Jessica Mendoza arrived in the Bronx last Oct. 6 at the end of a long, nerve-wracking, sleepless “blur” to make television history by working the Astros-Yankees wild card game for ESPN.
A year later she is back, this time in Queens for Wednesday’s Giants-Mets game, and feeling far more grounded.
“It seems like this is what we prepared for all season long,” she said Monday before leaving her Southern California home for the trip to New York. “We did almost 30 [regular-season] games, versus, last year for me it felt like one long day over five weeks.”
Mendoza, one of the best hitters in women’s softball history, was thrown into the deep end of the baseball pool late last August when Curt Schilling was removed from ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball booth after an inflammatory tweet.
She ended up working Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter for the Cubs over the Dodgers, got good reviews, spent the rest of the season in the network’s marquee booth, then became the first woman to work a nationally televised MLB playoff game.
To the surprise of no one, ESPN announced she would be back in 2016, joining Dan Shulman and Aaron Boone, and here she is again for a big game in the big city.
“This feeling is so much more like I have a great idea of what to expect,” she said. “Last year everything was a first, a never-done-this-before . . . I have very little memory of the last month of last season. It felt like one, big, huge, ‘We have to do this.’”
She plans to be at the pre-wild-card-game workouts on Tuesday, ready to roll. “I want to head out to the field just excited instead of, ‘Where am I supposed to be? What am I supposed to do?’” she said.
If Mendoza was that uncertain in 2015, she did a good job of hiding it because most of the baseball world embraced her presence and appreciated her knowledge and work ethic – not to mention her resume as an All-American at Stanford and an Olympic gold medalist.
“The players, the managers, the people I work for, they’ve been amazing,” she said, citing among others Cubs manager Joe Maddon, whom she said “literally sought me out and said, ‘If there’s anything you need, here’s my phone number, if you want to talk shifts or anything, let me know.’”
Fans are a more complicated subject. Most viewers have been positive about her work. Some have not. She said she enjoys elements of social media interaction and has no problem with fans having contrasting opinions.
But she does shy away from the darkest corners of Twitter.
“As much as people can be great, people can be really, really awful,” she said. “If you disagree with something I said, I’m totally for that. If you’re going to come at me like you hate me and use words that are so hateful, I just don’t get it.”
Mendoza dived into her new job with characteristic gusto, “planting” herself in Arizona and Florida during spring training for three weeks to get fully up to speed.
That has not always been easy on her family – husband Adam Burks and their two sons, ages 7 and 3.
“We’re still adjusting,” she said. “I put a lot of pressure on myself. From my family’s standpoint, I was studying like crazy. Even when I was home, I was studying games. I just didn’t want to fail. My husband has taken on a lot of the family role and been a rock.”
Mendoza is active in a variety of pursuits beyond her TV work, which has given her a bigger platform in advocating for causes that include getting more women and girls involved in sports and growing the sports of baseball and softball.
Being a pioneer in her current field has helped her make the case to young women not to set limits.
“Don’t always feel you have to do something that’s already been done,” she said.
As for baseball, she said, she hopes to “get more people excited about baseball in a different way,” in part by engaging viewers who are not diehards versed in the nuances of advanced analytics.
“Baseball I think is an amazing sport, and I absolutely love it,” she said, “but I think the way that we showcase it, I don’t think it’s a bad idea to mix it up.”
She has traveled on behalf of the U.S. State Department to places such as Panama and Nicaragua to promote youth sports.
In August, she got an emotional boost when the IOC voted to return baseball and softball to the Olympics in 2020, but not necessarily beyond. Mendoza, 35, was a gold medalist in 2004 and a silver medalist in 2008 and said she would have played in 2012 and 201616 had softball not been absent from those Games.
“It forced me to retire earlier than I wanted, but I just look at opportunities that it gave me,” she said.
She is thrilled the current generation of players will get their shot. “It’s huge,” she said. “I don’t think people even realize how much that vote will make a difference.”
Mendoza has moved on from her playing career, with Wednesday’s game the latest milestone in her ascension as a TV analyst.
The pitching matchup of Noah Syndergaard against Madison Bumgarner is a juicy one for a TV network, one that Mendoza said she was pulling for ESPN to land.
Of the Mets’ Syndergaard, she said, “He kind of represents the flame-throwing, just ridiculously talented pitchers . . . Noah has the pressure of the entire franchise on his shoulders because the rest of his crew [is injured]. They’re gone. I’m interested to see him shine. I have no doubt he will do well. It’s an epic matchup.”