John Walker - The Fresno Bee
Mendonca’s uncle, Robert Mendonca, played briefly in the Philadelphia Phillies organization back in 1989, and served as a baseball mentor and coach to Tommy as he played high school ball for Turlock High School in California’s San Joaquin county.
“He was a tough coach,” Mendonca says. “A little bit tougher on me and my brother when we went through him then the other kids. He always wanted us to do well.”
Tommy credits his uncle with preparing him for baseball at the college level, where he excelled.
During his time at Fresno State, he would wind up setting the university home run record (57), lead the team to the College World Series and earn the honor of being named the College World Series MVP and the Western Athletic League (WAC) Player of the Year.
During the College World Series, Tommy would put on a defensive display that would awe the opposition as well as draw high praise and Hall of Fame comparisons from within the baseball world.
His slick fielding during the College World Series would earn him comparisons to 16-time Gold Glove winner Brooks Robinson, a distinction that flatters Mendonca, although he doesn’t necessarily see himself in that same light.
“That’s an honor. That’s a really big honor to be [compared] with him,” says Mendonca. “I didn’t see myself like that [though], still don’t see myself like that.”
Yet, he readily acknowledges that defense is a big part of his game.
“It’s weird; I might be one of those only guys that enjoy defense,” he says. “I enjoy it a lot. Defense is fun for me, I make it a little game.”
“I take pride in it,” he adds emphatically.
While Brooks Robinson was a little before his time, blessed by living within a close proximity to another one of his idols, he was able to watch and mold his game after another defensive standout while growing up.
“I’m an A’s fan,” acknowledges Mendonca, “so I idolized Eric Chavez a lot. He was my favorite third baseman, my second favorite player of all-time.”
(His favorite player of all-time is Ty Cobb, because he was a player who came from nothing and made something out of himself. Oh, and he happened to be pretty good too.)
Although he grew up watching a six-time Gold Glove winner in Chavez, the credit to his defensive excellence belongs to his uncle he says.
“I started getting good at defense going back to my uncle,” Tommy says. “He had a barn where he lived out in the back with very low lighting. He would hit me ground balls. I think that was one of the biggest things to help me [with my] defense.”
The preparation and practice behind the barn in Turlock would pave the way for his college success and build the foundation for minor league success.
“[My uncle] really readied me for the college atmosphere, and my college coach readied me for the minor league atmosphere,” Mendonca says, making sure that we also know his college coach, Mike Batesole, had an equal impact on his early successes.
“It was kinda like a chain effect, my uncle had an effect on both college and the minor leagues and my coach had an effect on the minor leagues.”