Jessica Mendoza leaves lasting impression in PanamaBy Brian Canever January 27, 2015
“Sometimes what gets overlooked if we only focus our efforts on girls is that young boys are going to grow into men, have children of their own and be influencers in their society. So it’s absolutely important they see a strong, female athlete that can show them women are capable of leading, too.”
Who fits that description better than Jessica Mendoza? One of the greatest American softball players in the history of the sport, she is a two-time Olympic medalist, former Women’s Sports Foundation president, and ESPN analyst, who achieved elite athlete status while also balancing roles as a wife and mother.
Retired from professional competition since last May, Mendoza recently visited Panama as a Sports Envoy commissioned by the U.S. State Department’s SportsUnited division. In the tropical Central American country, she led sports clinics for boys and girls alongside Kansas City Royals pitcher Jeremy Guthrie. Mendoza also met with Roberto Arango Chiari, president of PanDeportes, the country’s national sports federation, to discuss the importance of elevating women’s sport in the baseball-crazed country.
“When I spoke with some of the leadership in Panama, I let them know, ‘I applaud what you’re doing for boys here, but I want to see more for women,’” Mendoza said. “Do you want more girls to have opportunities here? If you look me in the eye and say yes, it’s on you to get it done.”
Mendoza’s concern for issues like gender-based inequality mirrors a passion for softball that has hardly waned since her retirement. In her roles as an Empowering Women and Girls through Sports council member and ambassador, Mendoza hits the field to share practical tips, but ensures her messages aren’t restricted to the softball diamond.
“The council and initiative are so important because we’re able meet with people from the top down in every country, from the presidents of federations, to the diplomats who are involved in sports, all the way down to the girls themselves,” Mendoza said. “We can inspire the players all we want, but if they don’t have a field to play on, what can we really do?”
In the clinics that Mendoza and Guthrie taught across Panama, there was roughly a 20 to 1 ratio in favor of boys; evidence of a clear gender line that exists in the country of four million. While Panamanian boys seek to mimic figures such as future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera and 2008 World Series winner Carlos Ruiz and find their way to Major League Baseball, girls struggle to see a place for themselves in the country’s sports culture.
For that reason, Mendoza reminded her attentive listeners the rewards the sport offers extend far beyond the field into everyday life.
“Softball is more than just being successful as a hitter or player,” Mendoza said. “I want the girls to experience success off the field by constantly reminding themselves they are amazing and strong. You don’t just have to be strong or powerful to be a good hitter or pitcher, but you need that in your own life to stand up, become a good woman, and find success elsewhere.”
The former college All-American at Stanford University, who still holds the records for highest batting average (.416), most hits (327), most runs scored (230), and most career home runs (50), has experienced this first-hand. Her remarkable softball career paved the way for her work in television as a color analyst for the Women’s College World Series and on ESPN’s flagship baseball broadcast, Baseball Tonight. In the U.S., college players from every school she visits ask her for career and playing advice.
“Lately, I’ve been speaking to a lot of college softball teams and the biggest question I’ve gotten is, ‘How do I get into TV?’” Mendoza said.
“So it’s kind of interesting. I’m used to being asked about change-ups and how to balance school and softball. Clearly, they see me and know there are different opportunities for them in the future.”
Mendoza believes that in both Panama and the U.S., the time is right to invest in softball. With the sport likely to return at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, these countries and others can once again seek to establish themselves on the grandest stage. More importantly, however, they can provide women with the life skills needed to succeed, like Mendoza, even after they hang up their cleats.