Crossing the Mendoza Line: It’s not All about the Lifetime Batting Average

Hammock Grand SlamRobby Hammock Crossing the Plate after his Grand Slam in the Bottom of the 6th against Charlotte

When I was playing baseball I hit somewhere around the Mendoza line.  I was never much of a hitter but I made up for my lack of hitting by being pretty solid defensively, a pretty versatile utility player and hustling on every play.  Likewise I would be the guy encouraging other players.   On two different teams in two different sports I was named the “Most Inspirational Player” by my teammates.  Being the most inspirational player does not mean that you are a particularly good ballplayer but rather that you add something else to the team dynamic.  In fact you may not be admired for how well you play, but rather how hard you try and how you get along with your team mates.  I was talking to my dad who is now in a nursing home with end stage Alzheimer’s disease on my last visit.  In a rare moment I had him back talking baseball I thanked him for how he helped me learn to love the game, pitch and field, especially fielding.  I said to him, the only thing that you didn’t do was teach me to hit.  He looked up at me and said “Son, there are a lot of people who can’t hit, it’s a gift.”  So I guess I was doomed to be a Mendoza Line player.

Mario Mendoza played for the Pirates and Mariners.  To be kind he was an amazing defensive shortstop but he as my dad would have said” Couldn’t hit his way out of a wet paper bag.”  His career average was .215 although he often flitted and flirted with the .180 – .200 level. He never played in an All Star game or World Series.  He never hit more than two home runs in a season, in fact one was an inside the park job playing for the Mariners and he hit below .200 in five of his nine major league seasons.   However, despite that Mario Mendoza lives on in baseball, his name forever associated with a low batting average.  In modern baseball parlance the Mendoza line is considered a batting average of .200.  Credit for who coined the term goes depending on your source to either George Brett, the All-Star Third Baseman of the Kansas City Royals or fellow Seattle Mariners Tom Paciorek or Bruce Bochte from whom Brett may have heard the term.  Either way the term stuck after ESPN commentator Chris Berman who used the term in 1988 to describe the hitting struggles of a star power hitter.  Once Berman made the comment it became a pretty standard way of denoting guys who struggle at the plate.  Mexican sportscaster Oscar Soria corroborates the Paciorek and Bochte version referencing a conversation with Mario Mendoza while Mendoza was managing the Obregon Yaquis in the Mexican Pacific League who stated that Mendoza said “that Tom Paciorek was the first to mention the phrase “Mendoza Line” when he read the Sunday paper” and that “then George Brett heard about that.”  Soria then discussed how Mendoza was initially angered by Berman’s use of the term but now “he enjoys the fame of the phrase Mendoza line.”  For a really good discussion of the Mendoza Line see the article in the Baseball Almanac at: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/books/mendozas_heroes_book.shtml, from which the information above is gleaned.

Now my buddy Elliott the Usher and I have frequent discussions about the game discussing pitching, hitting, fielding, base running, prospects, scouting and strategy.  Elloitt is one of those gems of Baseball knowledge, his love and knowledge of the game shows in the way he deals with people including Major League Scouts, players from the Tides and visiting team who are charting the game and others.  I really think that he should be hired as a commentator or color man on some baseball broadcast.  This season we have enjoyed a lot of laughs as well as had a lot great talks amid the joys and sorrows of the season.  One of our frequent subjects of discussion is players on our team as well as the visiting teams who are hitting near or below the Mendoza Line.  We have a few on the Tides who are hovering at or below the Mendoza line.  A couple of these players are former Major Leaguers and a couple career minor league guys.  Last night I decided to venture out for the first time in two days since I was now getting a case of “cabin fever” and my cocktail of Vicodin, Motrin and Amoxicillin seemed to have my pain and swelling a bit more under control.  Judy said my cheek still looks “like a squirrel’s” but at least I wasn’t in too bad of pain, though when I got up in the morning and until 2 or 3 PM I was still pretty sore and tired.  At least for the majority of the game the pain was manageable and of course as soon as I got home I dumped a butt load of meds down me and went to sleep.

