Hitting Home Runs with Jessica Mendoza

September 22, 2020

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Olympic Gold and Silver Medalist and trailblazer Jessica Mendoza joined ESPN in 2007 and in 2015, became the first woman to serve as an analyst for nationally-televised MLB games. She has since become one of the leading voices in ESPN’s Major League Baseball coverage.

In 2020, Mendoza serves as an analyst in ESPN’s exclusive English-language KBO League coverage for the 2020 regular season. In the 2020 MLB season, she becomes the first woman to serve as a solo analyst for a national package of MLB game telecasts including weeknight games and holiday baseball. She appears regularly on ESPN MLB studio shows including Baseball Tonight, SportsCenter, Get Up and First Take. Mendoza will in 2020 become the first woman to serve as a World Series game analyst on national radio as she joins the MLB on ESPN Radio team for the World Series.

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John: Welcome to another edition of the Impact Podcast. I am John Shegerian and I am beyond excited and honored to have with us today, Major League Baseball analyst and Pioneer, Jessica Mendoza, welcome.

Jessica Mendoza: I am excited to be here. Thanks for having me.

John: Yes, and Jessica, I am not doing you any sort of honor by just saying, “Broadcast Pioneer”, you are also a Superstar Athlete, you have won a gold medal, silver medal your World Cup Champion, USA Softball Athlete of the Year, part of also now inducted into the National Softball Hall of Fame. When I say I am beyond honored, not only as a sports junkie but also as a dad of a young woman, and also a grandfather of a young little grandbaby now, a girl. You are such a unique and important person in the Sports World as a woman, as an athlete, as a broadcast pioneer, so I am truly honored to have you today. And so thank you for being with us today.

Jessica: No, thank you. I appreciate the kind words.

John: Yeah, it is all true. So, you know Jessica, let’s talk first about your journey. Growing up in California, how did your youth direct you toward softball, and the superstardom you had at Stanford, and beyond in the Olympics. Who were your heroes growing up? Why did you choose sports as your outlet and not other things, and why softball?

Jessica: Well, my dad was a football and baseball coach at a local Junior College where I grew up and so, there was no option. We are playing every sport, I also had a lot of energy as a kid. So my parents got me involved with pretty much every sport possible from a very young age. But when you have a coach as a father, he is rolling balls at you when you were five months old, and teaching hand-eye coordination. And you are lifting weights growing up, and you are taking BP every day after school before dinner. It is just a part of your routine. So, sports were all I knew, I mean I grew up in dugouts of called baseball fields, and football sidelines being around my dad. So, that was definitely just ingrained into our family culture.

John: And when you were growing up and also getting good at sports, who did you look up to? What sports did you watch on television, and who were some of your initial heroes?

Jessica: I watched actually watched a variety of different sports, but from track and field and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, which was not even so much my era growing up. But I remember hearing and watching her run and being able to see Doc Richardson, who has won the Gold Softball Player who was in the first Olympics. And I also remember what actually attracted me to Stanford in the first place, is I remember watching Jennifer Azzi, Stanford Point Guard when they were on their run of National Championships Stanford Women’s Basketball.

And just watching Tara Vandeveer at the home of that program. And I remembered, to be honest seeing Women’s Sports on television, was such a rare opportunity. Like it was maybe a handful of times a year that you could turn on the television and actually see a female athlete doing her thing. And usually, that was the Olympic Games or a National Championship Game. So that’s when I really started to realize like, “Wow, there’s women out there doing amazing things”. And that was probably early high school and also, I am a big advocate of local like, we can talk about the big superstars that you do see in magazines or on television, but from here, I will never forget being in Junior High and idolizing our local Varsity Shortstop.

Her name is Julie Borchardt, and I played with her younger sister. And I remember her coming out to practices to pick up her younger sis and I’d be like, “Oh my gosh, there is Julie”, and it might like small world, but she was the Varsity Shortstop that was like a huge deal. So she was a celebrity that I could actually touch and feel, like see her. Like she is right there, it is not some person on a TV or magazine that never seems real. This is a real-life person that lives in my hometown, going to the high school I am going to go to.

And I think that is important to have big stars that you follow and see. But also locally, because those are the ones that you can actually interact with. Ask questions, get to be around the same teachers, and people that they are around and it becomes much more real.

