Last night, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza became the first female analyst in history to call a nationally televised Major League Baseball postseason game. (For the uninitiated, the postseason is the Fashion Week of the baseball schedule.) It’s hard to believe it was a first, given that it’s 2015 and not the suffragette era. It calls to mind the reaction to Viola Davis’s stirring Emmy speech after becoming the first African-American woman to win the trophy for lead actress in a drama: How could it have taken this long?
Both cases serve as much-needed reminders that we are not in a post-sexist nor a post-racial America. Consider the vile backlash that Mendoza, 34, a four-time All-American softball player at Stanford and a two-time Olympian, received in the middle of her history-making turn during the Astros vs. Yankees game. “Yes tell us Tits McGhee [sic] when you’re up there hitting the softball you see a lot of 95 mile an hour cutters?” tweeted Atlanta radio personality Mike Bell. He continued with two more tweets: “Really? A women’s softball slugger as guest analyst on MLB Wildcard Game? Once again ESPN too frigging cute for their own good” and “You guys are telling me there isn’t a more qualified Baseball player ESPN can use than a softball player? Gimme a break!”
Reached by phone today, Mendoza told Vogue.com she hasn’t read those comments in full, and doesn’t intend to. “I don’t want to feel like they win,” Mendoza said. After a friend sent her a link, saying she was outraged by Bell’s tweets, “I had this moment,” Mendoza recalled. “I’m about to click on it and I’m like, ‘Why?’ Even if I read this and it doesn’t affect me, the fact that I’ve read it lets them know that I care. And I don’t.”
Instead, Mendoza says she focused on texts and emails from friends, family, and colleagues, and the fact that the majority of the responses to her in-booth MLB analysis, which began in August, have been positive. “The only time I would care [about criticism] is if it were from someone who mattered and had something substantive to say about my analysis, not my gender,” Mendoza said. “From what my friends have texted me, [the criticism] is laughable. It sounds like a comment you would hear about a girl in fifth grade.”
Mendoza also rejects the idea that her softball expertise should preclude her from calling baseball games. “I grew up on the baseball field and then transitioned to softball. It was seamless. It was the same and it always has been to me. Most of the coaches I’ve ever had—all men, all baseball players,” she said. “Even the coach that won the last two national championships in softball in college was a baseball guy. Have I ever questioned his ability to coach a team? No.”
Baseball and softball are not precisely the same thing, but that hasn’t stopped male analysts from regularly calling softball games. ESPN Sunday Night Baseball’s John Kruk, a former Major League Baseball player, has reminisced with Mendoza on-air about calling the Women’s College World Series, and it went undocumented by tweets about his anatomy, his maleness, or his baseball vs. softball experience.
All of which raises the question: Why are most female sports journalists literally relegated to the sidelines (weathering blustery football season temperatures, in the case of the NFL), while their male counterparts are tackling big interviews (warmly and comfortably) in studio? Last year an Associated Press–commissioned report by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport found that ESPN was making an effort to diversify its staff, but still gave the sports journalism industry overall an F grade for gender representation among columnists and editors. The women who do persevere, like Erin Andrews, often face harassment from interview subjects, from fans, and, like Mendoza, on social media.
Bell has since been suspended. He apologized and took down the Tits McGee tweet (though not the other two tweets). But the real good news is that ESPN hired Mendoza, and she hopefully won’t be the last. She won’t be calling any more games this season, as the playoffs will now move to TBS, MLB Network, and Fox’s stations. But Mendoza is scheduled to continue reporting on the playoffs on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight and hopes to resume analysis next season.
“I am so hooked,” Mendoza said. “It is a challenge, and I’m not perfect at it. I have so much, still, to learn. But I don’t want to stop. I don’t want to be the first and done. I want to be someone who continues to do it well enough that it’s accepted. I want anyone to be listening to a female or a male, and think, This is just a normal baseball game.”
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