Driven and skilled, Mendoza has softball leading role
Source: USA TODAY By Andy Gardiner
Gil Mendoza came home one day to find his driveway had become an impromptu boxing ring, overrun by a gaggle of neighborhood boys whaling away at each other. In the middle of the melee was Mendoza’s 10-year-old daughter, Jessica, taking on all comers.
An alarmed Mendoza broke up the competition and reminded Jessica that girls weren’t supposed to box against boys.
“But dad,” she said, “I’m winning.”
The intrepid spirit that marked Jessica Mendoza as a child has grown exponentially in the years since. It goes to the heart of how the 28-year-old outfielder has become arguably the most complete softball player in the world and why she will be at the center of the USA’s drive to win its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal in Beijing.
“Jessica is a five-tool player who would be making millions of dollars if she were a male,” says Olympic coach Mike Candrea. “But she is so unassuming she doesn’t have a clue to how good she is. She is constantly driven to become better.”
Mendoza was a rookie starter on the 2004 Olympic team that won all nine of its games, eight by shutout. She hit .250 with five runs scored and five driven in as veterans Crystl Bustos and Lisa Fernandez powered the attack.
Since Athens, Mendoza has moved from a supporting role into the lead. She hit .611 to help the team win the World Cup in 2006 and was USA Softball’s player of the year. Last season she hit .417 as the U.S. won the World Cup and Canada Cup.
Mendoza hit .495 with 21 homers, 107 RBI and 51 extra base hits in 59 games on the national team’s pre-Olympic tour. In a lineup filled with world class hitters, Mendoza bats third.
“To hit third in our order is quite an honor,” Candrea says. “She has the quickest hands of anyone I’ve seen. She’s gotten stronger, she’s gotten quicker, and she’s gotten smarter.”
By definition, an Olympian must have a highly developed work ethic. But Brandon Marcello, the team’s strength coach, says he has never met an athlete who can match Mendoza’s commitment. “She is always dissecting her game, whether it’s running, whether it’s agility, whether it’s strength and conditioning,” he says. “She wants to be the best in every single category.”
Says Candrea of her training: “She never gives up a day, where others will sometimes give up months.”
Mendoza’s drive was passed on by her father, a first generation Mexican-American, who played college football at Fresno State and spent 25 years as a community college teacher and coach.
“He was always hard on me, to be honest, but it worked for me because I’m hard on myself,” Jessica says. “I could be 3-for-4 with three home runs and he would always talk about that fourth at-bat. That’s a mentality I’ve carried with me.”
Gil Mendoza was something of a taskmaster with his two children from his first marriage, and with Jessica and her younger sister Alana. He regrets his single-mindedness, but that was how his father had been with him.
“His belief was that when you think you’re good, you’re not good enough,” Gil says. “There is always somebody better than you. What I tried to relay to Jessica was never be satisfied with your ability. If you failed, let’s figure out why you failed because you may face that situation again.”
Mendoza was “a total tomboy and daddy’s little girl” growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Camarillo. She was the ball girl and bat girl for her father’s football and baseball teams at Moorpark College.
After wearing out the neighborhood boys in pickup baseball games, Mendoza shifted to softball and found her calling.
“We wanted our children to have the opportunity to pursue whatever they loved, and Jessica did everything from ballet to tap dancing to playing the saxophone,” says her mother, Karen. “But softball just seemed to fit her like a glove on her hand.”
At 5-9 and 150 pounds, Mendoza is an economical package of power, speed and finesse who throws right and bats left. She is neither the fastest player on the team, nor the strongest. But no teammate can match her ability to hit for average and power and create opportunities with her speed.
“We have some players who can do some of the things Jessica does, but not all of them,” says catcher Stacey Nuveman, a three-time Olympian. “She is the complete package.”
Mendoza graduated from Stanford in 2002 with a degree in American studies, choosing the Cardinal over Arizona and UCLA, which had won a combined 13 national championships. Stanford had never reached the College World Series.
“I loved the fact that you had to apply like a student, just like everybody else,” she says. “I knew I could probably win a national championship going to UCLA or Arizona, and that had always been a dream. Stanford was nobody when it came to national acclaim.
“But a part of me didn’t want to just be one of many. For better or worse, I’ve always wanted to go for things in life that seemed unreachable. I never want to make the easy choice.”
In four years, Mendoza led Stanford to the NCAA tournament every season and the College World Series for the first time in 2001. She is the school’s only four-time All-American and holds several school records.
But when Mendoza slipped into the national team pipeline in 2002, Candrea remembers her as “still a young kid, out of control. She showed moments of brilliance, but she also showed many moments where the game became too quick for her.”
When Candrea spoke with Mendoza about improving her mental toughness as well as her physical tools to play at the elite level, he was impressed by her reaction.
“Jessica had always played with a passion you don’t often find, but she was very conscious of how she needed to get better, and she dedicated herself to that,” he says.
When Mendoza joined the national team she was fast, but not lightning-quick. Her throwing arm was adequate, not exceptional.
“With her arm it was more a matter of technique than strength and she has really improved that,” Candrea says. “And now she has a quicker first step; she gets from here to there more efficiently.”
Passion for the game
Ask Mendoza what she’s batting, or how many homers she has and you’ll likely receive a shrug of the shoulders. It isn’t that she doesn’t care about statistics, it’s just that she is focused on tomorrow.
“There probably will be a day when I sit with my grandkids and look back and see that there was some good stuff in there,” she says. “Until then, for me it’s all about moving forward.”
For all her success, Mendoza remains unconvinced of her own talent. She didn’t believe she was skilled enough to play at the major college level. She remembers hoping to be invited to a national team tryout, never believing she would be chosen.
“Softball is something I truly love, and I never want to fall short in what I give it,” she says. “There is a part of me that envisions the Japanese players and how hard they work. I like to go to bed at night feeling I did that much more to put myself in position to beat them.”
The International Olympic Committee has eliminated softball (along with baseball) after the Beijing Games. A movement to reinstate the sport for 2016 is underway, but Mendoza will be 36 then. She realizes these will likely be her final Olympics.
“To me, it is so much more than just a game,” she says. “I can’t control everything. What I can do is challenge myself to do everything possible to be successful. That’s what I try to do every day.”