John: That is really cool, actually. I was just recently watching a documentary on Wayne Gretzky and I was not a big hockey guy growing up, but it was fascinating to watch him discuss his childhood. He said between the ages of eight and ten, he would sit with his dad in front of a television set and draw on a piece of paper, the hockey rink, before each period. And then he would watch the game, and keep the pen on the paper, and literally draw where the puck went during each period. Then he’d study the paper after each period, and especially after the game was completed. He was so into it, he want to see where the puck was going the whole entire game and was trying to really understand how a game flowed.

Were you that into sports at that young of an age, because I realized the greatness you achieve later, and other great people like Gretzky and others. They got so into it, so young. Was it more natural for you? Or is that something you were nerd about as well? I never realized all this nerdiness that these great athletes have had until I started watching some of these recent documentaries.

Jessica: I was not really necessarily. I had a coach for a father, I know I said that but I had a different for studying. He was filming every single one of our BP sessions. There was like every minute of every backhand on a ground ball was articulated thoroughly with exactly the science of when to get the short hop, and when to plant your feet, and so there really was not a whole lot of room for freedom of “I am going to go explore this”. I basically had the coach all the time.

John: So you were technically on point because of Pops?

Jessica: Yeah, and I honestly I was not super talented. I was a bit on coordinating. I really long skinny legs for a lot of my childhood. So when you look at a lot of the younger videos that I have of me, I am thankful that I had my dad. Because I was not that athlete that just you know how the people, those girls, boys takes a field and they are like there is the jock, just the way they move. My sister actually was more that way. She was incredibly athletic, just naturally she could pick up anything and just do it.

I had to work but I am grateful because I knew that. I knew that it would take me longer. I had the right tools that my father would provide, and being able to do the things, especially hitting with softball. It is something that is very difficult especially if you do not have all the right toolsets to be able to do it.

John: But maybe not the right physical tools, but talk about the mental side of your evolvement. With your father, and then onward to Stanford, and to become an Olympic Champion. How did you then mentally overcome which was not what, as you put it now in retrospect, God’s gift on the physical? How did you mentally then overcome that and push yourself forward?

Jessica: I feel like it was a balance of, I think everyone needs to balance of some humility, but also the confidence. The humility came for me with like, I just did not feel like I was good enough. And so, I constantly worked hard. I was the first one at the gym, I was the one running shuttles when no one else was, I stayed after practice. And a lot of that came with that insecurity of am I good enough? And so when you work harder, it helps feed that of, okay, but I am getting better, I am getting better.

I do think there is an important balance though, of this is where the mental game is different for everyone. But then when it is game day, when it is go time, when the red light is on, and everyone is watching and here we go. There needs to be a part of you that is like, “I am good enough, I have put in the work and you know what? I am gonna do exactly what I have set out to do. Whether that is go three-for-three, crush this pitcher, make this play, whatever it is”. I believe that I have the skills to do it, and that took me actually a long time.

I was pretty good at the humility, lacking confidence. Part of it, which honestly drove me to get stronger, bigger, tougher, faster. But then, it would come to game time and the doubt would still remain. And I feel like I really did not enter into the next best phase of my career until post-college when I had a few moments where I was like, “You know what?”. Then game time would come and I would not perform and it was a lot more to do with the mental side than anything physically.

John: As I read at the top of the interview, I mean your superstar achievements; two-time Olympian, Gold and Silver back in old for and alway, Softball Athlete of the Year, USA Softball Athlete of the Year, National Softball Hall of Fame, Women’s Sports Foundation Sportswoman of the Year. The list is beyond impressive for any one person in one lifetime. Recently, during this COVID Tragedy, tragic period that we are all living through, not only in the United States but around the world. They played the last dance on television. I assume you watch it or watch parts of it all of it.

Jessica: All of it, yes.

John: And the thing that I came away with it, was at the end of episode eight, where it was the end of that episode with Jordan was sitting and he got emotional. And he said winning has a price and Leadership has a price. How do you equate that to your beyond winning life, in everything you have touched, you have been a winner. How does that equate and what does that mean to you? What do those words mean to you?

Jessica: Well, I think it comes with sacrifice and that can vary for a lot of different peoples. Interesting with MJ because, he was so competitive and focused on winning that, he distance and separated himself from a lot of friendships, and teammates. But like in a way that, I do not know, when I was watching it, I am like, “I do not think I would change that”. It was the reason why he was so great, and even though he was an amazing teammate. He was separating himself like, “I am better and I am just going to focus on me”. He was not afraid to let lay in the guys and just tell him how it was, and at times what seemed to be like almost annoyingly hard on them. Because that is how he was not himself.

