Jessica Mendoza approaches broadcasting much like she did her storied softball career

Excelle Sports’ “Faces of the Game” series—in conjunction with Wilson Sporting Goods—gives an inside look into the stories of former and current athletes, on and off the fields and courts of play.

Jessica Mendoza looks into the lens of a camera comparably to how she used to look into the eyes of an opposing pitcher—with poise and confidence. Now, instead of her self-assured stare coming from the left-handed batter’s box on the softball diamond, it occurs from behind the microphone as a member of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball broadcast team.

For the two-time Olympic medalist—who last year became the first woman in the broadcast booth for a Major League Baseball game on ESPN—her approach to broadcasting isn’t so different from her former approach to playing softball. The 35-year-old still relies on her preparation and obsession with details in order to stand out.

“The ways I approach watching pitchers and studying batters now, it’s how I did when I was playing,” Mendoza told Excelle Sports in a phone interview just ahead of her SportsCenter assignment for Game 1 of the World Series in Cleveland. “I would watch opposing pitchers and look for their weaknesses, strengths, what they liked to go to. I now find myself obsessed with video footage and wanting to watch it, and a lot of that has to do with how I played and how I was trained.”

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Trained in the disciplined and detailed-oriented ways of her football, baseball and softball-coaching father Gil, Mendoza was raised in California and attended Stanford University on scholarship, where she was a four-time first-team All-American on the softball field. More than a decade after her college graduation, the former outfielder still holds program records for career batting average (.416), home runs (50) and hits (327). She also helped the Cardinal to their first—and still only—Women’s College World Series appearance in 2001.

“If you’re good at what you do, you just do it.”

Mendoza’s stellar playing career didn’t end when her time at Stanford did, as she went right from the Division I college game to the international ranks with Team USA. She played an integral part on the American team in 2004 when it won the gold medal at the Athens Games, and was also named USA Softball’s Athlete of the Year in 2006. Also a four-year veteran of the National Pro Fastpitch, Mendoza later captured a silver medal with Team USA at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, before her retirement from playing in 2012.

jessica-mendoza-softball-baseball-mlb-espn-broadcaster
BEIJING – SEPTEMBER 03: Jessica Mendoza of US celebrates after she hits a home run at the match against Australia during ISF XI Women’s Fast Pitch Softball World Championship at the Fengtai Softball Stadium on September 3, 2006 in Beijing, China. US won the match 11-2. (Photo by Guang Niu/Getty Images)

With her impressive softball résumé and breadth of experiences at the highest level in her sport, Mendoza made for a perfect fit in the broadcast booth when she started her tenure at ESPN in 2007. Originally a college softball analyst for the network, Mendoza added stints as a college football and college baseball reporter to her broadcasting repertoire, before being called upon to provide commentary for Baseball Tonight in 2014 and game broadcasts in 2015.

“I was coached my whole life by a baseball coach, so for me it’s never been like, ‘In baseball they do this and in softball they do that,’” Mendoza, a mother of two sons, said of the crossover between broadcasting softball and baseball. “So I never really felt like I would approach this differently. There are so many similarities [between the two games], especially with hitting.”

Though the similarities between the two sports—and the legitimacy of Mendoza’s playing experiences—are undeniable, the first woman to broadcast a nationally televised postseason MLB game has still encountered detractors and cynics from afar simply because of her gender.

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During the National League wild-card game earlier this month, Mendoza was disparaged in a tweet from Houston Astros prospect Brooks Marlow, which read, “No lady needs to be on espn talking during a baseball game specially Mendoza sorry.” That incident was not the only one of its kind, however, as Atlanta talk radio host Mike Bell took to Twitter to rant about Mendoza calling a postseason game last year, while also referring to ESPN as ‘cute’ for having her do so. He was subsequently suspended from his job.

“I say challenge yourself. Do things that haven’t been done and that you are passionate about.”

“It’s not like they’re coming after me fully because they disagreed with what I said—sometimes I wish it was more about that because that means they were listening to me and actually taking me as a commentator versus, ‘Oh, she’s a female, let me rip her in every way possible as a woman,’” said Mendoza, who also holds a master’s degree from Stanford in social sciences and education.

“I think a lot of it has been shocking to me because I was raised and surrounded by people who have always thought of things as genderless. If you’re good at what you do, you just do it.”

And Mendoza—who cites Julie Foudy and Doris Burke as her broadcasting inspirations—has proven that she is in fact good at what she does, as she earned full-time status at ESPN as an analyst for Sunday Night Baseball before the start of the 2016 season.

“For me, the people who I care about are the ones who hired me, the ones who I work with, the people I’m close with, family and friends,” Mendoza said. “And knowing that even though the words can get pretty harsh, I have to understand that it’s not just me [that it’s happening to].”

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Mendoza hasn’t been deterred by the social media attacks she’s faced, and though she has admittedly lessened her interactions with her Twitter followers recently, she finds strength from the fans who have supported her work and provided her with words of encouragement. In return, she is encouraging others—especially women and girls—to pursue the road less traveled in the sports industry like she has.

“A lot of women think they want to be sideline reporters and hosts because that’s what they see, and I get that and think they should still want to be that, but also think about other things that you’re interested in,” Mendoza said. “There are so many different options within the sports industry and I think a lot of times we look for what’s already been paved before us.

“I say challenge yourself. Do things that haven’t been done and that you are passionate about.”

If Mendoza’s life is any indication of the validity of her advice, then it’s bound to be a home run.

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