On the Line

With baseball season now half over—and the Mariners seemingly headed to the cellar to join the root vegetables and water heater—three annual debates begin anew for Mariners fans:

  1. Is it true that one of Safeco’s top peanut-throwing vendors was once mistakenly assigned to toss hot coffee during a tragic home stand years ago?
  2. Based on casual anatomical scrutiny, is the Mariner Moose actually the Mariner Cow?
  3. Who’s the most famous name in Mariner history?

I have no input regarding the first two questions—but the third one is always intriguing. Is it Griffey? Martinez? Garlic fries?

Some say that Edgar Martinez is the best choice, given that he played his entire career in a Seattle uniform—actually several of them. One unfortunate uniform design featured boot-cut, fur-lined bell-bottoms—along with shoes featuring little bells on the tips. Edgar, and all the other Mariners, refused to come out of the dugout until that one was replaced.

But if baseball immortality is the criterion, then the choice is clear. It’s Mario Mendoza—as in “The Mendoza Line.”

The phrase has become a full-fledged eponym—like Heimlich maneuver, Adam’s apple and Trump Tower. It refers to a one-time Seattle Mariner shortstop that in nine seasons in the bigs averaged a lowly .215 batting average. Aye yai yai!

In fact, in 148 games with Seattle in 1979, he finished with a batting average of only.198—tying him in major league history with a guy named Steve Jeltz for the most games batting under .200.
What a lousy deal for Mendoza! Why isn’t poor hitting connected instead to Jeltz—arguably a funnier name anyway? (“That guy belts like Jeltz.”)
After all, there were other players who played a similar number of seasons not even mustering .215. Jackie Hernandez managed .208 in nine seasons. (“208 ain’t too great.”)
Luis Gomez eked out .210. (“That guy hits homez like Gomez.”)

Dick Tracewski averaged .213 for Detroit—and in three World Series, hit only .133. The term “The Tracewski Line” trips off the tongue nicely—yet, it’s Mendoza who gets spotlighted for hitting ignominy.
In fact, Mendoza was a rather splendid shortstop (born and raised in Chihuahua, Mexico) with a terrific fielding percentage. So why doesn’t anyone say: “Gee, that young shortstop out there is fielding Mendoza Fine”? But no such luck.

I empathize with Mario Mendoza. Like him, I was a lousy hitter. Also like him, I wore thickish glasses when I played as a kid. (Did anyone on the Mariners staff ever notice that Mario Mendoza wore glasses?)
When I was a bespectacled little leaguer one summer, my batting average (.000) remained steady through our first eight games: The Cashmanza Line.”

When a batter is hitting well it is said that he is “seeing the ball really well.” I too was seeing the ball really well—getting a great look at it as it sailed into the catcher’s mitt.

Then one day, my dad decided to get me fitted for contact lenses. It turned things around for me. I suddenly began to hit—once—and I finished the season at .027.

Still, the term “The Mendoza Line” accords Mario a certain kind of baseball permanence that even great hitters might never enjoy. The highest average ever in the big leagues (.440) was by a guy named Hugh Duffy in1894 or so. But who’s ever heard of him?
It’s true that Duffy played 121 years ago—but I’ll bet they’ll still be saying Mendoza’s name a 121 years from now. So take that, Mr. .440!

It is said that Mendoza has never seemed particularly embarrassed about the use of his name as the universal perjorative for a low batting average. (In fact, he hit .291 in the Mexican leagues—and today is in the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame.)

Plus Mendoza probably realizes that he came awfully close to being remembered in a different—and even more ignoble way.

Because while playing shortstop in Pittsburgh one season, a line drive hit Mendoza right on his belt buckle—nearly causing his pants to fall down in front of thousands of fans. If that had happened, the headline might have read: PIRATES DROP GAME AS MENDOZA DROPS PANTS.

And today—during men’s medical exams throughout the land—the doctor’s request would be worded quite differently:
“OK, let’s check that prostate. Please drop your pants to The Mendoza Line.”
That would be embarrassing.