For me, I feel like sacrifice came more from just more of the social stuff, more of the opportunities, that knowledge to go study abroad. Because for me, I always wanted to be more than just an athlete. Like I loved playing sports, is incredibly passionate about it. The reason I chose to go to Stanford because I did not want sports to define me. I want to be someone that had the degree, had the ability to go into this world. Not with my bat in hand, but actually with my brain, with the things that I knew I could provide from outside of the athletic world.

But with that came, internship, all the things that you were back in college. That all your friends are doing, they are traveling abroad, they can internships every summer to get ahead with different companies. And all that is honestly, when you look at the grand scheme of things, a lot of it seems kind of meaningless like, what is ahead? There was still that part of me that wanted to be more in the world, and not just on the softball field. And I tried to bring a lot of that in and I made sure our team, every Olympic year is an election year. So, I made sure our team was always a hundred percent registered to vote.

We had political conversations on bus rides to create awareness, and not just talk about opponents and what we are going to do on the field. But actually talk about what was happening in the world. I mean think about two-thousand-four and everything going on then. You represent this country, should also represent a little bit of what is happening. So that is the stuff, I guess like there was a constant yearning for more but I could only do so much because our training and expectation was pretty much full-time.

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John: You could have done anything, after your gold medal, after your silver medal, after Stanford, and not only just getting an undergraduate degree, you went on to get a master’s degree there. So, literally the world was your oyster. Why journalism, and why, you really become a broadcast pioneer in baseball, and I think this year is even your first year where you are going to be broadcasting the World Series, God willing, we have a World Series, why did you choose becoming a broadcast pioneer, where anything was possible for you, in front of you?

Jessica: It is funny, I didn’t really choose it. I get kind of, chose me for wanting. I got my master’s and social sciences and education, and had plans to work on educational reform and get into politics and re-build a lot of our structure, education-wise within our country. That was kind of where I was headed, and I made it to the Olympic team and so, I just kind of kept way you never know when you are going to get cut. So, every year I would go after the same internship in DPP, and hope that I could come out there. And do and then I’d make the team and twelve years later, I still think so, but what happened is, I got approached after doing an interview.

We had done a World Cup game. We played against China, and I was being interviewed by ESPN and after the interview, I was approached by the producer of like, softballs becoming more and more popular, especially on television. And ESPN’s going to broadcast a lot more college games, would you ever be interested in doing games? And I kind of laughed because I had no journalism background. I did not major in anything even close, and so that was like something that for me, I always thought you had to prepare a ton to be able to take those opportunities. And thank God I had some really good people in my life that were like, just say you are not ready, so you did not have a background, so you do not have any clue like what this space is. What is the worst thing that could happen?

When you say no, you already know that that is never going to happen. But if you say yes, and let’s say you go and find out. Okay, I should have studied more, research this, or whatever, or it opens up something that you never knew was possible. And it takes like some courage, a little bit because it is hard to walk into an audition room when I have no clue about that world and you have not taken a class, you have nothing and it is scary. I will never forget it because I thought I knew everything I wanted to do and then that day, kind of changed everything when I auditioned and ESPN hired me after that. And what was college softball, like she still do college softball, the Women’s College World Series, which is an amazing event.

I recommend everybody watch even just a day. The Women’s College World Series when it is back because it is amazing. But I ventured in a college football’s a sideline reporter then start doing sideline reporting for college baseball, and then Major League Baseball, and then ended up in the booth. Which it was kind of a progression from one to the next.

John: Does the same mindset take over as it did when you were mastering softball, in journalism? In terms of I have heard it referred to for the great ones, and we are putting you, obviously you have earned your way to be called one of the great ones. I have heard it referred to by social scientists and others who study great athletes and high performers as a form of Mastery rage. Is the same thing happened when you transition to a different career? The same mastery rage take over and you are constantly examining and self-examining yourself, and your performance, and your skillset and just honing it and honing it until you get into a groove that you are really happy with?

Jessica: People ask me all the time, like when I retired from playing if I miss thirty years of my life of playing something. And to your point, I do not and I think the reason is, is because I transitioned all of that obsession, honestly, the adrenaline rush. Sink or swim the fact that failure is right there, on a pressure that is placed on you. A lot of what I enjoyed about playing the game was the pressure, was the amount of work that it took to do something. And then you get to be one of few that is doing what others cannot. Because you have worked hard because you have put yourself in position, but also knowing you could fall flat on your face at any given moment. And the way your heart pounds, the way you sweat, the way that red light goes on to me was like bottom of the seventh in the Olympics. It has that feel.

