By Michael LeCompte
The “Mendoza Line is widely considered the batting average cut-off point below which a baseball player should not be on a Major League roster. Most fans have heard of it, but why is the “Mendoza Line” the arbitrary point at which a team realistically gets no return on their investment in a player? and who is Mendoza? Just why has his name become synonymous with failure?
Mario Mendoza was a 5’11” 170 pound shortstop from Chihuahua, Mexico, who played for the Pirates, Mariners, and Rangers from 1974-’82, compiling a .215 lifetime average with 4 home runs and 101 RBI’s.
After retiring from Major League baseball Mendoza played for another seven seasons in Mexico, over which he hit a respectable .291.
He managed in the Angels and Giants organizations in the California and Texas Leagues from 1998-’02 before returning to Mexico to coach.
As popular legend has it George Brett, himself a great hitter, first coined the term “Mendoza Line.” In a 1980 interview with Chris Berman, Brett said “the first thing I look for in the Sunday paper is who is below the Mendoza line.” The loud-mouthed Berman then ran with the phrase, using it liberally in Sports Center segments throughout the 1980’s.
According to Mendoza himself, though, the term “Mendoza Line” actually began as a clubhouse joke, initiated by his Mariners teammates Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek early in the 1979 season after he got off to his usual slow start at the plate.
The Collins dictionary defines the “Mendoza Line” as “the line between being mediocre and awful.” Although it’s certainly not in any official baseball rule book the “Mendoza Line” (a batting average of .200) has persisted for over 35 years as the threshold of incompetent hitting. (Even though Mendoza’s lifetime average was actually .215)
Regardless of how good a player may be in the field, and Mendoza was an excellent shortstop with a career fielding percentage of .960, if they consistently hit below the “Mendoza Line” they are considered more of a liability than an asset for their team.
The “Mendoza Line” has gone beyond the baseball diamond and is often jokingly used to describe any form of professional mediocrity in popular culture.
From 1996-’07 a rock band called “The Mendoza Line” released 8 albums. The indie rockers formed the band in college and have acknowledged they decided on the name after hearing about the career of Mario Mendoza.
Perhaps fitting for a band named for the line between mediocre and awful, their albums were often well-reviewed, but sold poorly.
The “Mendoza Line” may be synonymous with failure, the phrase may be used jokingly, but Mario Mendoza was good enough to play professional baseball for 8 seasons. If he had hit, say .270 or even .250, he would have been just another player that enjoyed a decent career, but his shortcomings at the plate have made him legendary. Paltry as it may be, his .215 average is exactly .215 more than most of us could ever hope to hit against big-league pitching.