What's in A Name?

The shortstop synonymous with big league futility--Mendoza Line, anyone?--maintains a reputation well north of respectability in his native country
July 01, 2007

The Mendoza linerings. It's Mario Mendoza's wife, Irma Beatriz, calling to check on herhusband. Not an hour earlier he had been fired as manager of Piratas deCampeche of the Mexican League. Mired in seventh place in the eight-teamSouthern Division, chronically unable to come up with a timely hit, Campechefelt it had no choice but to release a member of Salón de la Fama, Mexicanbaseball's Hall of Fame.

Mendoza nonetheless keeps an appointment with a writer and a photographer fromthe U.S. who have assured him that they're not interested solely in his otherclaim to immortality: the so-called Mendoza Line, major league lingo for a .200average, above which all hitters are at pains to stay. In fact, thesenorteamericanos reassure Mendoza, they've come to the Yucatàn as much todocument his life today. And today . . . he got fired.

"It doesn't doany good to be at my apartment feeling sorry for myself," Mendoza says,sitting in a restaurant in Campeche in mid-May. "My philosophy has alwaysbeen to enjoy life while you can. Now, I don't really know what will happen.But I've been through something like this a few times before."

Mendoza is 56,with knees brittle from patrolling ball fields as an infielder, coach ormanager in the majors and minors, throughout the U.S. and Mexico, summer uponwinter for 37 nearly unbroken years. He actually fared better in the bigleagues than his Line would indicate, batting .215 over nine seasons with thePirates, Mariners and Rangers. For seven summers after that, as a shortstop inthe Mexican League, he hit a robust .291 and became known as Manos des Seda, orSilk Hands.

The knack forpicking grounders is what prompted the Pirates to purchase the contract of theChihuahua native from the Mexico City Reds in 1970. "There've been 100Mexican players in the big leagues," Mendoza recalls. "I was number28." It wasn't easy negotiating the Pittsburgh farm system, what withDominican players snapping towels at him in the shower and an African-Americanteammate telling him, "You're not black, you're not white--you'reorange." By 1974 he was a part-time starter at shortstop, but with thebetter-hitting, lesser-fielding Frank Taveras gaining playing time over thenext few years, Mendoza asked to be traded following the '78 season. ThePirates obliged, sending him to the Mariners in a six-player deal that broughtEnrique Romo to Pittsburgh. "I still remember [Pirates manager] ChuckTanner telling me they made the trade because they believed Romo could helpthem win a World Series," Mendoza says. "And the next year that's whathappened."

Meanwhile, inSeattle, Mendoza started at short but hit only .198--the fourth major leaguerever to play as many as 148 games in a season and fail to break .200. (Ofcourse, he wouldn't have earned that distinction if he weren't doing someserious compensating in the field.) Though technically he was an every-dayplayer, Mendoza would often be removed for a pinch hitter, once getting calledback to the dugout in the second inning. "It made it hard," Mendozarecalls. "If I could have gotten to the plate three or four times a game, Icould have made better adjustments."

The Mariners ofthe '70s were no powerhouse, but their locker room was surely one of theloosest. Outfielder Tom (Wimpy) Paciorek always had a joke to share or a ruseto spring, and veteran DH Willie Horton enjoyed the way Mendoza teased him forhis decrepit body and inept fielding. Before every game in the Kingdome, Hortonwould summon Mendoza to his locker. "Mex, get me loose!" he'd bellow,whereupon Mendoza would punch Horton in the upper body. After an intervalHorton would say, "O.K., I'm ready now," and the game could begin.

It was this veryclubhouse back-and-forth that forged the expression. As Mendoza remembers it,Paciorek coined the Mendoza Line in the late '70s. Paciorek has always shiftedcredit to first baseman Bruce Bochte but doesn't dispute spreading word of theMendoza Line to Royals third baseman George Brett. "At the beginning of the1980 season Brett was struggling and made a comment about being around theMendoza Line," Mario says. "Once Brett made that remark, [SportsCenterimpresario] Chris Berman picked it up." And once he did, it hurtled withescape velocity into the culture at large.

"That,"Mendoza says dolefully, "is all people remember me for."

The Mendoza linerings. It's former big league starter Ted Higuera, Campeche's pitching coach,calling with condolences. Mendoza urges Higuera to accept the club's offer toreplace him as manager. "Mario is an awesome guy, a family guy, agentleman," Campeche G.M. Gabriel Lozano will say. "That's why this wasso hard to do. But it's easier to get rid of one guy than 28. And if we hadlost a couple of more games, people were going to start calling himnames."

