Jessica Mendoza On What to Make of Her Making History and Painting Mental Pictures

Kyle Koster
facebooktwitter

Jessica Mendoza became the first female analyst in World Series history on Tuesday night, joining Dan Shulman and Chris Singleton on ESPN Radio's call. She spoke to The Big Lead on the heels of two thrilling Fall Classic games and a morning blitz across Bristol. We touched on contextualizing the moment, the sport's strange year, and — most importantly — the crowded KBO leaderboard.

Kyle Koster: Do you have a hard time getting to sleep after a night game anymore?

Jessica Mendoza: Totally. Last night was the worst. But it's hilarious because I'm so wired. And even though I'm tired, I'm lying there, and I'm just recapping the entire game.

KK: Yeah. I'd imagine that's a totally different animal when you're doing a job and you're having a very public performance late at night. Then you have to go home and tap into that anxiety of how It went. I didn't even consider that. I was thinking about the emotion from the game on having to be locked in, but I didn't even think of that second element.

JM: Yeah, no, it's all of it. It's like you're living the game with the teams when you're calling it, you know, the highs and lows, the home runs. Then to actually be like, Okay, now I'm going to bed. It's not gonna happen.

KK: I was thinking about this when I saw the news yesterday with headlines like ESPN's Jessica Mendoza is the first woman to be a World Series game analyst on national broadcast and I was curious how big of a deal we should be making about that? How do we put that in its proper context for you?

JM: I just want more girl's dads to be aware of this space being an opportunity for their daughters, for girls that are listening and might have the game on radio wherever they might be. That's where it's important that I think people know that there are women doing this.

I think about Doris Burke a couple weeks ago, and I was pumped. I had my boys sit and listen to her on radio do the same thing. That was important because, of course, in their mind they're like, What's the big deal? Which is the most important thing, right? That's what we want to get where none of this is a big deal. It's just kind of like us doing us, men, women, whatever.

KK: Yeah, it's interesting when the end goal is something that just comes by osmosis and won't be remarked on because nothing will be remarkable. But I think that there is value in saying it and pointing it out just because people may not even consider or speak to the osmosis happening.

JM: Yeah. No, trust me. There is a part of me that just wants do the game and not have to think about the photographer and getting asked questions. At the of end of the day, though, it's Game 1. I'm diving into Clayton Kershaw and Tyler Glasnow now, and matchups and who's better off the bench. Being the first doesn't even occur to you because, really, you're just you're trying to do your job.

There's also this recognition that I've had to learn of like, okay, but this is important too. You know, Dan Shulman, Chris Singleton, who I'm working with, that's not something they're going to have to go through for any game that they do. I absolutely get it, but I can't wait for the day when we can do our jobs, and it's just like I said, us doing us.

KK: Baseball is the most conversational of all the sports. I think a lot of time that conversation is internal or it's shared by the teams on the field. But when you're a broadcaster, you're providing, basically, the casual conversation for the people listening at home. How do you make sure that it's one that they want to listen in on? In what way would you like to steer the game conversation, especially in this World Series booth?

JM: To me, it's more about where the game kind of steers you. My eyes want to find that one thing, especially with a three-person booth for a radio. This isn't a time for me to dive for minutes or something. This is what I love about radio. You can't see it, right? So what can I really pick? Whether it was Blake Snell last night, the way that his slider would sweep within the strike zone to the back foot. When we're doing that game on TV, we show the replay, and I could pretty much say, that's a sick slider. You see it. We see it. The swing and miss, done. But to actually talk you through, you know, Justin Turner starting his bat, the ball is in the zone, and as he gets about halfway through, it ends up in the dirt, he misses it by a foot and a half. That's where I get excited about radio.

It's not so much where to steer the game as it is where I can create a visual for someone that's driving in their car or listening on their laptop in the office. They want to see this one thing. I'm not trying to do that for everything. Take a Blake Snell slider, maybe take Brandon Lowe's second home run on a curve ball away and how much length he had. Or how long his swing really is and then try to take that 25 seconds to give you the mental picture.

KK: How do you tailor your explanations? How do you balance really in-depth insight of someone who's played the game for so long to someone who just ended up on the station who knows the World Series is happening but not much else? How do you reach both camps?

JM: And that's the truth, I would say for most people listening, fortunately or unfortunately, they haven't been dialed in on these teams. What I try to do is get you excited about the moment. I'm not gonna be able to give you the entire backdrop of why this moment is so big for Blake Snell on his slider because the last two starts blah, blah, blah, 100-plus pitches, Cy Young, 2018. That's not all going to get in. It's more like, come be with me for a second. This is a moment in the game.

That's kind of the plus side of being in the position I'm in. I can choose those moments so instead of just talking to talk, I can focus,. It could just be one pitch or one line drive or one swing. I want to make you feel like we're doing this together. We're watching this game together and you can really feel and see the same things I am.

ESPN Sunday Night Baseball Visits Green Monster
ESPN Sunday Night Baseball Visits Green Monster / Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

KK: What was your relationship like to listening to baseball on the radio growing up? When I say that, what type of memory does that elicit?

JM: Vin Scully. I know that's television, but it was radio, too. That's how it worked out in L.A. Otherwise Charley Steiner. We had Dodger games on all the time. So just Vin's voice. I don't remember really watching a lot of games, but I can remember hearing a lot of games. Obviously Vin's Vin for a reason. Even to this day, when I hear his voice, my whole body goes to a whole other level of calm, almost like stor time when you were a kid. Vin was that for me.

KK: Yeah, it's it's interesting when I think of all the big calls I can remember. Yes, I can remember Joe Buck doing his father's line in the World Series — that was on television. But a lot of them are regular- season Detroit Tigers games from the radio. For some reason, the sound just brings me back to a specific moment in time in a way that the moving pictures never did.

JM: That's exactly it. And that's I think the goal. If you think about reading a book versus seeing the movie, it's a lot like listening to a game on radio versus watching it. I credit Dan Shulman because he's really the artist in all of this and does such a great job of painting that picture. That's why the book is always better than the movie, because whatever your head can imagine is usually better than what you'd ever even see on screen anyway.

KK: Yeah, I've thought about that too. There's a shared, collective vision in a movie versus a more unique one in a book and that takes a little bit of just a little bit of the magic away in my opinion. If I can bring you back to earlier this year when you were doing Korean baseball ... what did those games do for you as a baseball fan and a broadcaster knowing that Major League Baseball might not come back?

JM: KBO was amazing. To go from nothing, pitch-black, no sports to be found. We all were wondering what to do and then to start doing, in the middle of the night, South Korean baseball. To me, being an Olympic athlete, I got to see the global impact of of softball and baseball while traveling. I played in — I don't even know — 30 different countries over the course of my career. It brought back a lot of memories and a reminder of how international the impact of the game is.

I discovered Dan Straily, one of the pitchers over there, was a neighbor of mine. He lived a few blocks away and I ended up reaching out to his wife, getting to know his son, and understanding their journey. Calling games where he's pitching gives you the entire cycle. It's one thing for a South Korean kid to grow up and play in the KBO, it's another thing for an international player, whether it's American, Canadian, Venezuelan, whoever, going over there. It was eye-opening to see what it takes and understand their mindset of what they're trying to accomplish.

Gosh, the people that I got to know. And still, I actually was watching KBO really early this morning while doing SportsCenter and Get Up. It was such pleasure to watch because you get to know the players and the rhythm.

KK: That's cool to hear. KBO really opened up my eyes to appreciating baseball for baseball, the beauty of the game, tuning it in and not knowing any of the players. But then learning the different situations, the different ways that they played the game, knowing the ball was going to be put in play more often than it is in Major League Baseball, bracing for a wild ride with the bullpens.

JM: I might actually do some playoff games in November once this is all done. Our producer makes fun of me because I did a ton of games and it still doesn't get old. The way they can control their bodies. They'll be falling over — sometimes in the air. Their bat-to-ball skills are just incredibly good. I feel for pitchers because it's like you beat a guy and he'll get a base-hit to left. The amount of ground balls that find their way through because there's an emphasis still on the ground versus the air because the defense isn't as good and they don't really shift. Contact is king. It's old-school, you put the ball in play and something probably is going to happen. To your point, it's refreshing to see.

KK: I asked this question to your colleague Jeff Passan and it's a bit loaded. What do you think needs to be done for Major League Baseball to get to that next level of conversation on national shows beyond the moments where there's a bat flip or brawl or something like that and it's more just appreciation of the game? Or do you think that this is this part of the pie that baseball is going to have going forward no matter what it does?

JM: I think there's a lot of room for baseball to grow and be exciting beyond the bat flip but it's going to take change, significant change. Some of the rule changes, I would love almost all of them to stay. Universal DH, seven-inning doubleheaders. I love the runner at second in extras.

I am all for players being miked and having a conversation in-game, and people were so negative on that. The players want to do it, and if there's players who absolutely don't want to do it, they won't. We did it with a the Wild Card games — a huge playoff game with the A's and the White Sox. To be able to have this conversation with someone who absolutely loved it. I think more of that would be great. Get people to realize that they're not going to see that in an NFL or NBA game.

Baseball has that power, especially, to be honest, because there's so much time between pitches. How can you take advantage of that? What can you do? There's so much personality. We start miking guys doing different things, I know the old-school baseball people cringe at that. Why would we ever want to change this great game? Well, this great game doesn't fit in without getting the people who need to watch 5-10 years from now watching now. We have to start.

KK: What do you think people's biggest misconception about your job is?

JM: that's a good question. I think a lot of people don't understand the nuances of play-by-play versus an analyst. They just hear people's voices, even reporters. I think a lot of times I have to explain that I'm not a reporter. The thematic stereotype being a female is oh my gosh, are you going to do a big interview?

So explaining what an analyst is and the occasional gloss-over of the eyes. They'll hear another person's voice on air and be a bit confused. And I guess there's a point in all of our lives when we didn't know that and someone taught us and we figured it out. It's just been so long, but I'm always surprised.

facebooktwitter