When a hitter's average falls below .200, he is said to have slipped below the Mendoza Line, a sign of the batter's ultimate futility. It's among those terms coined, not by some wise guy columnist sitting up in the press box, but by the players themselves in order to rib a teammate or, more often, to denigrate an opponent.
Mario Mendoza was a big-league baseball player. He was not an all-star and was seldom even a starter. He'll never get into the Hall of Fame without buying a ticket. He is, however, a baseball immortal.
His name is attached to an infamous baseball statistic. When a hitter's average falls below .200, he is said to have slipped below the Mendoza Line, a sign of the batter's ultimate futility. It's among those terms coined, not by some wise guy columnist sitting up in the press box, but by the players themselves in order to rib a teammate or, more often, to denigrate an opponent.
Mendoza himself was a light-hitting (no surprise there) utility infielder in the 1970s and early '80s for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and later for the Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers, whose average was constantly at or below the .200 mark. In fact, for four out of five years (.180 in 1975, .185 in 1976, .198 in 1977, and .198 again in 1979), he finished below the dreaded line. He became the subject of teasing by his teammates for constantly having a batting average at or below the .200 mark, or, as they called it, "The Mendoza Line." His hitting did improve later in his career, and he finished with a .215 lifetime average.
When George Brett, the Kansas City Royals' Hall of Fame third baseman who batted .305 over his career, got off to a terrible start one year and was razzed by his teammates for flirting with the "Mendoza Line," he mentioned the good-natured teasing in a conversation with Chris Berman of ESPN. Berman, always on the look-out for colorful terms with which to spice up his commentaries, adopted the phrase; it caught on, and Mario Mendoza's name has forever become a part of baseball's lexicon.
In the four decades since he played, the stigma of falling below the Mendoza Line has eased somewhat. In the current "swing from the heels" baseball culture, an average of .190 coupled with 200 strikeouts might very well be tolerated as long as it comes with the potential of 30 round-trippers. In Mario's case, home runs were never a part of the equation; in nine big-league seasons, he had a grand total of just four of them. Nowadays, it seems that every team has one or two Mendoza Liners in its lineup, particularly when it is early in the season. The Red Sox have Hunter Renfroe and Franchy Cordero, and the Yankees, off to a dreadful start this year, can count Giancarlo Stanton, Gary Sanchez, Clint Frazier, and Aaron Hicks as at or below the magic number.
I always make it a point to check the Yankees' box score and their batting averages in the morning because, no matter what happens to the Red Sox, I never count a day as a total loss as long as the Evil Empire goes down to defeat. I know that by admitting to that I run the risk of being labeled as a Yankee-hater. But that's not the case. For one thing, they've always had a couple of players whom it was impossible to dislike, from Yogi Berra and Phil Rizzuto down through Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. Even Aaron Judge, for all the damage he inflicts on the Sox, seems like a nice young guy.
I'm much more a Yankee-fraidy cat than I am a Yankee-hater. For most of my life, it was the bullies from the Bronx who snatched the brass ring away from us just when it seemed within our grasp. That all came to an end, of course, in 2004; at least it did theoretically. I am so conditioned to measuring the success of the Red Sox, or lack of it, against how the Yankees are doing that I can't stop now. I sometimes glance at how the Tampa Bay Rays or the Toronto Blue Jays are doing but not with the intensity that I keep track of the Yankees even when they're in last place. Arnold Schwarzenegger famously said, "I'll be back." So, I fear, will the Yankees.
Meanwhile, back at the Mendoza Line, two former Red Soxers recently crossed paths while going to and from it. Andrew Benintendi, now with the Royals, climbed over it after spending most of April under water, while Jackie Bradley, Jr. of the Brewers slipped below it.
Bradley's old position in Fenway's centerfield has been, for the most part, ably filled by a committee of players, but there have been a couple of long drives out toward the triangle which fell in for hits that I just know Jackie would have caught.
As for Benintendi's replacement in left field, it has been, for the most part, Franchy Cordero, who has turned almost every ball hit his way into an adventure. It's leading to the reincarnation of an old saw:
Question: What is Catch-22?
Answer: It's what Franchy Cordero would do if you hit him 100 fly balls.
All that being said, I must admit that when this season began I was not looking forward to it very much. The Red Sox were coming off a disastrous year in which they couldn't do anything right and they appeared indifferent about it. The roster was composed largely of strangers. I didn't know what to expect, except that I wasn't very excited about what lay ahead. But Alex Cora has them playing with intensity and they seem to be having fun doing it. The pitching is worlds better than any of us thought it would be. In the recent two game set against the Mets, we were vividly reminded that low-scoring pitchers' duels can be infinitely more entertaining than slugfests that feature multiple players just trotting around the bases.
There is an old saying that April is the cruelest month, but this year it was surprisingly kind if you're a Red Sox fan.
The season is young yet and we have no way of knowing how it will play out, but as long as the Sox keep winning and enough Yankees keep wallowing below the Mendoza Line all will be right with the world.
- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.
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