On Sunday night, Jessica Mendoza — the first female baseball analyst on ESPN — will kick off her fourth season as a full-time member of the Sunday Night Baseball booth, alongside Matt Vasgersian, Alex Rodriguez, and Buster Olney.
Her first opportunity on the program came amid controversy, when ESPN suspended Curt Schilling midway through the 2015 MLB season because of his unrelenting commitment to bigotry. Her debut was marked by non-stop complaints from men online, who were horrified to have to hear a woman — the horror! — while listening to their beloved baseball. But Mendoza, a stand-out softball player at Stanford and a member of the 2004 USA Softball team that won gold at the Athens Olympics, has persevered through all of that and proved that she has staying power.
But that doesn’t mean that she’s not still a lightning rod for controversy. Earlier this month, the New York Mets announced the team hired Mendoza as a baseball operations advisor. She will continue to work as an analyst for Sunday Night Baseball, and this double duty has drawn ire because of potential conflicts of interest.
This week, Mendoza spoke to ThinkProgress about those criticisms, what she’s learned during her time in the booth, and how she deals with online trolls.
You’re headed into your fourth year as a Sunday Night Baseball announcer. What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned the past three years?
How to handle different kinds of pressure. I think to be honest, as much as I learned about the game and baseball and all the different, like, idiosyncrasies that go into a telecast, what I’ve learned the most is, when the red light goes on, and when you feel the, “Gosh, can I do this?” really growing within, figuring out how to handle those different kinds of responsibilities and pressures.
If you could time travel back to right before you started this job, what advice would you give yourself?
Probably just to really concentrate on the people that are important to you. I feel like anyone that goes into this job, sometimes you want to listen to everybody. Everyone’s got advice, everyone’s got their two cents. Try to streamline, like, who are the people that I trust the most? Sometimes I call it my board of directors. They’re going to challenge you, but they’re also going to support you. They’re not going to just tell you what you want to hear, either.
How did this Mets gig come about?
Brodie Van Wagenen, who’s the general manager now for the Mets, I’ve known him for a while. He played baseball at Stanford, and then he was an agent, at the same agency that I was represented by.
So with Brodie, I would lean on him for all kinds of different stuff. And he would with me. We’d just call each other and ask each other questions. When he was looking to interview for the job, he called me, and said, “Look, I’m going to use you in the presentation.” And I was like, “Really?” He’s like, “Yeah, I think this is something that you should be involved in. The way your mind is, it’s different. I think that’s important for baseball, so we don’t always have the same voices and the same opinions.”
I hadn’t really thought about the front office to be honest with you. But Brodie was very much like, “I’d love to bring you on board.” So then it was, how do we make this work? I wasn’t going to move to New York. I wasn’t going to quit my job with ESPN. It took him a couple of months. I just assumed that it wouldn’t work out, and then he called me back early this year and was like, “I think I figured something out. Can you send me your Sunday Night Baseball schedule?” And we just looked at the dates and formulated a plan around that.
What exactly does your role with the Mets look like?
Obviously there’s player development, player evaluation, there’s the technology side, which I’m very passionate about learning. And then just bringing my own insights about what’s happening within the game. That even can go into the sports performance side. But it’s broad, because I’m not there every day. And the days that I am there, I want to learn and understand what they’re doing. Then when my opinion is asked, it could be in a number of categories.
Since it was announced, there’s been some criticism about the conflict of interest that could arise there. Do you understand where that criticism is coming from? And what is your response to those concerns?
You know, the guy that I sit next to, Alex Rodriguez, he’s with the Yankees. [ESPN baseball analyst David Ross], he works with the Cubs. And honestly, he talked to me a lot last year about how much his role with the Cubs has helped him be a better analyst for television, because of the lens you look through when you’re out in the field, evaluating people. And honestly, the access to information that you get, and not just within the Cubs or Mets, but more of how players are actually being evaluated and measured. That’s really the forefront of where the game is. And so to me, it was almost like, this is all going to make me a better analyst.
I mean, I understand the criticism, and that it’s not as easy for people to swallow. Because, you know, David Ross won a World Series with the Cubs. It’s like, of course, he’s working with them. Alex Rodriguez is, you know, probably forever associated with the Yankees, so it’s like, yes, that makes sense. But then there’s Al Leiter, who works for MLB Network. He got hired by the Mets literally the day before me, No one said a word.
So I get it, it’s harder for people to understand with me. But it’s kind of been like that this whole time.
I actually joked with friends that I was so excited that a woman in baseball has so many jobs that we’re worried about conflicts of interest. Progress!
I like that. (Laughs.) That’s actually a really great point. That’s way I never even looked at it.
But on a serious note, as a journalist, I’ll admit, I do think it’s a legitimate concern. Why should people trust you to be critical of the Mets when need be?
I am a very honest person. And I feel like my critiques are why Brodie brought me on. It’s not so much the rah rah. That’s just the way I work. So yeah, I don’t see it being a problem being critical, because honestly, I know for me, the reason why I would hire people and surround myself with people is for them to give you honesty, critiques, you know, the real stuff.
Any time a woman does anything, hateful trolls surface online. Do you still check your mentions after games? And if so, have you noticed a change — have they gotten bored over the last two years?
After a Sunday night game, what I do is I usually wait like a day and a half before going on Twitter. And that’s just because there’s always an extreme reaction, I’d say it’s died down obviously, from the beginning. But people react strongly — sometimes strongly in a positive way, but also extremely negative.
So, I just learned, okay, I don’t want strong reactions. I want to wait till that dies down. But I still want a relationship with people on social media. And that was something I had to think about too. Because there’s part of me that is like, fine, I’ll just ban Twitter from my life, or Instagram. But I actually really do enjoy it. So it was important to me to kind of navigate that and figure out the best way to still be able to communicate with fans and people and just interact because I do like to do that.
What advice would you give to other female trailblazers in a male-dominated fields?
It’s about trying to be yourself and not thinking of it as anything, you know, bigger than that. But also understanding that, at the same time, it is bigger than you and you have a responsibility for many more people. So I know that sounds like a contradictory statement, but it’s not.
It’s more of being like: Okay, this is who I am, I can’t be any bigger. I can’t be any different. I need to not blow this up the way a lot of other people might, and just do my job and just kick butt doing it. But then understand on the days when it is harder or when you’re challenged or doubting yourself, know that you’re doing this for more than just yourself or your own family, but this is for many others.
Yeah, you’ve opened this door, but you need to kick the door down. There shouldn’t even be a door, people should just be coming through. And that’s where it falls on the shoulders of people that are doing it for the first time.