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ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza knows you’re listening, and it drives her to work harder

Jessica Mendoza in the broadcast booth during the 2015 American League wild-card game (Ben Solomon / ESPN Images)

A year ago, Jessica Mendoza took another overseas trip, this one to Panama. She had done this before, teaching softball and baseball to underprivileged kids all over the world. Two Olympic medals provide the cred; a broad perma-smile provides the encouragement.

Along on this trip, arranged through a State Department program, was Jeremy Guthrie, who happened to be both a Stanford student when Mendoza played softball there and the starting pitcher for the Kansas City Royals in Game 7 of the previous fall’s World Series. When the clinics were done and the time was their own, Mendoza pulled aside Guthrie and headed to the beach: She wanted to play catch. Not just lobbing the ball idly. She wanted Guthrie to throw his pitches so she could see the spin on his curveball, to watch the tumbling action on his change-up, to determine what differed from softball.

“I was just so curious,” she said.

With the season barely two months past, Guthrie was under strict orders to rest his arm. So they delayed the real pitching session to spring training. But the veteran of a dozen major league seasons learned immediately: If there is a woman who could become a regular, in-the-booth analyst on Major League Baseball telecasts, who balances experience with inquisitiveness, Mendoza is the one.

“That’s her biggest asset,” Guthrie said by phone this week. “She wants to put herself in the situation of a ballplayer to try and call it appropriately. She recognizes the fact that she’s never played Major League Baseball. But when you’re new to something, you could have an attitude of, ‘I’ll show you what I’m all about. I’ve got this all figured out.’ But hers is more, ‘I’m trying to learn and understand where I’m deficient.’ Because of that, she’ll gain credibility and gain trust. She’s as qualified as anybody.”

With a month before spring training begins and two-and-a-half before the season commences, Mendoza’s rise could seem meteoric. A year ago, she was pushing for more opportunities to do in-game analysis for ESPN. A week ago, she was named to the broadcast team on the network’s flagship baseball property, “Sunday Night Baseball,” on which she will join veteran play-by-play man Dan Shulman and former postseason hero Aaron Boone, who played 12 years in the majors. She is 35, a wife, a mother of two, one of the best hitters in collegiate softball history – and now, whether she wants the label or not, something of a pioneer.

“I realize that anything out of my mouth, people are going to listen a little more,” Mendoza said. “Instead of just, ‘Oh there’s a game on, and it’s background noise,’ it’s, ‘There’s a female talking; I’m really going to analyze what she has to say, every word she says.’

“Is that true? I don’t know. But I come into it with that mind-set. Whether it’s pressure or not, I just want to make sure I do it right.”

Mendoza established her credentials in understanding the game over a lifetime, starting with the time she hung out in the dugouts of the junior college teams coached by her father, Gil, mostly at Moorpark (Calif.) College. Jessica remembers being all of 4 years old and asking her dad for chewing tobacco so she could better mimic the players she admired. Her father placated her with Big League Chew.

As a player, she could beat out a bunt, leg out a grounder to short, hit a ball to the gap and turn a double into a triple, and hit one out of the park. No one at Stanford, before or since, topped her .419 career average. No one scored more runs or hit more homers or posted a higher slugging percentage.

Yet in the midst of all that, Mendoza was motivated by a force that seems in direct odds with those accomplishments: self-doubt. The Cardinal, for instance, regularly played tournaments before conference play began, five games in three days, sometimes in southern California near her hometown of Moorpark. Her friends and family packed the stands.

“She would feel this pressure,” said John Rittman, then Stanford’s coach. “She’d get one hit over the weekend, and I’d have to explain to her: It’s not a one-weekend season. Every hitter’s going to get shut down for a weekend.”

This perfectionist mentality was instilled in her youth. When she was a teenager, her dad insisted on a weight-lifting regimen before dinner. “We called it a military workout,” she said. Romanian deadlifts were required. “I thought everyone did that.”

Preparation, though, didn’t necessarily breed confidence. When she graduated, she thought she would move to Washington and get involved in education reform, not win a gold medal for the U.S. team in the 2004 Olympics, a silver four years later.

“I look back on how insecure I was in my ability at that age,” Mendoza said. “I was so nervous being on that field. ‘Do I even belong at this tryout?’ Then I spent the first two or three years on the national team literally wondering when it might be over, like this is all a big joke.”

Never mind that she was hitting third for the national team. When she would go 3 for 4 with two homers and a double, she would fixate on the fourth at-bat. That’s how one of the best hitters in the world ended up in a bathroom in the Dominican Republic, in the midst of the 2003 Pan-Am Games, sobbing and crippled to the point that she couldn’t perform.

“Insecurity has pushed me to be better,” she said. “It stays with me now.”

Now, though, it manifests itself differently: “Do I belong in this booth? Am I good enough to be here?”

Her colleagues are universal in their assessment. Last season, after a few years of asking for more on her plate as an analyst and working on the wrap-up show “Baseball Tonight,” she moved into the analyst’s chair for the College World Series. By late August, she quietly became the first woman to analyze a nationally televised major league game, working a Monday night matchup between the St. Louis Cardinals and Arizona Diamondbacks. The following Sunday, she filled in for the suspended Curt Schilling in the week’s premier slot.

“You could tell she was a little bit nervous early,” Shulman said.

“I didn’t sleep the night before,” Mendoza said. “I couldn’t eat – which is incredibly unusual for me.”

“She’s sharp in any way you can be sharp,” Shulman said. “Once she got more comfortable and she got a few more reps, you could see her personality really come out, and you can see how hard she works.”

That first night, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs no-hit the Dodgers. Mendoza kept the Sunday night chair the rest of the season, then worked the American League wild-card game at Yankee Stadium. When some corners of the Twitterverse reacted with skepticism to a woman’s voice on a postseason baseball game – lowlighted by a particularly nasty attack from an Atlanta radio host – she handled it deftly, accepting an apology and moving on.

“I think she’s got a chance to be a star at this,” Boone said. “… She’s already impressed a lot of people, even people that have gone in skeptical, the people who are saying, ‘I don’t know if I think she can do it.’ And she’s already surprised them by saying something really on-point and really smart during a broadcast. I think that’s only going to continue.”

If it continues, it will be pushed at least in part by Mendoza’s craving more information. This offseason, she went to pitching school to learn more about grips and breaks. She attended the winter meetings, went to a scouts’ dinner, asked and absorbed. She enters the season more confident in her ability, but aware of the reality: She’s being watched.

“I know people are going to hear my voice and know it’s different,” Mendoza said. “Even though it’s 2016 and we want to believe it’s not that way, it is. Each game last year carried a ton of pressure that I would put on myself.

“But what’s helped is once the game began, it was just baseball, and not a female broadcasting baseball. I was like, ‘I can do this.’ I just honed in on it, and all the other stuff went away.”