Sports view: Female sportscaster breaks barriers

tsj column writers - sports viewBy Jordan Kobritz

Qualification: “Experience or knowledge that makes someone suitable to do a particular job.” —Merriam-Webster

Like any job, the selection of a sports broadcaster should be based on qualifications for the job. If someone is qualified to do the job, they should be given the opportunity to prove it, although that isn’t always the case. Fortunately, Jessica Mendoza was given her opportunity on August 24 when ESPN selected her to fill in for Aaron Boone, who had been assigned to cover the Little League World Series, as an analyst on a St. Louis-Arizona game. To put her performance in baseball parlance, Mendoza hit it out of the park, which is something she used to do on the softball field.

The reviews on Mendoza were so good that the following week ESPN slid her into the Sunday Night Baseball booth as a fill-in for suspended analyst Curt Schilling. Schilling was serving a one-game suspension for unnecessarily running his mouth, actually, this time it was his twitter account. Mendoza’s performance with booth mates Dan Schulman and John Kruk was so good that ESPN extended Schilling’s suspension through the remainder of the season and designated Mendoza as his replacement.

Might we be witnessing another Wally Pipp-Lou Gehrig moment? For those of you who aren’t familiar with baseball history, Yankees first baseman Pipp showed up at Yankee Stadium on June 2, 1925 expecting to play. But manager Miller Huggins had replaced him in the lineup with Gehrig, hoping to reverse the fortunes of his struggling team. Gehrig went three for five and the Yankees beat the Washington Senators, 8-5. Gehrig remained in the lineup for the next 14 seasons, setting the consecutive games played record of 2,130, a mark that stood until Cal Ripken, Jr. broke it in 1995. Pipp became a footnote to history, which is where Schilling may end up, at least relative to his broadcasting career, unless he can harness his public pronouncements.

That Mendoza has the credentials for the job shouldn’t be in doubt, despite never having played baseball at the professional level. Even though she received the inevitable criticism on that issue as well as others, her bat and ball credentials are impeccable. She was a four-time All American softball player at Stanford and played on Team USA in international competition between 2004–10. She won Olympic gold in Athens in 2004 and silver in China in 2008. Her ESPN post-performance critics, of which there were many, either didn’t tune into the broadcast or if they did, failed to hear what she said. One example that received rave reviews: Her insightful and articulate analysis of hitting mechanics, which was the equal of any male analyst on television.

Throughout the broadcast Mendoza worked seamlessly with her partners, no surprise given that she isn’t exactly a rookie behind the mic. She has been a studio host for ESPN and covered both the baseball and softball College World Series for the network. In her second game in the booth, Jake Arrieta of the Cubs threw a no-hitter against the Dodgers, a nice plum for Mendoza considering that broadcasters can spend decades behind a mic without witnessing baseball history.

It should be noted that Mendoza isn’t the first woman to participate in a baseball broadcast, merely the first in ESPN’s 35-year history of covering MLB. Suzyn Waldman, a former actress, is perhaps the most famous female baseball broadcaster. She began doing Yankees games on local television in the mid-1990’s but has been exclusively on radio since 2005. Gayle Gardner predates Waldman, having called a Rockies-Reds game on Denver station KNGN-TV in 1993. Michele Smith, like Mendoza an Olympic softball medalist, was an analyst during a MLB game on TBS in 2012. But regular gigs on national TV have eluded women, until now.

Why haven’t network executives assigned a woman to broadcast MLB games on national television before now? Good question.

Unfortunately, Mendoza’s appearance in the ESPN television booth will be touted as a first for women when it should be hailed for something else: A triumph of competence over gender stereotype. Mendoza proved that qualifications for the job trump which bathroom a person uses. Although much too long in coming, that’s the type of progress we should all celebrate.

(Jordan Kobritz is a former attorney, CPA, and Minor League Baseball team owner. He is a Professor and the Chair of the Sport Management Department at SUNY Cortland. Jordan maintains the blog: http://sportsbeyondthelines.com and can be reached at jordan.kobritz@cortland.edu.)

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