ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball is the crown jewel of the network’s baseball coverage. The entire nation is watching and the broadcast team of Dan Schulman, Aaron Boone, and Jessica Mendoza in the booth (and Buster Olney on the field) is connecting with an audience that understands the game. “It’s the game of the week for our network,” Mendoza says. “It’s a big deal for us to kind of showcase the game and I love the challenge that it brings. Because I feel like every week it’s ‘Okay how do we make ourselves different this week? What can we do instead of ‘Oh, it’s just another game’?’”
Mendoza got into broadcasting while still in the midst of a stellar softball career, one that saw her spend a decade as an outfielder with the U.S. Women’s National team. She was part of the U.S. Olympic squad that won gold in Athens in 2004 and took silver in Bejing four years later. She also played for three world-championship teams, helped win two gold medals at the Pan American Games, and was a four-time first-team All-American at Stanford.
She was a softball analyst for Fox before moving to ESPN in 2007. Since then she’s been an analyst for the men’s and women’s College World Series and also works as a sideline reporter on college football telecasts. Mendoza got her first chance to do some MLB games in 2015 including the American League Wild Card game that year. When the 2016 season started, she was a full-fledged member of the broadcast team.
While this is just Mendoza’s second full season in the booth, she feels very much at home. For the viewer, tuning into ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball is akin to getting together with a group of friends to watch a baseball game; friends who understand the game’s subtleties and enjoy each other’s company.
That chemistry in the booth developed in part from Saturday-night dinners involving the broadcast team plus their producer. “We would just hang out and talk,” Mendoza recalls It could be baseball, it could be life, it could be anything. They would turn into four-hour dinners and we would really get to know each other, make fun of each other, just get comfortable with each other.”
The comfort level within the broadcast team is readily apparent on the air. “I feel like I know these guys really well,” Mendoza says, “almost to a point where I can feel their body language and I know what they’re going to say and where they’re going to head, just based on how they move.”
The Sunday-night game marks the conclusion of a full week of preparation that begins just hours after the previous game ends.
“On Monday, flying home, I’ll watch the game from the night before,” Mendoza says. “Not the whole game, but certain parts. I’ll mark on my scorecard during the game ‘Check this.’”
The preparation habits Mendoza developed during her playing career serve her well as a broadcaster. ”When I played I’d go back and watch video and film,” she says. It’s very hard to do because it’s hard to watch yourself, or at least for me it is, and not want to cringe. It’s hard but it really helps me grow and it helps me understand how things come across the way they were in my head.
“I have a producer that does that as well so we’ll kind of exchange notes on Monday, ‘What did you see, how did this go?’ That’s why I make notes on my scorecard, so I’ll remember what I was thinking in the moment.”
Tuesday is a night for watching baseball, specifically for observing the pitchers who likely will start the following Sunday’s game. “I watch both those games and take notes on what I see,” Mendoza says. “That takes the bulk of my evening watching those games, and I’m usually on different websites picking up different numbers.”
Wednesday is a day to prepare the elements that make Sunday Night Baseball unique, such as an analysis of the swings of the Cubs’ Kris Bryant and the Yankees’ Aaron Judge. In that instance, ESPN, at Mendoza’s urging, actually built a launch monitor that determined the launch angle of the two players’ swings. “Wednesday is my day to kind of prep for our everything I want element-wise,” Mendoza says. “I need to get that prepared by Wednesday or Thursday so they have time to build it for Sunday.”
Thursday is highlighted by a conference call that generally lasts from 90 minutes to two hours and includes the all 40-plus people that are involved in the Sunday telecast. “I love those calls,” Mendoza says. “A lot of people think we’re crazy, which we probably are but I like having that much time to prepare and (go over) whatever else we’re thinking.
“I like hearing Boonie’s thoughts on Thursday on what he’s thinking about somebody or something, or what’s bugging him that week. That kind of gives me a chance to get my mindset around how I can either banter with or agree or set him up, or whatever.”
After traveling on Friday, Mendoza will go to the stadium on Saturday and spend time with the players, managers, coaching staff, and public-relations people. She’ll also take in the Saturday game, either in the stadium or on TV. Unless she finds herself with a good seat in the stands, she prefers to watch the first couple innings in the stadium and then return to her hotel to watch the local telecast. On Sundays, there is a production meeting and then the game telecast in the evening.
While baseball and softball are different sports, they are more similar than purists contend, and Mendoza’s experiences as a player certainly are an asset in the broadcast booth. “The things that you think are the most obvious difference, like the pitching, I found that to actually be a lot more similar than I even thought,” she says. “Just as far as what a pitcher is trying to do to attack the hitter. Now, the mechanics are different. But at the end of the day I’m never going to be the analyst that that’s going to break (pitching) down. I’m not going to be John Smoltz and tell you everything. I will do that with hitters and I feel very confident with that with hitters. But Boonie wouldn’t do that either with a pitcher. We weren’t pitchers.”
Mendoza’s softball background provide unique opportunities to explore some of baseball’s intricacies and bring television viewers along with her. “I still have an understanding of (baseball) and the core of the game itself,” she says. “But the approach a lot of the time has been different based on the (distance between) bases or whatever it might be. So I might ask a question but I feel like a lot of people sitting at home have that same thought.”
“Like some of the baserunning stuff. We didn’t take a lead (in softball) or when we took them it was after the ball was released So the whole game within the game of the lead, and the pitcher, and the holds and time to home plate. All of that is new to me. And it’s fascinating.” “Aaron has helped educate me and I can plug in a question like ‘Why is he doing that there?’ and ‘Why is his lead that big and he’s not going? Those kinds of things.”
Mendoza puts in a lot of hours during the season and is away from home every weekend. She credits her husband Adam Burks for his support. The couple married in 2006 and is raising two boys ages 3 and 7. Burks is a stay-at-home dad, having put his career as a civil engineer on hold to support his wife’s broadcast ambitions.
“There’s a part of him that’s so unique and so comfortable in his own skin,” Mendoza says of her husband. “It’s just really about not putting gender roles on anything. And I was raised with a family that had that.”
My dad was a coach and had summers off and my mom worked at a law firm. (Dad) was Mr. Mom at home and doing laundry and braiding our hair as long as I can remember.
“I feel like that’s where society should be now. If women find something, a career that they’re more passionate with and have a better chance of being successful with, why shouldn’t their husbands support them? That doesn’t mean they have to quit their jobs but it definitely involves weighing out who gets the most support as far as career and I’m grateful that I’m married to someone for whom it’s never even been an issue.
“If anything, it’s been an issue with me, my own guilt with it, and he’s always the first to say ‘No this bigger than us and it’s more important for you to be doing what you’re doing.”
Mendoza continues to follow the game of softball and is pleased that the sport will be returning to the Olympic program in Tokyo in 2020. “It’s huge for the game because the Olympics is the pinnacle of the sport,” she says, “unlike baseball and even other sports that are in the Olympic Games.
“I just remember growing up, even though softball wasn’t in the Olympics until I was in high school, it changed my world when I saw Dot Richardson hit a game-winning home run against Australia in ’96. To be able to see moments like that were so big for our sport. “Now the college game has grown to the where now we see that a lot more on television so that helps. Our professional game is growing, not to the point where it needs to be but definitely you can watch games, you can see that.”
“But the Olympics is a whole other level and I think it’s so important for the growth of the game. For little girls when they’re choosing what sports they want to play, (if) they’re encouraged to even play sports, to have softball in the Olympics for them to see. And not even just here but globally
She may be seven years removed from a stellar playing career. But as a broadcaster or as an advocate, Jessica Mendoza continues to make an impact.