In the last two years, Jessica Mendoza has ascended to a lead analyst role on ESPN’s “Sunday Night Baseball” telecast, becoming a trailblazing figure in broadcasting and the baseball industry. Yet as Mendoza has found her voice in the booth — the first woman to hold such a national role — she also found her voice outside it.
At first, Mendoza says, she was keen to downplay the social significance of her position, preferring to focus on the job and the details. But after 1 1/2 years of mostly strong reviews, Mendoza has become more and more comfortable using her platform to speak out.
A prime example: After breaking a barrier in the broadcasting booth, Mendoza sees one area that is ripe for more women’s representation.
“The front office,” Mendoza said Tuesday, while preparing to give the keynote speech on Wednesday at the annual WIN for KC Women’s Sports Awards Celebration at the Grand Ballroom of the Kansas City Convention Center. “It’s the people that are in charge. At the end of the day, honestly, it’s just thinking a little differently. I think you get that with different guys. We’ve seen it now with all of the brains that have come in. Whether it’s the Ivy League guys that have come in or the (stats) guys that have this different background.
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“And now we’re seeing a different style of how GMs run their team. I think women would bring a different thought. And I think it’s needed.”
Baseball teams, Mendoza said, should be more open to thinking outside the box — open to nontraditional candidates who exist outside the conventional wisdom of the industry. It is this thinking, Mendoza says, that led ESPN to offer a prime-time broadcasting role to a former All-American softball player. It’s why she will dedicate most of her speech on Wednesday to the idea of breaking barriers and pushing boundaries.
“The biggest thing is not trying to fit in,” Mendoza said. “I know for myself growing up, you’re kind of expected to fit into a specific box — how you should act, who you should be, how you should look like. I feel like the biggest lesson I’ve learned most of my life is how to stand out — how to really be different and to accept your differences.”
The speech will draw on Mendoza’s experiences as a star college softball player at Stanford, an Olympic gold medalist and a television analyst in a sport where the job has traditionally been dominated by men.
“It’s about getting into a profession where people are like, ‘You can’t. You’re female.’ ” Mendoza said. “That’s the stuff that fires me up.”
For Mendoza, her path to ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ began with her softball career at Stanford, where she was a four-time All-American, and continued with a foray into reporting and broadcasting. She joined ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” program in 2014 and served as an analyst for the network’s coverage of the College World Series in 2015.
That same summer, she debuted as an analyst on ESPN’s national coverage of Major League Baseball. Shortly after, she joined the “Sunday Night Baseball”broadcast, replacing Curt Schilling, the former major-league pitcher who was suspended for inflammatory social media posts.
That first year, Mendoza says, she tried to pretend she was “one of the guys,” a broadcaster who just happened to earn a great assignment. But soon after starting in the role, she realized that wouldn’t be enough.
“I was nervous,” Mendoza said. “And I put a lot of expectation on myself, too. As much as I wanted to downplay the fact I’m different, at the same time, I want to also own that, with a sense of responsibility to not screw up. And last year, that just put a ton of pressure on that’s good and bad.”
Mendoza says she felt the weight of the job, but she prefers the word “responsibility” over burden. Like any job, she says, she felt more and more comfortable as the days and games piled up.
“I realized I can’t just treat this about me and how I feel,” Mendoza said. “This is really about all the girls and women — and honestly a lot of men, too. I realized I needed to do a great job, so that they have an opportunity after me.”
As the baseball season approaches, Mendoza is set for another year at ESPN, another year in a prominent seat. But for now, she would prefer the day when there are more voices like hers, more diverse representation in front offices, more varied representation throughout all corners of the sport.
“As Billie Jean King always says, ‘Pressure is a privilege,’ ” Mendoza said.
WIN for KC Women’s Sports Awards
WHEN: 11:30 a.m. Wednesday
WHERE: Grand Ballroom at Kansas City Convention Center
TICKETS: For information, go to SportKC.org