John: It is the same feeling, so you see really you have transitioned to something where the feeling has not gone away, really?

Jessica: No, it stills scratches that same itch. It was like what I, because there is a lot of things about playing for that long, too that I do not miss. And it was nice to be able to kind of have the freedom for once in my life to somewhat dictate my own schedule. Never before that, you are always having coaches tell you, you cannot have any alcohol. You cannot stay out past ten at night. You cannot do this, you cannot do that. You got to be here and it has been especially now that I had children at the end of my career. I had a son and say, “Gosh, I want to go get a beer”.

There is something refreshing about retiring from a game, where I do think in women’s sports, there still is a lot more control of treating women like girls. Whereas in men’s sports, they are men, there is a transition from boys to men that I see all the time. Whereas I see a lot of female athletes still get, treated very much like they are young girls and need to be, you know told where to be and what to do.

John: So switch hats now to a broadcaster. Does that hold that same depiction of boys to men and women and girls hold in the journalism world?

Jessica: It is a great question. That is actually a really good point because I definitely feel like a woman as opposed to a girl only, because of some of the looks that you will get. I mean, if I was a girl I would not get that same reaction, if that makes sense. It is very clear that I am a grown woman. The fact that I am a female, girl, woman and different is very apparent. I have never been so aware of my gender in my life. That walking into a clubhouse or sometimes even just sitting in a manager meeting and they will drop an F-bomb and then immediately look at me. And it is me and like ten guys in the room because they look at me. “Oh my gosh, darling. I am so sorry”.

The part where I am like, and I want to just throw it right. It is okay what men’s ears can hear bad words but women’s ears, and I guess to your point maybe that is part of the girl or woman. Because I mean you go to certain places in our country and it is still like do not smoke the cigar, or cuss words around women, like women cannot be around bad.

John: Let us take it one step further. Do they give you extra credibility as a Woman Pioneer Journalist in sports because of your sports superstardom, and the Olympics, and it is Stanford, and all the awards that you have won including being inducted to the Hall of Fame? Do you have a leg up over some of your other woman colleagues? Who do what you do, and do it well like you, but does your street cred because of your achievements in sports give you an inch or a foot higher?

Jessica: When the people I am dealing with, I will never forget being one of the first clubhouses with the Dodgers, and Dee Gordon, who is with the Dodgers at that time. He came up to me, he approached me and was like, “Oh my God. Can I take a photo with you? My sister has your poster above her bed. She is such a huge fan”. And at that point, I was in the clubhouse for the first time. I was so nervous, I did not know how to approach players. I mean, they are changing there. Such an awkward place to be, especially the first time, and here he comes up to me, which I would think most women in that situation, do not get that opportunity where the player recognizes the person.

And he came up to me and was like can I get your photo? And I was like, totally and he was like, “Sister’s going to love this” and he was like, “What are you doing here? I cannot believe we went like Olympian here”, and I was like, “I am actually doing my first game”. He said, “No way! Have you met Andre Ethier? Come on here.” And he took me around at every main Dodger player and introduced me as like, “Hey, she could play better than you”. This is just composed and I am not saying obviously like most players have that knowledge or background, but that is definitely happened more times than not. Where it could be a daughter, I could be anything.

But they know my back, so there is that respect and it means a lot to me because I am not trying to say there is anything better than the woman I work with maybe does not have that background, but it is who I am. And if I am going to go up to Mike Trout and talk about what his back leg is doing on a sinker that is running back over the plate away. Like, I want him to have some kind of understanding that I have done there. That I am not just like repeating something I read but I am actually coming in, because I know what it is like when my back leg is trying to reach a bit.

John: Since you brought out Mike Trout, talk about to date and you are still young and you have got thousands more in front of you, but to date who has been your favorite interview? If you were to call out one or two favorite interviews, and then I am going to flip the story on you and say, who is you looking forward? If you could, who is your dream get in the future?

Jessica: A favorite probably without a doubt was Hank Aaron. It was last year, we had him on Sunday Night Baseball, her braids came and he does not do this very often. So, it was that much more special, but he joined us in the booth for like half the game, and oh my gosh. I do not know if there was something nostalgic about my father. Because there is something generational about Hanks generation of the way they talk about the game. The way they talked about in Hank’s case, just how ridiculously poor he was. My father being a minority growing up Mexican-American, did not have shoes, did not have a glove.

