Slugger Jessica Mendoza retires
Jessica Mendoza never expected softball would be a ticket to see the world.
That may have been just as well, considering that along with Japanese bullet trains and Greek ancient ruins, the world includes such spots as dingy dugout bathrooms. The latter was where she found herself at a low ebb during the 2003 Pan American Games in the Dominican Republic, having sought the dank, dim redoubt to hide her tears of frustration from her USA teammates who were in the dugout beyond.
The United States was rolling through the competition in the tournament, per usual in regional events that didn't include rivals such as Japan or Australia, but Mendoza couldn't scratch out a hit. It was her third year with the team, but none had been Olympic years. With the roster for Athens 2004 expected to be announced not long after the Pan Am Games, she feared she would miss out. She wasn't sure she even belonged on the team, which only made matters worse for her at the plate. The more at-bats that went by without reward, the more she doubted.
All of which left her to share that bathroom with an enormous cockroach that did a poor impersonation of Jiminy Cricket. It couldn't, all things considered, have gotten any worse. Which is the moment it started to get better. How, she wondered, had a chance to play the game morphed into the absurdity of hiding from it in that moment?
"It just made me realize I am better than this; I do deserve to be here," Mendoza recalled. "I promised myself I was never going to let myself get to that low a point, where I doubt myself that much. I'm always going to enjoy this game because that's why I play. I play to really love it, regardless of how I'm doing, regardless if I make an Olympic team.
"And at that point, I just started to embrace more of the pressure instead of freaking out and doubting myself."
But she made the team, of course, and more than a decade later, one of the best players in the sport's history has decided to stop hitting. Mendoza, 33, is retiring from active competition. She most recently played for the USSSA Pride in National Pro Fastpitch in 2012. She sat out the 2013 season while pregnant with her second son, Cayden.
"Softball has taken me further than I could have ever imagined," Mendoza said.
A four-time first-team All-American at Stanford from 1999 to 2002, Mendoza won two Olympic medals, gold in Athens and silver four years later in Beijing, as well as three consecutive world championship gold medals, in 2002, 2006 and 2010. In those five major competitions, she hit .372 in 129 at-bats with nine home runs and 44 RBIs. In NPF, primarily after she and many peers stepped away from international competition in 2010, she won a title with the Pride and earned MVP honors a year later, narrowly missing out on the triple crown.
Pitchers tend to get the glory in softball. Some burnish their credentials as prolific hitters in their own right, but from Monica Abbott to Lisa Fernandez, Jennie Finch, Cat Osterman and more, the names that define the sport tend to belong to those in the pitching circle. More than anyone else of her generation, maybe any generation, Mendoza was the exception.
Everyone wanted to hit the ball like she did.
John Rittman coached Mendoza at Stanford and was an assistant coach on the national team for eight years.
"When you talk about great hitters, and you look up and down that [Team USA] lineup at Natasha Watley, Crystl Bustos, Laura Berg and Lisa Fernandez and all those great players, and then you take a look at Mendoza and what she's accomplished. I think you can say she's, if not the best, one of the best hitters to ever play the game of softball."
Even now, Mendoza isn't retiring because of diminished skills. Last we saw her, over what proved to be the final two days of her career, she hit four home runs, a triple and drove in 13 runs in two games against the Akron Racers in the 2012 NPF playoffs. She missed last season to have Cayden, but she won a title and achieved her greatest NPF success after the birth of her first son, Caleb, so it wouldn't have been a stretch to envision another such return to form.
All the more if someone told her she couldn't. It takes quite a bit of natural talent to produce an all-time great in any sport. But that's just one of the ingredients.
Consider that when Gil Mendoza dropped his daughter off for her freshman year at Stanford, the old high school football coach told Rittman that he owed a lot of the gray in his hair to her.
"I really didn't know what he meant until after I finished coaching her at Stanford," Rittman said. "She is just so driven to be the best, both on and off the field. She loves life. She wants to get the most out of life. She was that way as a student-athlete at Stanford, and she's the same way now."
There weren't a lot of type-B personalities around the national team during her time with it, but Mendoza was relentless and competitively ruthless even by those standards. There is often a thread of insecurity, a word she used about herself, woven into the fabric of excellence. She told her dad she didn't think she would start at Stanford. She was one of only 11 four-time first-team All-Americans. She didn't think she belonged on the national team. She became its best run producer and one of its most popular players.
A teammate for years with the national team and a contender to join Mendoza in any hypothetical all-time outfield, current Oregon State coach Laura Berg saw all of it.
"She took care of business, and she worked hard," Berg said. "She was a competitor, and she found a way to win. I love her passion for this game. She is just one of the most passionate people about this game that I have ever seen. I loved being her teammate -- she is one of my favorite teammates.
"She just loves the sport so much, whether she's playing it or being a commentator for it."
For Mendoza, who also works as an analyst and reporter for ESPN and the Pac-12 Network, all of that passion remains, as almost certainly do the skills. But life moved on.
"I always thought when I'd stop playing that it would be like I'm just done playing because either physically I can't play anymore or because my heart isn't in it," Mendoza said. "Unfortunately, it's not that simple. I thought it would be that simple, and it's not."
In that way, she is the embodiment of a generation in women's sports even as she leaves the playing field. Hers was the generation in which at least a select few softball players could gain a measure of fame and make a living, at least in large part, by playing the game well beyond college. That was new. Part of the reason the daughter of first-generation Mexican-American parents chose Stanford, a school whose softball program had never reached the Women's College World Series before she arrived, was because she figured a degree from there was her best stepping-stone out of softball and into the real world. It is with some amusement that she notes she has yet to put her undergraduate degree or her master's to use beyond filling lines on a résumé.
In part because of those who preceded her, names such as Fernandez, Dot Richardson and many more, Mendoza lived through a golden era in softball. But she and her generation propagated that era -- one in which the Women's College World Series soared in popularity and a pro league, if not thriving, at least perseveres into its second decade of operations.
At the same time, the sport was dropped from the Olympics during her career, and she watched as multiple efforts to restore it, efforts in which she played a prominent role, failed. It remains a world in which softball at the international and professional levels rests on an unstable foundation of warring factions and questionable fiscal optimism.
That she felt compelled to put softball third behind family and professional opportunities on a list of priorities, a list with room for only two entries, speaks to the ground that remains uncovered.
Still, Mendoza lived a softball lifetime unlike almost any that came before it in both length and impact. She parlayed her ability on the field into activism off it, serving as president of the Women's Sports Foundation and lending her voice to issues like the genocide in Darfur. (In the interest of disclosure, Mendoza also holds an advisory role with espnW.)
She became, and will remain, an example of and spokesperson for the value of women's sports.
Few if any ever possessed her ability or relentless drive to hit a softball. Few if any ever used those singular abilities to encourage so many to follow in her footsteps.
"To me, it is so special when you can connect with someone and feel like you're influencing their life, even if it's for a small little bit," Mendoza said. "Influencing them in a way, as a female to a female, that you can be successful. You can encourage them to make right choices and really go on a path that otherwise they might not have gone on or they were hesitant to go on, they didn't have the confidence to branch out and not just follow their peers."