VICE Sports Q&A: ESPN Sunday Night Baseball Analyst Jessica Mendoza

Jessica Mendoza opens up on life in the Sunday Night Baseball booth, the challenges of working in sports media as a woman, and broadening the baseball fanbase.

by Larry Burnett
Jul 4 2016, 2:00pm

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Jessica Mendoza works as an analyst in ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" booth with Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone. The 35 year-old from Camarillo, California was a four-time All America outfielder for Stanford University and she represented America on the 2004 and 2008 U.S. Olympic teams.

Jessica went to work covering the sport for ESPN in 2007 and also served as a sideline reporter for college football and as an analyst for the Mens' College World Series and the NCAA Womens' World Series.

Late last summer, Mendoza got a chance to work a "Monday Night Baseball" game. That appearance made her ESPN's first female MLB analyst. Just a few days later, when Curt Schilling was suspended by ESPN for making controversial comments comparing Muslims to Nazis, Jessica was asked to fill in on the Sunday night game between the Dodgers and the Cubs. ESPN liked her work, used her on several other Sunday night games and post-season contests. This past January, Mendoza was officially named to work ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" games for the 2016 MLB season.

VICE Sports: How is it going so far?

Jessica Mendoza: It's been a whirlwind, but I am absolutely hooked. Last year, I worked my first MLB game on that Monday and then, literally like three days later, ESPN came to me and said, "We'd like you to work this Sunday night." That was one of those "deep breath" moments like, " I just did my first game and now I've got the Cubs and Dodgers?" That turned out to be Jake Arrietta's first no-hitter and the first no-hitter that ESPN had carried on Sunday Night Baseball. That's kind of how things went. It almost seemed like it was meant to be. I was nervous too.

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Am I going to be good enough?

Am I going to be able to see the game the way that I want to do it.

Are nerves going to get the best of me?"

There were so many questions that I had, but I was able to sit there and do that first game and feel good about the way that I was able to see it. Obviously, it helps when you have a no-hitter (laughs) and be able to talk about history. But even in every game I've done since then, whether it's a blowout or just a tough four-hour game, I am so hooked on the fact that there is so much to this game that I feel like we can bring to the viewer that makes it so interesting.

Tell me about your preparation for each game because, in my mind, that is the toughest part of the job and the most important part of the job. Calling the games is the easy stuff. Preparation is hard. Going in as a female, did you feel that you had to work harder and maybe be even more prepared than if you were a guy in the broadcast booth?

I know that I have never worked harder in my life at anything, but that is just me. It's not even, so much, comparing me to a guy as much as it is the pressure and the responsibility that I put on myself. I know that people are going to recognize my voice as being different and they are going to be saying, "Let me listen a little bit closer to see if she says something that I don't agree with." They're probably going to pay a little bit more attention. I am aware of that and because of that, I want to make sure that I am as prepared as I can possibly be. I try to challenge myself, each week, to do something that is a little different or something maybe a little more exciting or personalized. I feel the nerves and I feel the pressure each week, but at the same time, it is a privilege. I am excited to be in this opportunity, but I am not going to let off the gas at all. That is for sure.

Mendoza with her Sunday Night Baseball boothmates Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone. Photo via ESPN.

You have the softball background from playing at Stanford and with the U.S. Olympic teams and there are obvious comparisons and parallels between softball and baseball. Do you think you bring a different perspective to the MLB games because of where you came from and where you are now?

Yeah. I think there are times when the games are absolutely similar. Boonie and I will be talking about hitting and there is zero difference between softball and baseball. Sometimes, I like to think that I'm trying to represent a viewer that is maybe not "super niche." They haven't watched absolutely every single game possible and they don't know everything about the game. I wasn't raised in the game. I didn't play baseball my entire life, so I do bring something a little more unique to the telecast and I get really excited about stuff that, maybe if I had been around baseball my whole life, I would just say, "Come on. Everybody knows that. Its not a big deal."

You brought it up and you have to know, Jess, that there are going to be people who see a woman in a Major League Baseball broadcasting booth who are going to say, "She didn't grow up with it and she didn't play the game all her life. What is she doing calling baseball games on ESPN?" You must have gotten flak like that.

