Sports

The Inspiring New Face Of ‘Sunday Night Baseball’

CREDIT: Phil Ellsworth / ESPN Images

Jessica Mendoza during the 2015 College World Series.

Sunday Night Baseball is getting a new look this season, and there’s a compelling reason to make room in your regular Game of Thrones/Quantico/Veep lineup come April. ESPN announced on Wednesday that Jessica Mendoza, who last year became the network’s first female in-booth Major League Baseball analyst, will be a permanent member of the Sunday night team, along with Aaron Boone and Dan Shulman.

After the euphoric experience of calling her first MLB game last August, Mendoza then stepped in for the suspended Curt Schilling (tweeting a meme that compared Muslims to Nazis temporarily cost Schilling his slot, but he’ll be back on Monday nights in 2016) and became the first woman to call a nationally televised playoff game in October.

She was adamant, however, that her breakthrough was far from the end goal. She wanted to be in the booth — not on the sidelines, where women often appear during national sports broadcasts — and she wanted to be there regularly.

“I’m just excited to be able to start,” Mendoza said by phone this week. “It’s so refreshing to not come in at the end of August — to be able to really say, ‘I’m going to be doing baseball this season’ and wrap my mind around that, to tell players and be like a mainstay in front of them so I’m not having to constantly re-explain who I am.”

A full-time female analyst on a national broadcast isn’t the only much-needed change coming to the sport. Mendoza and I talked about the importance of long-term opportunities for women, translators for Spanish-speaking players, the league’s new domestic violence policy — in other words, indications that baseball just might finally be catching up with the times.

A Big Year For Women In Baseball?

Mendoza wasn’t baseball’s lone barrier-breaker last year. In October, Justine Siegal became the first woman to coach for an MLB team and in December, Amanda Hopkins became the first full-time female scout hired by a Major League team since the 1950s. Those achievements are noteworthy on their own, but they come with some caveats. Siegal’s opportunity with the Oakland A’s was limited to a two-week guest coaching stint during the team’s Instructional League. Plus, it’s 2016; surely there’s more than one woman capable of being hired as a full-time scout? How about just one woman qualified to be an umpire or general manager?

“Across all sports, this last year was huge for women in general,” Mendoza said. “But, ‘what happens in 2016?’ is my immediate reaction. Great we had this year but are we going to look back and say, ‘oh you remember the great year of 2015? That was just a fun year out of the whole decade.’ No, I want to see this as a launching point for more opportunities but also… continued opportunities for those that have already happened.”

While important doors were undoubtedly opened in 2015, it’s key they stay open, both for the women who first crossed the threshold and those who are waiting on the doorstep. For Mendoza, that means anyone looking to hire what has traditionally been a male role in sports has to be open to hiring the best person for the job, regardless of gender. The women who are ‘firsts’ shouldn’t be checking a box, a fleeting attempt to address the massive imbalance in sports so the team or league can go back to business as usual, but rather evaluated as any other potential long-term employee.

2015 American League Wild Card Game - October 6, 2015

CREDIT: Ben Solomon / ESPN Images

And, perhaps most importantly for herself, Mendoza said the women who are given opportunities have to perform — all while facing far more scrutiny than a man starting out in the same position.

“I felt the pressure of the fact that if I’m going to sit here and say things like ‘I want this to be more than a guest appearance’ well then I have to earn more than just a guest appearance,” she said.

“If I make a mistake, it legitimizes why I shouldn’t be there. If someone else makes a mistake… it’s all in the moment. For me, there’s a macro picture that goes along with the good and the bad.”

(Early reports indicate she’s on the right track — John Wildhack, ESPN’s executive vice president for programming and production, told the Associated Press that once he started talking to others in the industry about Mendoza’s first game in the booth, he realized, “Wow, this was not just good. This was really, really, really good.”)

New Policies A Long Time Coming

It’s not just sports media getting with the times; Major League Baseball is in the midst of some necessary changes itself to help nudge the league into the 21st century.

This week, for example, the league and the MLB Players Association, the sport’s union, informed the clubs of a new policy requiring every major league team to have a full-time, year-round Spanish language interpreter in 2016.

“We view this policy as a positive and necessary step in helping improve the work environment for players, clubs and media,” Greg Bouris, communications director for the union, said in an emailed statement. “Much of the credit for the creation of this policy must go to Carlos Beltran, as he was the first to push for the hiring of dedicated interpreters.” (Beltran, an outfielder with the New York Yankees and native of Puerto Rico, started speaking up about the issue in earnest a few years ago).

It’s hard to believe this wasn’t already a requirement in a sport with such a high percentage of players from Central and South America — but up until now, Spanish-speaking players often relied on bilingual teammates or team personnel to act as unofficial translators. On the other hand, teams routinely make accommodations to meet the translation needs of players from Asia.

Mendoza, herself a second-generation Mexican-American, says she’s seen firsthand the challenges that arise when players aren’t able to express themselves to the media and don’t have adequate translation available. “I’ve noticed more when a player wants to truly express what he’s trying to say and he’s used teammates or he’s had not as many resources as other teams… I’ve listened to interviews and trying to put myself in their shoes — you’re trusting someone that might not be a professional interpreter to interpret your own words.”

American League Wild Card Game - October 6, 2015

CREDIT: Ben Solomon / ESPN Images

2015 also saw the inception of a new policy, jointly negotiated by the league and the union, to both discipline players accused of domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse, and to offer training and resources throughout the sport’s ranks.

The policy will face its first major test this offseason as two high-profile players, Jose Reyes of the Colorado Rockies and Aroldis Chapman, now with the New York Yankees, are both under investigation for incidents of domestic abuse (Reyes was formally charged; Chapman was not).

How the league ultimately handles these first cases under the new policy will send a strong message and Mendoza said she’ll be watching to see what sort of precedent will be set.

“I applaud them for taking it seriously; its a no-brainer,” she said. “I think for a long time — and this is with all sports, not just baseball — there was this idea of a separation of sport and law and the law will handle and punish and we’ll react accordingly, versus [having your] own punishments and being able to take it into your hands.”

Whether the enforcement of the policy will have a lasting effect once the player has served their punishment remains to be seen, but it’s clear that the allegations against Chapman seemed to carry more weight than in years past. The Los Angeles Dodgers backed out of a potential trade involving the closer and the Washington Nationals said that their interest had changed after learning of the incident.

“What are the repercussions beyond the fines and the suspensions — do you lose seats? Do you lose money? It needs to happen so the teams now think of that first,” Mendoza said. “But the fact that it did deter teams tells you there is progress and it has a lot to do with the fact that there is a new policy and everyone knows that there is a precedent that’s going to come down.”

While Mendoza sees these changes as the result of a force larger than baseball (“It’s called progress, like progressively catching up to where your audience is”), she knows they’re critical steps to attracting new fans. And she says there are other necessary changes to that end, as well, like continuing to quicken the pace of the game and improving strike zone technology, but for now her focus is much shorter-term: getting ready for Spring Training.