Beyond the Mendoza Line

How does it feel to have your name associated with something negative? Thankfully, most of us won’t know the answer to that. But Mario Mendoza isn’t so fortunate.

Mendoza was a shortstop who came to the majors in the Pirates organization.  He never was an everyday player for them, probably because his yearly batting averages were .221, .180, .185, .198, and .215. The Pirates were assembling the pieces of what would become a championship team in 1979, but not before they traded Mendoza to the Seattle Mariners after the 1978 season.

I have written about the 1978 Mariners here. They finished with over 100 losses, in their second year of existence. By contrast, Mendoza had played for a Pirates team that went 88-73 and finished in second place in their division. Leaving a rising contender like the Pirates could not have been easy for Mendoza, but being traded to Seattle meant that he would be a starter for the first time in his career. Every dark cloud has a silver lining, doesn’t it?

Mendoza started the 1979 season off strong, and was hitting a robust (for him) .250 at the end of the first month of the season. By the middle of May, though, his average had fallen below .200, and his average did not rise above .210 for the remainder of the season. In the entire month of August, his average stubbornly remained in the narrow range between .198 and .206. He was sitting at exactly .200 after the 159th game of the season, but was hitless in the final two games to end up at .198.

Two of Mendoza’s new teammates on the Mariners were Bruce Bochte, the starting first baseman, and Tom Paciorek, an outfielder who had come to the American League after many years with the Dodgers and Braves. They took note of their teammate’s light hitting ways, and as an inside joke they dubbed a .200 batting average as the “Mendoza Line.”

One of Mendoza’s teammates, most likely Bochte, made their inside joke known to George Brett, a future Hall of Famer and one of the best hitters in the American League. Brett, who routinely hit well over .300 and knew nothing of struggling at the plate, started to use the Mariners’ term, and he repeated it to Chris Berman, a reporter at a fledgling new channel called ESPN. As you can imagine, Berman ran with it, and before long the “Mendoza Line” entered the sporting lexicon, and eventually the wider public’s lexicon as well, as the dividing line between what was acceptable and what was not.

Mendoza played another year with the Mariners, generally in an everyday role but with around 100 fewer plate appearances than the year before. His average that season was a startling .245, still far below Paciorek and Bochte’s averages, but much improved from the year before. It was not enough to secure his future with the organization, though, and at the end of the season he was involved in an 11-player trade–you don’t see those anymore–between the Mariners and the Texas Rangers. Mendoza played two seasons for Texas in a reserve role, and then played for several seasons in the Mexican League, retiring in 1990 at the age of 39.

I toyed with the idea of telling the story of Mario Mendoza and his futility on offense in the 200th post in this space. I decided, instead, to write this as the 215th post, in honor of Mendoza’s lifetime major league average of .215. George Brett is in the Hall of Fame now, and Chris Berman is still on ESPN, while trying to get us to eat at Applebee’s.  Neither man might be aware of the fact that Mendoza himself wound up on the right side of the line they helped to publicize.

Mendoza got his average up above the imaginary line that bears his name, but apparently that didn’t matter. Perhaps some acknowledgment of this fact is the first step toward getting rid of it one day. May Mario Mendoza live long enough to see that happen.

3 thoughts on “Beyond the Mendoza Line

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: