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Unkindest Cut of All : Namesake of the Mendoza Line, a .215 Hitter, Doesn’t Like Label

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Maybe things would be different if it referred to clothing, say something in silk. . . .

The Mendoza Line--Simply because you are dressed comfortably doesn’t mean you can’t be dressed elegantly.

Instead, the Mendoza Line is a baseball term, named after former player Mario Mendoza.

“Yeah, who’s that guy, Mario Mendoza or whatever?” Kansas City outfielder Brian McRae said the other day. “I think he played with the Pirates. Yeah, I’m familiar with it. I’m usually hitting under it this time of year.”

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The Mendoza Line is that invisible divider known to many a slumping hitter. Hit above .200 and you might stay in the majors. Hit below .200 and you’re staring up at the Mendoza Line, perhaps on your way to Peoria.

Or Palm Springs, as the case may be.

Today, Mario Mendoza manages the Angels’ Class-A affiliate here and would simply like to know why he had to be singled out for infamy.

In nine major league seasons as an infielder, from 1974-82, Mendoza compiled a lifetime batting average of .215, 15 points above the Mendoza Line.

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Little good it does him.

“I just hope you don’t want to talk about the Mendoza Line,” Mendoza said in greeting a recent visitor in Palm Springs. “That . . . guy (Chris Berman on ESPN) is always bringing it up. I don’t know why. A lot of ballplayers didn’t hit .215, which is what I hit. A lot of guys who played didn’t hit that.

“I get sick and tired of hearing about the Mendoza Line. Kids write to me about it. . . . Whenever a guy is hitting below .200, my name comes up.”

He has been watching television in his native Mexico, late at night, with his wife, kids, parents, friends, and has heard it. He has been reading the sports pages and unexpectedly run across references to it. He has received letters from adults and kids about it.

And he has sat in his office in Palm Springs and heard his players discussing it in the clubhouse.

On opening day in Palm Springs last season, his first as a professional manager in a major league organization, he was returning to the dugout after exchanging lineup cards at home plate when a fan ran down to the front row and began taunting him about it.

Mendoza made a vulgar gesture and told the fan to get lost.

“Sometimes I don’t want to be rude, but people keep making fun of it,” Mendoza said. “I played eight years and some change in the big leagues. A lot of players in the minors never made it that far.”

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One of Mendoza’s minor league players a couple of years ago made a crack about the Mendoza Line during spring training.

“I told him, ‘OK, you’re making fun of the Mendoza Line, huh?’ ” Mendoza said. “ ‘You have five years in the minors in A ball. It took me only 3 1/2 years in the minors before making the big leagues.’ He never said anything more. He understood.”

He also was released shortly thereafter.

Said San Diego outfielder Tony Gwynn, who has won four National League batting titles: “I don’t know anything about (the Mendoza Line) and I don’t care to, to tell you the truth. I don’t remember hearing about (Mendoza) as a player, but I’ve heard about that line. That’s not a tag I’d be happy with. As long as there is baseball, there are guys going to be at the Mendoza Line. And he’ll be associated with it.”

That’s what scares Mendoza.

“I didn’t mind at first,” Mendoza said. “But they keep rubbing it in and rubbing it in. They never mention that (his lifetime average is above .200). That’s one of the things people don’t know.”

Mendoza broke in with Pittsburgh in 1974, played in 91 games and even started three games in the National League championship series that year. He was one for five against the Dodgers, .200 on the button.

He played for Pittsburgh as a utility infielder the next four seasons, at second base, third and shortstop--never hitting more than .221.

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He was traded to Seattle in 1979 and played there two seasons. The summer of 1979 was perhaps his most memorable because Manager Darrell Johnson made him his starting shortstop.

Although he played in 148 games, he had only 373 at-bats.

“They were pinch-hitting for me in the third and fourth innings,” said Mendoza, who batted .198 that year. “Darrell Johnson, he was a good man, but one night he pinch-hit for me with the bases loaded in the second inning. Leon Roberts hit into a double play.

“I was really upset. It messed my mind up.”

Perhaps if he had started using a heavier bat earlier in his career, players today wouldn’t shudder whenever they hear his name. He discarded his bat--34 inches and 32 ounces--in 1980 and borrowed teammate Bruce Bochte’s model, 35 and 33. He then had his two best years, batting .245 for Seattle in 1980 and .231 for Texas in 1981.

“What I did wrong was, I had a lighter bat,” Mendoza said. “It made me try to pull the ball all the time. When I got older, I realized I should hit the ball the opposite way and up the middle.”

But it only mattered for a short time. After playing in only 12 games in 1982, he was released by the Rangers.

Mendoza was batting .118.

“The last two years (1980 and 1981) I had hit better,” Mendoza said. “I even asked (then Texas manager) Don Zimmer what was wrong. Why were they dogging me like that? He had no answer.

“When I came to Texas in 1981, Don Zimmer said, ‘If you hit .220, that’s OK with me.’ I was supposed to be the best shortstop they ever had.”

Mendoza was only 31 and had two years left on his contract when he was released. He never returned to the majors.

“I still just sit and think about it,” Mendoza said. “What did I do wrong? I wish I knew.”

And now, he has to put up with smirking sportscasters bringing up his name every time some guy slumps below .200.

It all started, Mendoza says, with former teammates Bochte and Tom Paciorek. Although George Brett is widely believed to have come up with the term, Mendoza said Paciorek and Bochte used to kid him about the Mendoza Line in the Seattle clubhouse in 1979. It spread from there.

Brett, it turns out, mentioned it to Berman around the batting cage several years ago.

“He had never heard it, so he’s always given me credit,” said Brett, who has won three American League batting titles. “I can’t recall where I first heard it. It was years and years and years ago.”

So, thanks to a myriad of co-conspirators, the game Mendoza loves continually tortures him. “I wish I could make some money off of it,” Mendoza said. “When people are making fun of it, it’s not fun.”

But his managing career is off to an auspicious start--Baseball America called him the California League’s top managing prospect last year--and he is thrilled to be working in the game.

And now that school is out, his wife and three kids have joined him for the summer, making the outlook even brighter. Mario Jr., 14, is playing quite a bit of baseball.

Mendoza paused, then smiled.

“He wants to be like me and play ball,” he said.

“But I told him, ‘You’ve got to be a better hitter, man, so you can make some money.’ ”

And stay far away from the Mendoza Line.


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