverse group, “Alex [Rodriguez] being hispanic and heavily on the business side, he talks about ownership and money during games. The financial side might interest some people, who maybe never would watch baseball otherwise, whereas I might gravitate to something completely different, and most times do. And I think that’s great, because now our audience broadens even more, and that’s ultimately the biggest goal.”
When I ask her about the people who claim sexism doesn’t exist in sports, she laughs out loud, “Who says that?” I show her a few screenshots saved on my phone. Despite playing with the boys with virtually no issue growing up, she says that there were other forms of sexism in the earliest parts of her athletic career. “Playing sports at a high level and not getting taken seriously, even by family members. They’d ask my parents why they were spending money on me playing softball. If it was a boy, even if it didn’t lead to anything, that’s ‘just what boys do,’ they play sports. If it was me playing piano, everyone would have been on board, regardless of if I became a pianist, but it was a lot of, ‘why are you devoting so much time to softball?”
But Mendoza also acknowledges that compared to many, she made it through much of her career in sports virtually unscathed. “Real sexism didn’t hit until I got here.” And since then, she says she’s both opened her eyes to the realities of the situation, and then blinked them shut as she attempts to focus on being one of the women spearheading the movement against sexism in sports rather than dwelling in it: “It’s a balance of not addressing it all the time and paying attention to it. I’m shocked that anyone thinks it doesn’t exist, but I’m shocked that people still think this way, too.” Sometimes, we agree, it’s almost funny, that this is our reality. “Not that I laughed about it,” she says, “but to me it’s like, ‘people really think this way?”
Social media makes everything better and worse. Technology helps educate and connect people and give women a bigger audience, but it also allows people to direct hate at anyone they choose, usually with zero real-world ramifications. As a woman in the public eye and in a unique role in her industry, Jessica is often a target. But she’s more curious about her critics than affected by them: “For haters on Twitter, for whoever, I just want to meet these people and talk to them. They’re so angry because I’m a woman.”
It seems like a no-brainer: just don’t be sexist. And that’s what makes the sexism so unbelievable. Mendoza continues, “In my mind, do you really believe this, in this day and age? You had to have had a mother, or sister, or a daughter in your life that you would never look at and say, ‘you can’t do something,’ so why would you then take the entire gender and do that?”
Jessica Mendoza is everything wonderful you think she’d be and more. Composed, smart and intelligent (there is a difference), beautiful, confident, open, funny, full of light. As we wrap up, she tells me, “I believe in everyone there is this ability to see. It’s a matter of educating people, showing them more women are out there. They turn on Sunday Night Baseball, and might have never heard a woman’s voice in a baseball game before. It opens up your mind.” She’s the woman who fits in with the guys while blazing a trail for the girls, which makes her the perfect pioneer. “All the guys I’d ever been around growing up came to me asking what I thought about baseball, so to have people say, ‘what makes you think you can talk about baseball?,’ I almost look at them and say, ‘where did you come from? What makes you think I can’t?”
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity, with gratitude to Jessica Mendoza and the ESPN Sunday Night Baseball team