Last night the Tides swept a double header from the Charlotte Knights who are the AAA affiliate of the Chicago White Sox.  Since the game was rain delayed after a series of severe storms raked the area in the two hours prior to the first pitch it was not well attended.  Because of this I was able to flit between my buddies Barry down in section 102 and Elliott.   It was good to be able in a fairly relaxed atmosphere to talk about the game.  The Tides had lost the last game prior to the All Star Break in Durham and then the first game back from the break.  In those two games their hitting died and they were outscored 16-3.  Last night Chris Tillman was throwing an outstanding game having given up just one run in the first inning.  It wasn’t until the 6th inning until the Tides scored their first run with one out when Michael Aubry doubled to score Justin Turner to tie the game 1-1.  The Tides then loaded the bases and Brandon Pinkney struck out for the second out.  At this point with the bases loaded, Elliott and I gave a mutual groan.  One of our “below the Mendoza Line” batters, catcher Robby Hammock was coming to the plate.  Robby is a good defensive catcher and while playing for the Arizona Diamondbacks caught Randy Johnson’s perfect game in 2003.  However this year has seen Robby really struggle at the plate.  The count went to two and from the way Robby had been swinging the bat tonight Elliott turned to me and said “I can’t look.”  Robby then fouled off the next pitch.  I said “Elliott he’s dragging this out.” Then I yelled “Hey Mendoza! Get a hit!”   At this point Robby who is currently hitting .190 stood back into the batter’s box.  The pitch from Knight’s reliever John Link was a slider that didn’t cut and Robby planted it in the picnic area in Left Center for a Grand Slam home run.  Elliott and I rejoiced, Robby had maybe gotten the hit that would re-ignite the team for the second half of the season.  This blew the game open and the Tides went on to win 5-1.  Robby was quoted in the Virginia Pilot today about the hit “I closed my eyes and put my bat in the spot” and “I felt decent today, I just got lucky and that’s all there was to it.”  Tides fans are not complaining even if it was lucky, I’m happy for you Robby, you helped get us back on track enjoy the moment and keep hanging in there.

The hitting surge continued in the second game.  Jeff Fiorentino and Michael Aubrey, who are .300 hitters, Fiorentino about .325 right now and way above the Mendoza Line each had 2 hits and drove in two runs while our other way below the Mendoza Line players had a good night. Infielder Carlos Rojas was in at Third due to injuries that forced Manager Gary Allenson to reshuffle the line up.  Carlos is a pretty good defensive player with pretty good range.  However he was only hitting .156 going into the game but went 2-3 with two singles in what I think was his first multi-hit game of the season.  Catcher Chad Moeller who has struggled at the plate since coming down from Baltimore when Matt Wieters was called up also doubled and scored a run as the Tides took the second game 5-1 with Chris Waters getting the win.

All in all it was not a bad night for our guys living below the Mendoza line; hopefully they will all get themselves up above it.  As a member of the Mendoza Line club myself I hope that they all do well and that last night is a harbinger of things to come.  Today my mouth feels a bit better than yesterday though I woke up in some pain.  I plan on seeing tonight’s game with Judy as the Tides hopefully will extend their International League South Division lead over the Durham Bulls by defeating the Knights here again.

Coming back to the Mendoza Line itself the way that guys like Mendoza make their mark is by the intangibles that they bring to the game.  Some of the “Mendoza’s” went on in other ways to make a difference in the game through coaching, managing, scouting at the Major or Minor League level, as well as in sports media, announcing or writing.  Some would include guys like Tony LaRussa career .199 average in 10 seasons, Charlie Manuel .198 in 6 seasons, Bob Uecker career .200 in 6 Major League seasons, Sparky Anderson who hit .218 in one season in the Majors and once said “I led the league in “Go get ’em next time.” Tommy Lasorda was a pitcher and had a 0-4 record and 6.48 ERA in three major league seasons as well as Earl Weaver who never made it to the Majors.  All made lasting marks on the game and all were way below the Mendoza line.

The application to baseball players and non-ball players alike when you find yourself at the Mendoza Line is to make the most out of what you have.  Play to your strengths and know that if you do this you will make a mark, even if it is not at the plate.  I figure as a somewhat well trained and experienced theologian, historian, military officer and Priest that the Deity Herself understands bad days, and lackluster careers and still helps us get through life.  So anyway, as a Mendoza Line alumnus I say to all those hovering around the line, find a way to make your mark and do well, I’m cheering for you as are all the other Mendoza’s among the Saints in Heaven.

Peace, Steve+

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One response to “Crossing the Mendoza Line: It’s not All about the Lifetime Batting Average

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