A few straycatcalls would be preferable to the dubious status posterity has conferred uponMendoza. It's not that his name is synonymous with offensive fecklessness. Thatdistinction surely belongs to utilityman Tony Suck, who in two seasons duringthe late 19th century hit .151. Nor does baseball lack other phrases toindicate at-the-plate incompetence--to be "on the Interstate" is to hit.170, .180 or .190. (Imagine a road sign reading I-70, I-80 or I-90.) But theMendoza Line has entered everyday usage, perhaps because of its Mexican tang,which conjures up a border and all that lies south of it.

Since Mendozaretired as a player, the Mendoza Line has been appropriated by an indie rockband from Athens, Ga., and invoked by Brandon on Beverly Hills, 90210 inreference to marginal grades. It has also spread to pro football, where NFLwags sometimes refer to the Kordoza Line, after Kordell Stewart's career passerrating of approximately 70, another minimally acceptable mark. The phrase iswidely known even in Mendoza's native land, where ESPN Deportes baseballpersonalities make routine use of it.

Mendoza did getback at Paciorek, occasionally subjecting him to practical jokes like noveltyexploding cigarettes or a faceful of cake. And in his own way, Mendoza also gotback at Brett. In late September 1980, with Brett trying to surmount theWilliams Line of .400, the Royals star came into a three-game series withSeattle, hitting .394. Brett went 2 for 11, largely because Mendoza robbed himof three hits on plays up the middle. Brett finished the year at .390.

The Mendoza linerings. It's his eldest son, 28-year-old Mario Jr. "I was once let go bymajor league baseball," father tells son. "How hard can thisbe?"

Mario Jr. canrelate. Once a pitching prospect with the Anaheim Angels, he shared severalspring trainings with his dad, who managed him at Class A Lake Elsinore in2000. But that season, young Mario suffered a stress fracture in a vertebra,causing major league clubs to lose interest in him, and he now pitches forSaltillo of the Mexican League.

The elderMendoza's return to Mexico as a player took place after two seasons with theRangers and one in the minors. In spring training in 1981 manager Don Zimmertold him, "Hey, Mex, you hit .220, and I'll be satisfied." He batted.250 over the first two months of the season, and in mid-June the Rangerslurked just a few games behind the A's in the AL West. Then the strike hit,wiping out two months of the season. After play resumed, Texas faded and so didMendoza, who finished at .231. The Rangers released him early the next season.Failing to hook on with the Pirates in spring training in '83, Mendoza joinedthe Triple A Hawaii Islanders as a player-coach for a season, then returned toMexico for the remainder of his playing career. Since turning 45, he hascollected a major league pension. But by failing to squeeze one more season outof the bigs he is just short of qualifying for the maximum amount.

The Mendoza linerings. It's Roque Sanchez, Campeche's first baseman. "We failed you,"he says, speaking on behalf of his fellow Piratas. "I'd always dreamed ofplaying for a manager just like you."

Mendoza's style islight-tempered. "It keeps guys, especially young guys, relaxed," heexplains. Indeed, his embrace of conviviality helped launch his managerialcareer. On the Pirates' visits to San Diego, Mendoza enjoyed clowning with thegrounds crew. "I'd tug at the hose when they watered the third baseside," he says, "or roll balls out of the dugout at them." One ofthose groundskeepers was a college kid named Bill Bavasi, son of Padrespresident Buzzie Bavasi. By the early '90s, when Mendoza's Mexican Leaguecareer was winding down, the younger Bavasi had moved into the Angels' frontoffice. He figured the shortstop who related so easily to all types would makea good manager in the minors, where Latinos in particular can thrive or flaildepending on their support system.

In '92, Mendozabegan managing at Class A Palm Springs. He spent 10 seasons in the Angels'system, then one more with the Giants. Since 2003 he has been the Mexican DaveBristol, managing four teams including, until a few hours ago, Campeche.

Piratas haveoffered to keep him on as a roving instructor, but already there have beenfeelers from another Mexican League club. Mendoza holds a ticket for anearly-morning trip home to Navojoa, 40 miles from the Sea of Cortez, where heand Irma Beatriz like to invite neighbors over for evenings of cerveza andconversation in the "bleachers," the steps that lead to the door oftheir home. (In addition to Mario Jr., the couple have two other children, IrmaMaria, 25, and Manolo, 17.) If a job offer comes, he'll rearrange hisplans.

Mendoza has packedhis bags. He holes up in a cantina, watching on TV as Higuera leads Campeche toa victory over Leones de Yucatàn. His cellphone lies on the table before him.The Mendoza line is open.

The Mendoza Line has been appropriated by an indie rockband and used on Beverly Hills 90210 to refer to so-so grades.

PHOTOPITTSBURGH PIRATESNewWorld
After hitting .215 in the majors, Mendoza batted a robust .291 in Mexico, wherehe was known as Silk Hands.
PHOTOPHOTOGRAPH BY Victor Baldizon[See Caption Above.] PHOTOVICTOR BALDIZONI WALKTHE LINE
For close to four decades Mendoza has been going strong as an infielder, coach,manager and mentor.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)