Oh. Absolutely. I get it every week. There is always a reaction to me. That is what I have definitely noticed. Some people are positive and really excited. Some people are absolutely negative and, like, "Get her out of there!" I haven't found many people in the middle yet. (Laughs) That is my biggest goal, to get to where people are more like, "Let's just listen." Maybe then, the criticism will be more about what I am saying than just about the fact that I am a female and didn't play MLB. Right now, the reactions are extreme both ways.

You may think it's extreme at this point, but at least you are getting reactions. Getting no reactions would be much worse.

That's true. I guess it's more just reactions to my gender. I get it. It's different and I embrace that. Trust me. It is a responsibility that I have taken on and I like that we are probably reaching a different kind of viewer because of that. I think that's great.

It is more just with my analysis. I really try hard to give consistently good analysis. I don't think that everyone is going to agree with it. I think there are going to be times when people say, "Well, I don't think that that curveball was necessarily..." I get all of that, but just don't add in, "Well, she's a female or she didn't play." Just listen. That's all, I guess, I really want.

You have been quoted as saying that you want people to tune in to the broadcast and have fun. I've talked with some people at ESPN who say that part of your being on Sunday Night Baseball is to try to attract more female viewers to the broadcasts. Do you feel a responsibility there?

Absolutely. A lot of my friends don't tune into baseball, but they are watching the NFL and watching the NBA. Part of it, sometimes, is entertainment. Part of it is them saying, "Teach me. Tell me." A lot of women don't want to feel as though you are talking over them. They want to feel included, but again, with my gender it is not as easy as saying, "If you just do this, more women will watch." (Laugh)

Everyone knows that every female is different, but I am a mom and I am relatable to a lot of women. The goal, for me, is reaching more people and not just feeling as though viewers have to fit a certain mold to watch our broadcast. I think anybody who watches is going to be entertained, whether it's because they love the game or because they think that (Astros' second-baseman) José Altuve is really interesting because of his height and his personality. (Laughs) There is a whole spectrum that the game can bring you besides just an ERA and a batting average.

You mentioned being a mom. Now, this is not a question that I would ask to a man in your position, so maybe it's not fair, but how do you balance your work and your family?

It's not easy. I'm on a fifteen-day road trip as we do this interview. I've got a giant suitcase and I've been "face- timing" with my kids. They do travel with me, at times, but sometimes I cringe at the word "balance" only because life, to me, never really is in balance. It was never really like that, even when I was a student at Stanford. There were times when academics were hanging over my head because I was spending too much time in the weight room. (Laughs) Then that would switch.

Now, there are times when I'm on the road and working so much that I miss my kids like crazy and I just want to be home, but there are times when I'm at home and I feel as though I should be watching a game when I'm not. It's just a matter of not letting it sway to one side for too long to where it doesn't sway back and knowing that life is never going to be, at least for me, perfectly balanced.

What I do love is that my kids get to see what I do. I've got two boys and it is important for me to have them know that their mom is following her passion and doing something that is a little bit different and a little bit difficult. I hope that I can just set an example for them.

I've found over the years is that if you are really serious about your profession and about your family, you will always feel as though you're giving too much to one and not enough to the other. You can't win.

No. Never. I've learned to accept that because I think the guilt is what will get you. You can't be constantly "guilting" yourself about the time that you don't have. For me, it is never going to be perfect. Ever. But I want to do this. I love my job and I love the fact that I am a mom. I don't want to change anything, but I have to be okay with the fact that sometimes things are not going to be perfect. Most of the time it is not going to be perfect.

Chemistry in the broadcast booth is a key to good sports television, but it isn't always easy to achieve. Sometimes you'll come into a situation and maybe you don't want to step on your new partners' toes, but eventually you have to say, "You know, Aaron, I don't agree with you what you just said " or " I don't buy that, Shulman." To me, that makes a good broadcast. Was it difficult for you to get to that comfort zone?

