ESPN's Alex Rodriguez still learning on 'Sunday Night Baseball'

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(From left to right) Matt Vasgersian, Jessica Mendoza and Alex Rodriguez in the booth at Busch Stadium during a ‘Sunday Night Baseball’ game on May 6.

As the Phillies prepare for their first prime-time game on Sunday Night Baseball in five years, ESPN analyst and former MLB star Alex Rodriguez had an honest assessment of how he’s performed in his first season calling games in the booth.

“I’ll be the first one to say that I stink, so no one has to remind me,” Rodriguez, a former third baseman with the New York Yankees, told the Inquirer and Daily News. “I’m supposed to suck.”

In a move that many sports-media pundits compared to CBS hiring former Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo, Rodriguez joined ESPN in the offseason to replace new Yankees manager Aaron Boone in a unique deal that allows him to return to Fox Sports as a studio analyst during the postseason. Joining Rodriguez in the broadcast is analyst Jessica Mendoza and sideline reporter Buster Olney. Matt Vasgersian, who replaced longtime Sunday Night Baseball announcer Dan Shulman, rounds out the crew by handling play-by-play responsibilities.

Rodriguez freely admits he’s a novice and still learning the ropes after spending the past few years doing studio work on Fox, where he generated headlines and viral videos thanks to his sometimes bizarre interactions with former Phillies great Pete Rose.

In many ways, the shift to sports broadcasting has helped the 14-time all-star rehabilitate his image, after a brilliant career was marred by his decision to use performance-enhancing drugs, which led to his suspension for the entire 2014 season and cost him, by his own estimate, over $40 million.

“The phone was not ringing off the hook, that’s for sure,” Rodriguez said, adding that he’d never considered a career in sports broadcasting before Fox reached out to him as he was attempting to come back from his suspension in 2015. For Rodriguez, the lowered expectations of his skills as a broadcaster are a welcome contrast to his time as “A-Rod the baseball star.”

“I’m used to being looked at as Goliath, and being David is so much more fun,” Rodriguez said. “I remind myself that I’ve called less than 12 games my entire career in the booth. I’m definitely a novice.”

Camera icon Joe Faraoni / ESPN Images
‘Sunday Night Baseball’ analyst Jessica Mendoza (center) takes a selfie alongside ESPN colleagues Lisa Salters (left) and Katie Nolan (right)

While Rodriguez isn’t feeling much pressure, Mendoza is still forced to carry the weight on her shoulders of being the league’s sole female television analyst (Suzyn Waldman has been calling Yankee games on the radio since 2005). This in a league were data suggests as many as 45 percent of fans are women.

“If Alex does well or if he doesn’t do well, it’s ultimately for his own broadcasting career. For me, it represents an entire gender,” Mendoza said. “I don’t want to just be here because, ‘Hey, this is kind of cool and different.’ I want to be here because I’m good, so that people forget the gender and it just becomes about if you’re good enough, you deserve to be there.”

Mendoza, a former softball player who earned a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics in Athens, got her shot in the Sunday Night Baseball booth under unique circumstances. After mostly working on college softball games, Mendoza replaced World Series champion and former Phillies ace Curt Shilling in 2016 after he was suspended (and ultimately fired) for repeatedly posting heated political rhetoric on his social-media accounts.

Despite being replaced, Mendoza said that Schilling couldn’t have been more supportive of her. Mendoza’s first game on Sunday Night Baseball featured the Los Angeles Dodgers taking on the Chicago Cubs, with current Phillies pitcher Jake Arrieta on the mound. Mendoza had never seen the then-up-and-comer pitch, so she called on Schilling to get his take.

“We spent probably 45 minutes on the phone. [Schilling] saw the game very differently than most analysts and he didn’t have a filter, which was refreshing,” Mendoza said. “He and [current Phillies analyst Jon] Kruk together was almost too good to be true. I loved it and it was always such a great listen, I learned a lot from listening to both of them.”

Despite also being relatively new to calling games as an analyst, Mendoza finds herself in the unique role of mentoring Rodriguez, who prior to the season had never worked a single game from the booth.

At times, there have been stumbles due to Rodriguez’s inexperience, especially when it comes to who is going to take what replay and which member of the crew will speak up at any given point. But Mendoza said Rodriguez is such an eager learner and Vasgersian is such a talented broadcaster that the chemistry between the three of them has quickly improved throughout the season.

“It’s a lot of body language reads and taps, like [Rodriguez] will tap me, or sometimes I get really excited I might smack him,” Mendoza joked. “And I try to defer a lot with hitting, even though I’m obsessed with hitting and know I can handle it. He’s one of the best hitters of all time … I know I want to get Alex’s take. It’s pretty unique and it’s why he’s in that seat.”

Ratings also seem to be improving for ESPN’s main baseball franchise. After a slow start that saw ratings down by double digits compared to last season, last week’s matchup between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals drew 1.92 million viewers, up 31 percent over the Pittsburgh Pirates vs. the St. Louis Cardinals last year. The previous week ESPN drew 2.1 million viewers for the crosstown rivalry between the Yankees and the Mets, up 23 percent over last season.

Mendoza isn’t the only analyst that Rodriguez has leaned on for advice. Prior to taking the job with ESPN, he reached out to a lot of the announcers you’d expect, such as Joe Buck and Kevin Burkhardt. But Rodriguez also reached out to former Phillies catcher and longtime color commentator Tim McCarver, his favorite broadcaster growing up, whose advice over dinner has stuck with Rodriguez so far this season.

“Less is more,” Rodriguez said. “Tell us what you’re seeing in your own words and keep it super simple.”