I begin my conversation with Jessica Mendoza by asking if she's seen the new Fox show Pitch. It ends up being a good decision. The enthusiasm in her voice is palpable. "It's awesome!" she immediately exclaims. "Just so cool. So cool."
There are a lot of reasons for Mendoza to like Pitch, the new (fictional) series about the first woman to play Major League Baseball. Like the main character, Ginny Baker, Mendoza is breaking barriers for women in professional baseball as the first woman MLB analyst in ESPN's history, and as a regular broadcaster in the booth for ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
But also like Ginny, Mendoza doesn't want to be pigeonholed into talking about being groundbreaking or tokenized in any way. "It was important to me that this [job] wasn't going to be a one time thing," Mendoza says. "If you're going to put me in the booth, make sure it's because I'm good enough to be there." While she also recognizes her platform and position as an outlier is significant. "I think it's important for young girls and for women to see that I'm not just going to open this door and walk through it," she says. "I'm going to keep it open."
And Mendoza is good enough to be in the booth, as she's more than proven over the course of this baseball season. In fact, much of the time, she's not even sure what all of the hype is about. "Everybody's always asking, 'How do you feel calling your first postseason game? Your first this; your first that,'" she says. But for Mendoza, she's just thinking about the job she's there to do. "It's a baseball game, so really my mind is just on Jake Arrieta throwing or these Dodgers hitters."
But as much as she'd like to think of herself as simply a baseball analyst and not a woman baseball analyst, the rest of the world doesn't often let her forget. "As much as I want to be like, It's just baseball, I'm just another person,' unfortunately it's not that way," she says. Between constantly being reminded that she is The First by the people around her – like last season when someone asked if they could have her scorecard after the game for the Hall of Fame and she was confused as to why – she also has to contend with armies of Twitter trolls and haters that like to remind her.
"I want to talk to them and be like, 'Why do you hate me so much?' I want to sit down with them and I want them to look me in the face and tell me that."
It's not unusual for Mendoza's Twitter mentions to include comments about wanting to hurt her, or saying things such as, "It's like nails on a chalkboard listening to a female voice on television." And while she says she initially found the insults laughable, it got to the point where she had to stop looking at her Twitter mentions at times. She understands if people disagree with something she says on air, because that comes with her job. But the people that express a desire to physically harm her in some way, are the ones she finds baffling. And her response isn't what you might expect. She wants to meet these haters, she admits. "I want to talk to them and be like, 'Why do you hate me so much?' I want to sit down with them and I want them to look me in the face and tell me that."
With this attitude, it's unsurprising that Mendoza has succeeded in what has been, until recently, exclusively a Boys' Club. She has an incredible ability to both carry the weight of being the first woman to do something that she has on her back, and brush off a lot of the sexism and insults that she faces on a daily basis. But, she says, it would be a lot different if the hate came from the men she works with everyday. Going into the season she was worried her Sunday Night Baseball co-hosts Aaron Boone and Dan Shulman would wonder why she was even in the booth. "I don't care about Joe Schmo with two Twitter followers saying bad things to me, but if the guy I'm sitting next to on the telecast thinks that way, that matters a lot to me," she explains. Luckily for her, that didn’t happen. "We're like a family," she says. And, at this point in the season, "Boonie knows what things I get excited about now, and he’ll sit back and be like, 'This is all you, Jess.'"
That's because Mendoza has a tendency to go off on tangents when she's excited, which is the only word to describe what she's like when talking about baseball. When I ask her who the most exciting player in baseball right now is, she gushes for several minutes about Mookie Betts, the young Red Sox right fielder who is shattering expectations this season and dominating the MVP talks. "If you take any player in their position, there's nobody better than Mookie Betts in right field. I'll take him over a short stop at their position. That's how good he is." She pauses. "And oh, by the way, he's leading the league in so many offensive categories, too."
Considering that it's her job to talk about baseball, it's perhaps unsurprising that she's excited about it. But the other thing she is always down to talk about is equality. Even though she says she can't see herself taking the same action, she is "absolutely supportive" of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick's national anthem protest, taking a knee during the song to protest police brutality and inequality for Black Americans. "I have so much pride for the country that we live in. My perspective might be different based on my own travels and experiences of how lucky I feel as a female, which is another minority, that we have a lot of rights here that other places don't," Mendoza explains. "I'm very grateful for that, but part of what comes with our country is the fact that we have the right to express ourselves."
Mendoza wants everyone to forego whatever role they feel forced into, whether it's men or women. "It doesn't matter if you're 15 or 50, there is something that's ingrained in our gender about being humble to the point of doubt and insecurity," she says. She says she wants to shake her girlfriends sometimes and tell them to just have another piece of pizza "if it friggin' makes them happy," instead of worrying what others will think of them. "Do what you want. Live your life. Stop trying to fit into this idea of what we're supposed to be."
Relatedly, she credits the fact that her husband is not threatened by her success and is willing to stay home with the kids while she works. She says that, while It's great that she gets to have a big career, she feels like it's just as great that her husband has the opportunity to stay at home. The role reversal is something she values, and is excited to see more of. "Hey, we could see the First Gentleman this year!" she says, with a laugh, referring to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign with her husband Bill by her side. "We need more men who aren't threatened by strong women."
As Mendoza prepares to call her biggest game of the season, the NL Wild Card game between the Mets and the Giants, she says this one feels different than all the others. It's a winner-take-all situation, which is uncommon in the sport of baseball. "I'm used to talking about the week in baseball, since we’re the weekly national game," she explains. "But this time, it doesn't matter what [Giants first baseman] Brandon Belt did last Tuesday, it's really, 'How is Brandon Belt against [Mets starting pitcher] Noah Syndergaard?'" The stakes are high for Wednesday's game, and this is what Mendoza lives for.
As for who will win the World Series? Mendoza plays it coy. "The best team in baseball is, hands down, the Cubs. But who's going to win the World Series is the best part about watching."