(Baseball StL) -- Several Cardinals are struggling to get their batting averages into respectable territory early this year, and announcers often say they are “below the Mendoza line.”
Just what does that mean?
Years ago, before the internet, the only place to compare batting averages for various players was in the Sunday newspaper when the leagues averages were published in descending order.
In 1980, as George Brett flirted with a .400 average and most of the baseball world was fixated on whether he would become the first player since Ted Williams to hit .400, Mario Mendoza was struggling along as the Seattle Mariners’ shortstop. Mendoza was a journeyman utility ballplayer who played wherever he was needed and for any team that would have him.
According to Filip Bondy’s book “Who’s on worst?” Mendoza’s teammates Tom Paciorek and Bruce Bochte joked about Mendoza’s seemingly relentless reversion to his mean of a .200 batting average, calling that “The Mendoza line.” Brett heard about it and so, unfortunately, did ESPN’s Chris Berman who never saw a name he didn’t like to make fun.
Brett made a comment to Berman that every Sunday he looked in the newspaper to “see who was below the Mendoza line” or who was hitting less than .200. Berman from then on called .200 “the Mendoza line” after the Mariners’ shortstop.
Mendoza actually hit .245 that year to raise his lifetime batting average (temporarily) to .215. But in 5 of the 9 years he played, he finished below the eponymous line, including 1982, his last year in the majors, when he hit just .118 for Texas.
In 1979, the year that probably stuck in Brett’s mind, Mendoza hit .198 and whiffed once every six at bats.
While he was not a gifted hitter, he was signed because of his fielding ability, Bondy says. A Pittsburgh Pirate scout in Mexico saw Mendoza play and signed him to a contract. His nickname in Mexico was “Manos de Seda” or “Silk Hands” because of his ability to field shots off the bats of opposing hitters.
But the indignities did not stop at just being known as a poor hitter. In a 1977 ballgame against the St. Louis Cardinals, Mendoza was asked to pitch by manager Chuck Tanner because his staff was depleted. Down 10-3, Mendoza got lucky when Keith Hernandez lined into a double play. But the luck did not hold because Cardinal hitters were all above the Mendoza line. Ken Reitz smashed a three-run homer, leaving Mendoza with a lifetime ERA of 13.50.