And I did not realize Hank Aaron got on the train to go off to pro-ball literally wearing his sister’s shoes. He had no shoes and he did not have a glove, he talks and greet and there was a photo of him going away to get on this train, and he was clearly wearing a female gesture. And he did not have a jacket, he was going to Indianapolis and he had never been in a real winter and he got there. Just retelling those stories, yes, he was ridiculous hitter. You can get in especially now with the race stuff. There is a million different directions to go with Hank, but who something sitting next to him for a length of time that I just wanted to reach out and like hug him. And it reminded me so much of my dad in a lot of ways and it is a generation, to be honest, that just it does not really exist anymore, John.

I feel like you talked to so many players and yes, there are some that had to come through a lot, but there is a different purity that Hank experienced of just loving the game, and having five bucks to his name, and not knowing if he will even get to six. There was no million dollars in the peripheral or idea of it. It was literally just, I want to go and play baseball.

John: And I was a little boy when he was still hammering Hank and I will tell you what. He was a mythical and amazing figure in American Sports. And like you said, it is almost of a bygone era to your point. I feel that your four hundred percent right, Jessica. It almost does not exist anymore. It really doesn’t. So, now who is your dream get in the months ahead or year ahead? Who do you really want land?

Jessica: Yeah, I do not know. That is a good question. Because I feel like the best news I have ever had happen because I have built a relationship. I am not that big star person, if that makes sense. Huge names in the game, and then Athletics, and it does nothing for me. What it does, is when you get to know a player, get to know a coach, or get to know a person. And then all of a sudden, that is to me when it builds. Like when behind, the name is a ridiculous, like a Roberto Clemente type like, they just do it all. And then if I could get them, and that is so much so I can interview them, but just so that the world can hear what I am hearing right now.

That is more of my goal, is the conversations that you have to try to bring those to television so that people can feel like they are sitting on a couch with Hank Aaron, and listening to him tell a story, not listen to me ask a question. But more of just creating a safe space to where they just go. I do not even need my voice in there but they just go, and they go in a way that allows viewers to really get inside. Because for all the super famous people that are out there like same with you, we have been around them. Nothing for me, especially more times than not, they disappoint.

John: For our listeners out there who have just joined us, we are so honored and excited to have with us today, Jessica Mendoza, the MLB Analyst but she is also a Broadcast Pioneer. And now we are going to talk about something else that she has done. She is also, you are also an author, and I have in my hand your beautiful book. There is No Base Like Home. I have given it out already to at least twenty people as gifts. I have put one aside for my granddaughter who is now three months old, and I am going to read to you a little passage that really struck me as really important here.

Says, “My sister Alana and I wrote, There is No Base Like Home to give all young girls more confidence to stay true to who they are. We hope they make better decisions from it and ultimately stand out to become the strongest, smartest, and most successful versions of themselves”. This is I mean, it is a gift and there is not enough of you, and your sister, and other American icons, leaders and, achievers. And this book is truly a gift, and for all our listeners out there, I highly recommend it. If you have a daughter or a young woman who is growing up and meet some great influence. This book is just chock-full of just so much inspiration. So, talk a little bit about what had you and your sister, what was the epiphany moment where you both said, “Aha, we are going to do this”, and how the journey been as an author now?

Jessica: I will probably have to be my last question because I have to go get back to my kiddos, who are literally yapping the door. This was a dream, just because I love reaching that age. Both my sons have read the book as well. So, it is not just that girls are the only ones that can read this. Anyone can, any age but the target really was Middle School-aged girls. Even like really just like ten to sixteen, and to be able to just provide a example that the peer pressures are there, the pressures of trying to figure out your own identity within a popular girl space, within a sport space, within all these different things that pull at you of, “Who are you?”, “What makes and defines you?” Because I will tell you what, there is a ton of pressure out there.

With movies, and social media, and even photos that tell you what you should look like, and what you should say, and who you should be. And that, I just wanted to show in the eyes of Sophia, who is our main character, of just the struggles that she was going to and just kind of figuring out her who she was, and that that is okay. But then also stay confident and true to who you truly are. And right that was my sister who was pretty magical.

John: Well, for all of our listeners out there. It is called No Base Like Home. It is on Amazon and other great book stores around the United States. I highly recommend it, I think the book is amazing. Jessica Mendoza, you are truly an American icon, sports icon, a gem of a human being, you are making a huge impact on all of us here in this country. You are still so young and have so much to do, and I just thank you for making the world a better place, and thank you for joining us today on the Impact podcast.

Jessica: Thank you, John, for having me. It was a joy to have this conversation.