NEW YORK — Jessica Mendoza was a teenager and wondering whether it was cool to play sports when she heard an Olympic softball player speak about her love of the game.
Now she's heading to the World Series to give updates for "Baseball Tonight" on ESPN, shortly after becoming the first female analyst to call a nationally televised MLB post-season game.
Mendoza listened to shortstop Dot Richardson, who led the U.S. to the gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Games, and the Olympian's enthusiasm for the sport "allowed me at a young age to own my passion."
The 34-year-old Mendoza called the Houston Astros' 3-0 victory over the New York Yankees in the American League wild-card matchup with John Kruk and Dan Shulman on Oct. 6. She and Kruk had developed a rapport from working together for two years during the NCAA Women's College World Series.
"He has zero notes," Mendoza said of Kruk, who batted .300 in his career with San Diego, Philadelphia and the Chicago White Sox. "Others have pages and pages, he comes in just sees the game and reacts. It's a good balance, I can come in more with numbers or some background and play off him."
The Stanford four-time All-American centre fielder earned Olympic gold (2004 Athens) and silver (2008 Beijing) medals. Mendoza was among the best hitters, winning batting (.416 average) and home run (50) awards at Stanford and averaging .432 for Team USA.
Mendoza played professional softball and stepped into the announcer's booth. She got her start with ESPN as a colour analyst for the NCAA men's and women's College World Series, the Little League World Series and as a sideline reporter for ESPNU.
Mendoza was the first woman to call a MLB game for ESPN in mid-August at the Arizona-St. Louis game. She also announced for "Sunday Night Baseball" when Cubs' pitcher Jake Arrieta tossed a no-hitter in the 2-0 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 30.
Here are more things to know about Mendoza, who has two young sons, 70,000 followers on Twitter and attended the Women's Sports Foundation dinner on Tuesday night in Manhattan.
Arrieta struck out the side in the ninth inning to preserve his first career no-hitter. "I spent a lot of time with him two days prior to that no-hitter, which proved to be great information, just talking to him about where he's at right now," she said. "To see the way he was working, knowing his background, his story coming from Baltimore, how he wasn't really able to own who he was, his own mechanics."
They discussed where he sets up, his dangerous slider and a throwing style across his body.
"There are things that he does that aren't perfect mechanically, but it's who he is. When he got back to being true to who he is, that's when he could then concentrate more on the baseball and let his body just go.
"It was so cool to have seen it come to fruition, no-hitter or not, just how successful he's been the second half of the season."
HIGH ON KRUK:
There's an ease in the booth working with Kruk after spending time covering softball in Oklahoma City. "Knowing that he's got a passion for the women's game, to be honest with you, helps me know just from Day 1 that he was going to be respectful."
Announcing her first baseball game for ESPN was comfortable because she knew Kruk's tendencies.
"When I talk about stats and all those numbers, that's not his thing. He's definitely more of a feel guy. He has the ability to predict things. That's what makes him such a good analyst."
He's also complimentary of her slugging skills, which occasionally come up in playful banter.
"He jokes on air that 'she knows more than me about hitting.' But he was a great hitter."
For her Astros-Yankees post-season debut, Mendoza attended batting practice for several days and took notes on both teams. "To me that's priceless, when you get into a game and you've been able talk to these guys, get an idea where their head is at, what kind of preparation they're doing versus the pitchers they're facing.
"I might be at batting practice talking to Alex Rodriguez and he mentions something with a 2-0 count. Then I'll go look at his stats for the last four years on 2-0 counts or maybe 2-0 counts against lefties if that's who they're facing."
Her scorecard from that game went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y.
Mendoza has made the media rounds on TV, taking in praise for her announcing and occasional flak on social media. She's glad the National Pro Fastpitch league is getting more coverage on CBS Sports Network and hopeful softball will return to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. A past president of the WSF, co-founded by Billie Jean King, Mendoza was on hand Tuesday night when the sportswomen of the year awards went to Carli Lloyd and Serena Williams. Mendoza said she and King recently had lunch, and the tennis great keeps reminding "how you can pay it forward" to the next generation of sports enthusiasts.
Melissa Murphy, The Associated Press