Mendoza makes TV history in AL Wild Card
ESPN analyst becomes 1st woman to broadcast nationally televised postseason game
Jessica Mendoza made baseball and broadcasting history Tuesday night. And once again, she was focused more on the work at hand than the ground she broke.
Calling the Houston Astros' 3-0 victory over the New York Yankees in the American League Wild Card Game presented by Budweiser, along with John Kruk and Dan Shulman, Mendoza became the first female analyst for a nationally televised MLB postseason game.
"I've had a lot of people reaching out to me to congratulate me, and I'm thankful for that," Mendoza said when reached by phone Monday night.
"But I'm so in that mode of just being excited for this game because of these two teams, not because of anything I'm doing. It's funny when people are asking how I'm feeling. I'm like, 'Why? I'm just excited to be calling baseball in October.'"
While Mendoza was keen to downplay the societal significance, it's undeniable she walks in a proud path of pioneers. Mendoza is also the first woman to make her postseason debut for a win-or-go-home game in any major North American pro sport, following in the footsteps of ESPN's Doris Burke, who has served in a variety roles at NBA playoff games, including as courtside analyst.
It is poetic that Mendoza's first postseason assignment happened in an Astros-Yankees postseason game. The Yankees because of Suzyn Waldman's role and the Astros because Houston TV reporter Anita Martini was the first woman granted access to a Major League clubhouse. Waldman tore down walls as one of the first women to land a full-time job as a baseball color commentator and one of the first to do play-by-play on TV for a big league team -- and wound up making headlines when she debuted as a radio analyst in the 2009 World Series.
"When I did my first game in 1994 for the Baseball Network, I was pretty good, but the backlash was horrible. I remember telling a guy in Philadelphia who asked why would you do this, well, there's some little girl out there who saw me and now doesn't know she can't do this, and that was Jessica," said Waldman, whose scorecard from that 2009 game is in the Hall of Fame. "Jessica is smart, and she has the credibility none of us have had. Anyone can know baseball, but she's the first one that when she says something, there can't be someone who says, 'How do you know?' Jessica knows what it's like to have a bat in her hand at a big level. She also has a terrific way with people. When you're an analyst, it's not just analyzing. She has a great personality."
Martini's breakthrough in 1974 at the Astrodome in a series vs. the Los Angeles Dodgers (L.A. manager Walter Alston said it was about time) opened doors for thousands of reporters since who happen to be women.
"I just want to be an analyst," Mendoza said. "If I get wrapped up in everything else about being in the booth, I'm not doing my job."
In addition to her Olympic success and All-America honors as an outfielder at Stanford, Mendoza, 34, became the first woman to call an MLB game in the ESPN booth when she did a Monday night D-backs-Cardinals game in mid-August. She followed it up with a Sunday Night Baseball debut on Aug. 30 that just happened to feature a no-hitter by Cubs pitcher Jake Arrieta.
As for the historical aspect, Mendoza said she gets it. She understands why her phone's been on near-permanent tilt and there seems to be a procession of admirers greeting her whenever she steps inside a stadium these days.
"Everybody's been really nice, but what did I do? I haven't done anything," Mendoza said. "I just want to keep being someone that's doing a good job, so I'm kind of about getting right to that."
So it'll have to be up to others to comment on how important tonight really is.
As MLB's Ambassador for Inclusion, Billy Bean, who came out as gay in 1999, can relate to Mendoza and how she's blazing a trail for future broadcasters.
"Jessica Mendoza is a perfect example of how baseball continues to lead the way with groundbreaking opportunities for talent," said Bean. "Her resume speaks for itself, but her engaging and self-effacing manner make it impossible not to bond instantly with her voice. I believe she will engage young women in a way that shows there is a place in baseball for anyone if you have passion and a desire to work in our sport. One of my responsibilities in baseball is to continue to create a culture of acceptance for all people in baseball, and Jessica's accomplishment just made that job a little bit easier."
Kim Ng, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations and a former assistant general manager of the Yankees and Dodgers, said she's confident that Mendoza will shine tonight and beyond.
"Jessica was and probably still is a world-class ballplayer," Ng said. "There is no doubt in my mind that her ability to analyze, to break down certain aspects of the game, and to give her audience a player's perspective surpasses the ability of some of her colleagues.
"Insight into the game is not gender-specific. I applaud ESPN for making this move and for putting another highly qualified person in the booth."
