Back in January, a collection of celebrities gathered at Pepperdine to play in a charity softball game to raise money for people affected by the California wildfires.
The group included movie stars, such as Jamie Foxx, Adam Sandler and Charlie Sheen. It had pro athletes, like baseball players Christian Yelich and Mike Moustakas. Former NBA stars Reggie Miller and Dennis Rodman showed up, too.
And Jessica Mendoza, one of the Women of Team USA being celebrated this week, was part of that group — for good reason.
As a softball outfielder, she helped get Stanford to its first Women’s College World Series, led the NCAA in batting one season and, over the course of a six-year career with the U.S. national team, won gold and silver medals at the 2004 and 2008 Olympic Games.
She has been such an inspiration that when the U.S. women’s soccer players got to select the names of inspirational women to wear on their jerseys for a recent match, midfielder Andi Sullivan chose Mendoza’s name.
“I really admire her breaking boundaries in sports,” Sullivan said.
She has. In addition to what she did as a player, Mendoza also is an announcer for ESPN on its Sunday night baseball broadcasts. And that’s not all. She was hired this winter to also work for the New York Mets as an assistant special advisor to executive vice president and general manager Brodie Van Wagenen. She will work on player evaluation, roster construction, health and performance for the team.
In a release, Van Wagenen said that Mendoza is “incredibly well respected” in the industry, a “world-class athlete” with an “extremely high baseball IQ” and that she will help the Mets win.
“Van Wagenen is someone whom I’m excited to pick his brain and the people he’s hired. And to learn more about the front office,” Mendoza said. “That’s where the game is headed. I can have as many relationships with the players and managers — and I enjoy those and learn so much from them — but the game’s future really lies in the hands of the front office.
“In a lot of ways, to be able to learn more about what happens inside the front office is going to allow me to be a better analyst in what I do in my main job, which is being an analyst for ESPN (which she still does). I appreciate Brodie because he hired a few ‘outside the box’ people.”
Jessica Mendoza announces for ESPN at the 2015 World Series on Oct. 26, 2015 in Kansas City, Mo.
Women don’t often get hired in such roles. In addition to Mendoza, there is Kim Ng, the senior VP of baseball operations for MLB, Haley Alvarez, a scouting coordinator with the Athletics, and Amanda Hopkins, a scout with the Mariners, but not many others.
But that is beginning to change a little now with Mendoza and others helping.
“Amy Brooks is a top executive with the NBA and someone I really look up to,” Mendoza said. “She was a major basketball player but for her whole entire career, her mind was on what’s next. As long as she could play basketball she would, but she’s a perfect example of thinking, ‘How can I use this?’ Same with Sue Bird (longtime USA Basketball and Seattle Storm star who was also recently hired to work for Denver Nuggets). I feel like a lot of things Sue’s involved with and doing while she’s playing is because she’s thinking about the next step.
“You have to do that as a female athlete, because most of us don’t get paid a huge amount of money, if any, to play. I think that’s probably the biggest thing. Then we’re able to use what we take in sports to tap successful careers as much as possible.”
Mendoza started playing baseball with boys as a child, partly because her father was a local college coach. She switched over to softball around age 9. She was a catcher in high school and then became an outfielder in college. She was outstanding at that position at Stanford and with the U.S. team.
Now 38, she is married and has two young children, yet still has time for broadcasting baseball with ESPN and working with the Mets.
“I get a good three to three and a half months of downtime, which helps rejuvenate me for the season,” she said.
With what she has done, Mendoza is inspiring to women athletes — she even served as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation, which was started by Billie Jean King and looks to advance the lives of females through sports. But considering all that, will there ever be a woman playing in major league baseball? Ila Borders, who pitched for a men’s team in college, was one of the very few to even play in the minors when she was with the independent Northern League in the late 1990s.
Whether the major leagues are a possibility, Mendoza hopes to see more women in baseball. Both baseball and softball will receive a boost with their inclusion in the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, though Mendoza sees a lot of the progress taking place on the grassroots level.
“I think it starts with the ground level up and that’s where the changes are being made,” Mendoza said. “There is more support for girls to play baseball at the younger level. The thing that I ran into was that it was fun to play baseball but it was like, yeah, but you can’t play baseball in high school. You can’t play baseball in college. So you need to switch to softball. We’re not even there yet where girls have this open opportunity to choose baseball over softball at the high school and college level, to have them playing the sport they need to play and then get into the major leagues.
“As soon as that becomes more accepting then I think we will have better opportunities for women to be in the major leagues. The system just needs to be better from the bottom up to encourage more women and girls at a younger age. For the doors to be open for girls to play baseball.”
And perhaps a woman will play for the Mets after being discovered, evaluated and recommended by Mendoza.
Jim Caple is a former longtime writer for ESPN and the St. Paul Pioneer Press based in Seattle. He has covered sports on six continents, including 12 Olympics and 20 World Series. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.