Jessica Mendoza dissected Kyle Schwarber’s swing in the World Series and took a break from Twitter during her historic first full season covering baseball for ESPN.
Mendoza recently shuttled between Cleveland and Chicago for the fall classic, giving updates eight times a day for “Baseball Tonight” and “Sports Center.”
She shared the booth this season on “Sunday Night Baseball” with Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone, a former player who moved up from Monday night games.
“She’s as good as anyone I’ve ever met at getting in the clubhouse or around the cage and getting information out of players, coaches and managers,” Shulman said.
Mendoza replaced Curt Schilling last fall, becoming the first woman to call a nationally televised postseason game. The Saturday night dinners the trio shared during the 2016 season helped develop chemistry in the booth.
“I don’t think it took long for us to feel comfortable, whether it was jabbing at each other or talking baseball,” Mendoza said.
Here are a few things to know about the 35-year-old Stanford graduate who batted .416 during her career, earned Olympic gold and silver medals and spent nine years covering college sports and softball for ESPN:
Hearing former MLB player John Kruk alongside her announcing the Women’s College World Series made Mendoza realize how knowledge of one sport could translate to the other.
Shulman called Mendoza’s work ethic and preparation for baseball games “off the charts” and said she “has a great ability to break down a hitter’s swing.”
The Cubs’ Schwarber not only rocketed hits to the outfield after missing most of the season with a knee injury, but his walk in Game 1 against Andrew Miller with runners on base impressed Mendoza as “the best at-bat of the game.” It was the first walk Miller gave up to a left-handed hitter all season.
“Schwarber has an eye and a feel, he’ll have a feel for what a pitcher is going to throw and recognize when he doesn’t,” Mendoza said. “You don’t really see him sell out on a pitch and completely miss it. He misses, but it’s not like he’s completely fooled.”
Mendoza worked out with Chicago pitcher Jake Arrieta on a Pilates machine for an ESPN segment ahead of Game 6. In her debut on “Sunday Night Baseball” last fall, Arrieta threw a no-hitter against the Los Angeles Dodgers. She noticed how fresh he seemed coming out for the eighth inning and wondered about his workout regimen. Arrieta showed off his flexibility during the interview, doing the splits and handstands while crediting Pilates for strengthening his hips, shoulders and back.
Mendoza has two sons under 10 and an ex-Marine husband who handles the parenting duties when she’s away from their California home on the weekends. She leaves Friday, has dinner with her boothmates on Saturday, announces the game on Sunday night and returns Monday. In between, she’s a Sabermetrics wonk, gathering stats, watching video and interviewing players.
“Part of what makes this job really cool is that it’s not just 9-to-5,” Mendoza said. “There’s something challenging about it that I really enjoy. Hone in on some really cool stuff. Talk to players, get to know managers and just have that ability to go 30 games.”
Mendoza said it’s about finding a balance that works and “being OK when it’s not balanced.”
She took a two-month break from Twitter during the season because of negative tweets. Some critics focused on her gender rather than the specifics of her commentary.
Mendoza understands with change comes resistance.
“There’s always just a big reaction. People either feel really great about it, ‘Sweet, there’s a woman on, this is so cool. I love your different analysis,'” Mendoza said, “or this completely, I mean, extreme negativity. It’s never just the middle, ‘Yeah, she’s OK.'”
Last month, a Houston Astros minor league player tweeted that “No lady needs to be on espn talking during a baseball game specially Mendoza sorry.” Brooks Marlow, a 23-year-old for the Lancaster JetHawks with a .233 career batting average, quickly apologized, along with the Astros.
“I have a hard time that someone who doesn’t know me could dislike me so much based on my gender or my position,” Mendoza said of the criticism in general. “It was more of a disappointment in human nature. I look forward — and we’re a ways from that — to where it becomes genderless.”
Mendoza focuses on the opinions of her boss and colleagues and watches tape of her performances. She recently had a conversation with ESPN president John Skipper, who said he was glad she “leaned in” and expressed an interest in covering baseball.
Mendoza appreciates the talents of tennis broadcaster Mary Carillo and NBA analyst Doris Burke and enjoys lunches with barrier-breaker Billie Jean King. She learns just by watching King, who Mendoza recalled made them late for a White House event because the tennis great stopped to talk to a security guard and thank him for his service.
King calls Mendoza a “true professional” who is striving to improve her craft while carrying the burden of “the first.”
“When women are doing things in the traditional men’s arena, we get more attention,” King said. “Your skin has to be a little thicker, your work just a little stronger.”
King said gender equality is a work-in-progress, and Mendoza joins others “working hard to help us get there.”