Andrea Kremer is the chief correspondent for NFL Network, a correspondent for HBO's Real Sports and co-host of CBS Sports Networks' "We Need To Talk." She began her distinguished sports journalism career more than 25 years ago at ESPN and said Mendoza is deserving of every accolade she's been given.
"I met and worked with Jessica Mendoza several years ago when I did a story for Real Sports on the loss of softball in the Olympics," Kremer said. "Her intellect, knowledge, charisma and natural on-camera presence resonated for me back then. When I saw she was stepping in on Sunday Night Baseball, I was proud of her and thrilled because she is the perfect person to get this opportunity -- a pro, who happens to be a woman, that brings a lifetime of playing experience to the booth.
"She may be getting extra attention because of her gender, but she's excelling in her new job without regard to it."
Susan Slusser, who covers the Oakland A's for the San Francisco Chronicle and was the first female president of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, is thrilled for Mendoza.
"She is well-prepared, thoughtful and entertaining -- everything you would look for in an analyst of any gender for any sport," Slusser said. "The focus shouldn't be on her gender. It should be on what an excellent new talent there is on the national baseball scene."
Pam Ward, who calls college softball and basketball for ESPN and was the first woman to do play-by-play on a nationally televised NCAA football game when she did it in 2000, served as a mentor of sorts for Mendoza, who told Ward that she appreciated her achievements.
"When she was in her prime, Jess was literally the best softball hitter in the world, so she is definitely qualified to cross over and talk baseball," Ward said. "Baseball announcers have crossed over to talk about softball, so it should be no big deal for Jess to do the same in reverse.
"Speaking from experience, Jess will most likely be under greater scrutiny than any other baseball analyst; maybe ever, now with the playoff game. There's always only going to be one 'first.' She knows that, and has handled everything beautifully in the regular season. Now she's just taking the next logical step. The bottom line is she's smart and talented and has earned that spot in the booth."
Root Sports co-anchor Julia Morales, who is a field reporter on Astros broadcasts, said she spoke to Mendoza on Monday. Mendoza was hard at work preparing for the game and asked Morales for information about the Astros.
"When I found out she was going to be in the booth for Sunday Night Baseball, I thought it was really cool," Morales said. "When we're flying home from a road game on Sundays, I usually watch the Sunday night game on the flights. Her first game was the Arrieta no-hitter. That was the 'wow' moment for me. She was so calm and so good with her analysis.
"She picks up on things so fast. She was breaking down his slider, giving great insight. That's not easy to do, to jump in to that type of situation. She was so comfortable doing it."
A star softball pitcher on the 2004 and '08 Olympics, Jennie Finch understands the impact her former teammate is making in the broadcast world.
"I'm in awe of Jess, and excited for the doors she's opening for women in broadcasting and women in sports," said Finch. "I love seeing how the fans have embraced her. It's about how well she does the job and her knowledge. She deserves every bit of success she's having, and I'm here with everyone else cheering her on."
Mariners broadcaster Dave Sims has overcome adversity and broken through as an African-American TV play-by-play announcer for a Major League team, and he considers Mendoza's upcoming postseason bow "a historic moment."
"Good for her that she's positioned to be where she is," Sims said. "It's a great breakthrough and hopefully she'll do well."
Tennis legend and sports pioneer Billie Jean King is one of Mendoza's closest friends and mentors. Mendoza was the president of King's Women's Sports Foundation in 2009 and '10.
"The thing I notice about her, especially with this MLB opportunity, is that she's so humble and wants other girls to have the same opportunities," King said. "It's terrific in how she really does her homework and wants to keep learning, and she also wants to keep building relationships because she knows that's how she will do a better job. She knows her stuff. She's the real thing. But she's also a real genuine and authentic person. We just love her. She's a great friend."
Orioles manager Buck Showalter doesn't have any doubts about that. He has enjoyed what he's seen and heard of Mendoza on the job.
"Jessica is really impressive," Showalter said. "She is confident of her insights, but respectful in her presentation."
It will all be on display again tonight, and Mendoza will keep her head down and do her best to offer compelling insight into the always-intriguing battle between pitcher and hitter and the story behind the numbers that makes baseball so fascinating.
As for the history of it, well, she says she'll think about that ... most likely some time after October.
"Just like with anything, there's definitely a time and place in life where you can look back," Mendoza said. "That's how I did it with my playing career, and I think we all can do that with our lives. Right now, the only way I've known how to do anything, as an athlete or student, is to not get caught up in big picture stuff because it can be a distraction.
"I want to bring knowledge to the table and see these two teams and watch what happens on the field. ... More than being female, I want to be really good."