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What Is the Mendoza Line?

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Tom Lohr is an avid baseball fan and has visited every Major League Baseball park . . . twice.

Mario Mendoza

Mario Mendoza

It's Good to be Bad (Isn't It?)

Sometimes it is better to be famous than good. Professional sports has a fickle fanbase, and to be remembered in the annals of history is no easy task. Few players attain stats like Micky Mantle, Hank Aaron, or Nolan Ryan. Only a few names can be easily recognizable years after they have hung up their cleats. So if stellar performance on the field cannot emblazon your name in the minds of fans, you need to find another gimmick.

To be fair, no one enters the sport of baseball hoping to be remembered for their overall poor performance or for muffing one play. Despite have excellent career offensive numbers, Jose Canseco will always be remembered for the home run that only made it over the fence after it bounced off of his head in a defensive miscue. When you think of Bill Buckner, well, let's just say Bill got a really raw historical deal.

Even fewer players have the privilege of their names being associated with everyday baseball jargon. There are players that exhibit "Babe Ruth-like power," a term the Babe would approve of. And there are those who suffer from “Steve Blass Disease,” which is when an excellent player suddenly becomes one of the worst performers for absolutely no explainable reason. Steve was an outstanding pitcher for numerous seasons before he just broke. He was a very good broadcaster for decades after that, but Steve will never be able to shake the negative connotation associated with his name.

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Famous or Infamous?

That brings us the the hapless, yet famous, Mario Mendoza. Hailing from Chihuahua, Mexico, Mario broke into the big leagues in 1974 with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He also did stints with the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, playing in his final game in 1982. Mario was a shortstop, and shortstops are mainly used for their defensive skills in a position in which good fielding is more important than good hitting. While there have been some slugging shortstops in MLB history, most were weak hitters. Mario was known as a good glove and received few complaints about his fielding. It was his smooth hands that kept him in the majors, because his hitting was outright deplorable.

As a shortstop, Mendoza was not expected to be a .300 hitter or slug many home runs, but his ineptitude at the plate was alarming. In the game of baseball, 10% makes or breaks hitters. Hitting .300 is considered to be good hitting. You read that correctly, being successful only 30% of the time while batting is the touchstone of superior hitting. However, the batting average of .200, just 10 percentage points lower, is considered to be dismal, and will usually earn a player a trip back to the minor leagues.

While Mario's glove skills kept him on big league diamonds, his hitting average was consistent. Consistently bad. In his nine years playing MLB level baseball, Mario hit above .200 four seasons; and for three of those seasons, his average was barely above .200. Unfortunately for Mario, he was seen as almost a sure out when he came to bat.

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A Star (of Sorts) Is Born

Towards the end of his playing career, everyone expected Mario to hit poorly; and Mario did not disappoint them. His expected performance at the plate was so bad that in 1979, Kansas City Royals great (and superb hitter) George Brett started the season poorly and was struggling. While playing against the Mariners, Mendoza's teammates teased Brett that if he wasn't careful, he would sink below the “Mendoza Line.” Meaning that he would hit below .200. George rebounded and had a good year (hitting .329 and slugging 20 homers), but he mentioned the teasing to ESPN baseball analyst Chris Berman. The term became a catchphrase on ESPN, and the network's use of it helped it become a standard term in the baseball lexicon. Now the term hitting below the “Mendoza Line” is a regularly used term for someone hitting at or below .200.

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There is Life After Baseball

The “Mendoza Line” would also seep into American pop culture as a generic term for poor performance for just about anything. It has been used in the TV series How I Met Your Mother to describe a woman's attractiveness and as an academic grading threshold in Beverly Hills, 90210. It has also been used to describe the performance of US Treasury yields and political polls. It even crossed over to the NFL when the “Dalton Line” (named after Cincinnati Bengal quarterback Andy Dalton) became the minimum acceptable performance for an NFL QB.

Despite his name being synonymous for a poor batting average, Mario Mendoza did manage to spend nine years in Major League Baseball. And as has been explained for many facets of life, it is “better to be the worst of the best, than the best of the worst.” After his MLB days, Mario played another seven seasons professionally in his native Mexico. He fared substantially better south of the border, hitting a career .291 in the Mexican League. His defense never wavered and he was known as “Silk Hands” in Mexico. He was so well respected in the Mexican League that in 2000 he was selected to the Mexican Baseball Hall of Fame. After his playing days in Mexico ended, Mario managed a couple of minor league baseball teams. After a few seasons of managing in the minors, he returned to Mexico and managed teams there until 2013.

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Lucky to be Unlucky

Few people ever get to become a household name, and in the world of baseball, Mario Mendoza is just that. Anyone who gets to play in Major League Baseball has led a charmed life, but for Mario Mendoza, his life became a twist of a familiar saying that “it is better to be lucky than good.” In the case of Mario's notoriety, it was “better to be unlucky than good.”

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