Jessica Mendoza expected to have a long and detailed meeting with Joe Davis last Friday before she sat beside the Dodgers’ TV play-by-play announcer and became the first female on a Dodgers broadcast, but one thing happened and then another and there was no time for them to discuss who would say what and when.
They knew each other a bit as they had shared an agent years ago, and would run across one another when their broadcast dreams were still crystallizing.
“We were really just nobody and trying to figure it out,” she said. After Davis got the Dodgers job, Mendoza would make a point of saying hello when she came to watch the team she’d rooted for while growing up in Camarillo.
Two Olympic softball medals and a career as an ESPN baseball and softball analyst later, Mendoza was hired by SportsNet LA to be one of several road broadcast analysts after Orel Hershiser cut back his travel this season. Her turn at the microphone came up when the Dodgers were at San Diego.
“I was nervous coming into last week because regardless of how well you might know someone or how long you’ve known them, it’s very different when you’re calling a game,” she said. “Everyone has their things — the nuances they want to get into, when they want you to talk, when they don’t.”
Without a lot of time to prepare, they relied on their familiarity and instincts. “It helps so much that we’re both kind of nerdy,” Mendoza said. “We love the game.”
Here’s to having a couple of baseball nerds in the booth.
Davis and Mendoza, who are working together on SportsNet LA’s telecasts of the Dodgers’ three-game series at Arizona this week, have been entertaining and informative in their brief time together. They’re easy to listen to, good storytellers, and analytical without spwing out-of-context numbers. They both spend time on the field before the game — not every broadcaster does — and they’ve picked up quirks and nuances they’re able to turn into engaging conversation.
They’ve set a light tone without descending to slapstick comedy, and it works.
“If you are too serious, too rigid and at the end of the day not yourself, baseball is going to expose who you are, the good and the bad,” Davis said by phone. “If you’re not being yourself — and for me that is hopefully somebody who has fun and enjoys what he’s watching — you’re not going to be an enjoyable listen.
“I always like to think of the broadcast as two friends sitting together watching a ballgame. Hopefully the viewers feel like they’re that third friend sitting at home enjoying the broadcast, enjoying the game with the broadcasters, laughing at some of the same things. We’re in their living room every single day so the wearability factor, I think, is an important one and I think some lightness is an important ingredient in that wearability.”
Mendoza’s performance has been a happy revelation. Her knowledge of the game is more obvious since she’s no longer stuck in the can-you-top-this contest she endured while working on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball analyst telecasts with fellow Alex Rodriguez alongside play-by-play announcer Matt Vasgersian. She’s speaking naturally, not performing.
“I think probably one of the remnants of being in a three-person booth for a while she defers. And that’s great, but I’m happy to have her talk more and I’ve told her that,” Davis said. “I think nobody’s ever been criticized for not talking enough, right? Good thing that she leans that way, versus talking too much.”
She’s still refining her timing, but she and Davis feel like an established duo.
“I like a three-person booth, too, depending on who that person is, and I don’t mean there’s bad people. It’s tricky,” she said by phone this week. “You’ve got to kind of pick when to speak. You don’t want to step on someone. I actually don’t mind those three-person booths with people that are ego-less because you can really learn a lot, too.”
Unfortunately, Mendoza’s ESPN work and coverage of women’s college softball mean that after Wednesday she’s not scheduled to work another Dodgers game until mid-July. “I honestly hope that next year we come into it with a much more consistent plan, ‘These are the games that Jess is going to work,’” said Mendoza, who recently moved to Bend, Ore., with her husband and two sons . “I want Dodger fans to know when I’m going to be there.”
Davis said given his preference he’d work every game with Hershiser. That’s not possible, so he’s trying to maximize the different strengths in the rotating cast of Mendoza, Eric Karros and Dontrelle Willis.
“It’s my job as the play-by-play person to pull the best out of them and help set them up to be the star,” he said. He’s good at it, easing his transition from working with Hershiser to working with Mendoza.
“I think what they have in common is they are glass-half-full people with a really positive outlook on life and I think that comes through in their broadcasts, and I love that,” Davis said. “I love that with both of them you can hear their love for the game through their broadcasts, and I think that’s an important thing.”
The presence of a female announcer on Dodger broadcasts isn’t new: Alanna Rizzo did an excellent job during seven seasons as an on-field reporter and interviewer. But Mendoza’s ascent to the analyst role has triggered enough bile from some of the slimier precincts of social media that Mendoza avoids Twitter except to seek baseball-related news, and rarely reads comments about herself.
“In the beginning I would laugh, like, ‘This is so stupid. You want me to go back to the kitchen?’ It was just so silly honestly, even though it is sad, but you really can’t take offense because this is ridiculous,” she said. “But you start to learn over the years that there is a sentiment beneath even the ones that are smiling and saying hi to you that underneath that it’s still, especially in some of these men’s sports, they’re not really sure where a woman’s place is within this.”
Her place is in the booth, and she earned it.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.