Jessica Mendoza is one of the best hitters of the 21st century, but as she sat in the TV booth at Dodger Stadium Aug. 30 for a “Sunday Night Baseball” game between the Cubs and Dodgers, she assumed the worst.
She knew full well the social media fate that usually befalls an unfamiliar female voice on any sports-related program, let alone one as visible as ESPN’s exclusive national showcase.
“I was just ready, going in with my battle armor,” she said.
That proved unnecessary.
Mendoza’s Sunday night debut — the second game of her life as an analyst at a Major League Baseball game — was an immediate, almost universal hit among fans and professional critics alike.
“It did make me feel good that [the reaction] wasn’t as bad as I thought,” she said.
Within days what was supposed to be a one-game fill-in for Curt Schilling turned into a rest-of-the-season assignment. She since has done two more Sunday games and this weekend will be at Citi Field when the Mets host the Yankees in the Subway Series finale.
Mendoza was not surprised she could do the job, but the speed with which all this has unfolded has come as a bit of a shock.
“I feel like there’s been so much support of it, which also helped give me more confidence as well,” she said. “I don’t know if ‘surprised’ is the right word, but it definitely has been not as expected how this entire thing has come about.”
Mendoza, 34, has proved to be a natural communicator, but another key to acceptance is her athletic credentials. She was a softball star at Stanford, won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 and a silver in 2008 and also played professionally before retiring early last year.
She said her ESPN partner, John Kruk, got a text during that Aug. 30 game from recently inducted Hall of Famer John Smoltz asking him who the female voice belonged to.
“He was like, ‘Google her,’ ” Mendoza said. “Five minutes later he got back to him and said like, ‘Wow, OK.’ ”
Hitting softballs and baseballs is not exactly the same thing, of course, but Mendoza said it is less different than one might expect. Her ability to talk baseball was further enhanced by her days playing baseball as a youngster and taking batting practice with the baseball players her father, Gil, coached at a community college near their Southern California home.
“I never changed my swing, so nothing was ever different,” she said. “There are definitely differences with the two games, but the hitting aspect, it really doesn’t change . . . I would see pitches more up in the zone than a baseball hitter would, kind of like I look up versus down, but swing-wise they’re identical.”
Mendoza said she still would be playing and preparing for Rio in 2016 had the IOC not booted softball (and baseball) out of the Olympic Games effective in 2012.
“As much as the worst thing that ever happened was those sports being eliminated from the Olympics, it was a blessing in disguise for me in the sense that I don’t think these [TV] opportunities would have happened later, after my career post-Olympics,” she said.
“As soon as I retired I needed something that was really going to challenge me and I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. It was going to take a lot of work to fill that void I’ve been doing for 25 years on the field.”
So far, so good.
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