Yes. You hit the nail right on the head. You obviously have a television background. (Laughs) A lot of people don't realize that. They think that you can just put two or three people in a booth together and "boom", it just works. Well, it doesn't. To be honest with you, Aaron and I worked our first game together last year and when we looked back at it in January, it was kind of bad. We each made our points but it was like we were disconnected. We had never worked together before. That was a concern. We had to get to a point where I could say, "Okay. This is his strong suit. He feels this way, but you know, I don't agree with that." We had to get to a point where I could disagree with him and know that I was not making him mad by disagreeing with him. Aaron has done it quite a few times. He'll say, "You know, Jess. I don't see it that way. This is how I see it."

That, to me, is great television because it brings the viewer in. Now they are thinking, "Okay. Jess thinks this. "Boonie" thinks this. What do I think?" It's more conversational than us just saying "I agree " all the time and making the same point over and over.

Well listen. When guys sit around talking sports or watching a game, they don't always agree and they certainly don't agree with the managers, the umpires, or the commentators. That "friendly conflict" is what sports fans do all the time, so why shouldn't it be that way on the broadcast?

Definitely. That's how we feel sometimes—even when I worked with Curt Schilling or Dallas Braden and had a pitcher next to me. I love that battle. It was like, " Are you kidding me? You pitchers don't even know what you're talking about. You think you own the world. Let me just wake you up for a second and let you know that this is a hitter's game."

I am just giving a different view. It is not necessarily like, "I'm right and you're wrong."( Even though it may seem like that) It's more of, "Let's let the viewer understand that it's not always all about you guys all the time."

So much has been made about you being a female in the Major League Baseball booth and yet, your last name is Mendoza and I haven't heard a lot about your Hispanic background or if you feel as though you are carrying that banner onto ESPN every Sunday night as well.

I think sometimes it goes unspoken because of my last name. My father's family is from Mexico and there is a big pride from my father, especially. I don't think he ever imagined that it would be a female in our family making her mark in baseball, but the game is such a deeply rooted part of our culture. The transition of his family coming over to America is a beautiful story that I try to expose through the stories of the players that I am covering.

I did a whole thing on Venezuela during one of our Astros' games. I was extremely passionate about bringing attention to some of the issues that were happening with their government, but more so because when you think of these Latin players, they are not all grouped together as Dominican, Puerto Rican, Venezuelan, and Cuban. Each country has its own individual background. That was something that I really pushed on Sunday night so we could talk more and bring attention.

Those are things that are subtle, but I'm not waving the flag, "Well. My last name is Mendoza." It is more that I think this is part of the game of baseball that I was raised knowing and I feel that we are almost cheating the viewers if we don't let them know this side of baseball as well.

Putting in work behind the scenes. Photo via ESPN.

You grew up in Camarillo, California not far from Los Angeles. Did you grow up as a Dodgers' fan?

We had Dodgers season tickets growing up. Vin Scully was the voice ingrained. I thought I was probably related to him (Laughs) because I heard his voice more than I heard some of my aunts and uncles. I have so many memories.

I grew up in the 80s. Dodger games. Was there a better time to be a fan of the game? Brett Butler was actually my favorite player. You would think it would be Kirk Gibson or Orel Hershiser. I loved them too, but Brett Butler was really the guy. I watched his swing from the time I was five years old. Yeah. The Dodgers. They were my team. Absolutely.

My final question is this. Bryce Harper, of the Washington Nationals, has said that he wants to bring fun back to baseball. What do you want to bring to ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, this season?

I think baseball is fun and, to me, I really want to reach a broader audience. I don't know if baseball is losing young kids or females, but I do know that this was a game that everyone watched when I was growing up. I don't think that baseball is too boring to watch. I think it's the way that we talk about it. I think it's the way that we show it. Baseball's attendance is great. People are still going to the games. I think it is our responsibility, and I put that on myself, to continue to show that this is a game that is beautiful. But, instead of just talking about it like everyone understands it or just making it a nine-inning conversation, I think we really need to think about the variety of people that are on the other side of our telecast and who we are really trying to hone in. That is something that I am always conscious of. Always! Any time we talk about an element for the game or something that we want to do, we have to be asking, "Who are we trying to reach?"

Baseball is a beautiful game. I may sound biased but this is coming from someone who didn't grow up in it. I didn't play major league baseball, but I am saying that I absolutely think that this game is for everybody.