Jessica Mendoza, the glass-shattering baseball broadcaster who is the first woman, in any major American men’s team sport, to serve as top color commentator for a national network, never envisioned this: walking through Fenway Park, on her way to calling baseball’s prime-time game of the week, talking veggies with Jennifer Lopez. But on this perfect New England summer evening, the former Olympic softball player is indeed pointing out to Lopez–who’s in town to hang out with fiancé Alex Rodriguez, Mendoza’s ESPN broadcast partner–the urban farm the Boston Red Sox planted on a Fenway roof a few years ago. (J. Lo seems mildly impressed.) For this game between the Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers, ESPN has perched the broadcast booth atop the Green Monster in left field, offering an expansive view of Boston’s cathedral of a ball field. Back in college at Stanford University, Mendoza had ambitions of working on education reform, or even running for political office. But she’s wound up somewhere entirely different. Holy moly, Mendoza thought to herself at Fenway, This is my Disneyland.
The gig, however, isn’t always a fantasy. Many bros don’t think she belongs. When she first started announcing big-league games four years ago, an Atlanta radio host went on a sexist Twitter rant questioning the qualifications of a softball player to call baseball. Others have said worse. At first, the social-media misogyny shook Mendoza. “People are so angry and so hateful, I was telling my husband, I want to meet these people and talk to them and understand, Why do you hate me?” says Mendoza, 38, in a Boston hotel conference room, where she’s just wrapped up prep work for that night’s game. “Of course, he’s like, ‘We’re not going to meet them.'”
Over the past four seasons, Mendoza won over many baseball fans with her preparation and a conversational style that translates the game’s intricacies into digestible nuggets for viewers. To keep herself level, Mendoza has adopted a new social-media engagement strategy: don’t look at Twitter until Tuesday or Wednesday after a Sunday-night telecast. That’s when the strongest reactions to her work–good and bad–have died down a bit. She keeps a skeptical eye on both effusive praise and nasty trolling, knowing the loudest noise is likely sparked by her gender. “I’d rather,” says Mendoza, “keep it all in the middle.”
Mendoza grew up around the game. Her dad was the baseball coach of a small community college in Ventura County, north of Los Angeles, and when she was around 4, Mendoza asked one of her father’s players for a wad of chewing tobacco, thinking it was some sort of beef jerky. “And of course being a total d-bag baseball player, he was like, ‘Coach’s daughter? Yes!'” Mendoza says.
She played softball at Stanford and earned a master’s degree in education. She put her career on hold to pursue a spot as an outfielder on the U.S. national team, which won gold at the 2004 Athens Olympics. A few years later, a producer suggested Mendoza give TV a try, since she seemed like a natural. After she called ESPN softball games and worked as a college-football sideline reporter, the network started featuring her as an analyst on its Baseball Tonight studio show in 2014. A year later she transitioned into the booth. Late in that 2015 season, ESPN suspended former star pitcher Curt Schilling from the Sunday-night telecast for firing off a tweet comparing Muslims to Nazis. An executive phoned Mendoza, who three days earlier had called her first MLB game on ESPN, and asked her if she wanted a top spot on Sunday, for a Chicago Cubs–Los Angeles Dodgers matchup. Even the exec told her that jumping right into the Sunday-night spotlight might not be wise. She felt her body tighten, as it often does in high-pressure moments.
Mendoza had felt a similar sensation before her first Olympic at bat, in 2004. She ripped a triple. Here, she said yes, refusing to live with any regret. Chicago’s Jake Arrieta threw a no-hitter in her Sunday-night debut, and she’s held on to the job ever since. Home run.
Her commentary is so insightful that New York Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen hired Mendoza as a club adviser back in March. She’s in frequent touch with Mets brass: for example, she spent one late-September day checking in on one of the team’s tech innovations (she couldn’t share details). Her role has raised legitimate conflict-of-interest concerns: Would players and managers reveal less information to Mendoza, for fears she’d share secrets with the Mets? Would her side gig shortchange viewers? Mendoza contends that as a media member, she wasn’t receiving much inside info to begin with. While some players have jokingly referred to her as the enemy, she insists her rapport with players, managers and front-office personnel hasn’t changed. “I’ve never felt that someone who would normally be very open with me is tighter,” she says. When asked the question that’s been on the minds of most Mets fans–Should manager Mickey Callaway keep his job after the team failed to make the playoffs?–Mendoza said she wouldn’t comment.
Over a salad in the Red Sox press dining room, Mendoza ponders something bigger than the Mets: the future of the national pastime. She shares one idea for speeding up baseball, whose excruciating pace risks turning off younger, easily distracted fans: a seven-inning game, like in softball. She knows that’ll never fly, given the game’s reverence for tradition. “I can keep saying it, though,” she says. A 20-second pitch clock could be coming in a few years, and Mendoza argues that taking too long on the mound should carry serious consequences. “Is it a warning, or is it a ball?” Mendoza says. “Because if it’s a ball, dudes are going to throw.”
Baseball, in Mendoza’s view, could use a few more characters. So if a player wants to celebrate a home run with a prodigious bat flip, he shouldn’t have to worry about a beaning. “Young people want to relate to these guys,” she says. “And if everyone looks and acts the same, there’s no relatability.”
Nothing can halt baseball griping quite like a thrilling October postseason. Mendoza’s most intrigued by the Los Angeles Dodgers, who’ve now clinched seven straight division championships but still haven’t won a World Series since 1988. The Dodgers have sneakily assembled a title-starved dynasty, and the pitcher of the decade, Clayton Kershaw–who’s suffered high-profile postseason letdowns during this stretch–is arguably the third-best pitcher in L.A.’s rotation. That bodes well for the team in blue.
Back at Fenway this summer, the Red Sox–Dodgers game drags on for 12 innings, finally ending at 12:50 a.m.–a cool 5-hour, 40-minute affair. “I feel like I got tired in the 10th,” Mendoza says while walking out of the park. “And then you get kind of punch-drunk.” She returns to the hotel past 1 a.m. and is up for a 6 a.m. flight home to Bend, Ore., where she has just moved with her husband and two boys, who are 10 and 6. She’ll get some rest, catch up with her family and start prepping for next week’s game. Then, it’s back to Disneyland.
This appears in the October 14, 2019 issue of TIME.
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