4, 256 hits. 73 home runs. 56-game hitting streak.
All legendary numbers in the baseball world.
A .200 batting average.
Unfortunately for Mario Mendoza, that number is almost as legendary.
There must be dozens of ballplayers who barely managed to produce lackluster batting averages throughout their career, but in a sport where statistics are paramount, Mario Mendoza is the “lucky” player who has his name stamped on the benchmark for a struggling hitter.
If a baseball player is hitting below the “Mendoza line,” it means he has a batting average below .200. To be fair, Mendoza’s career batting average is .215 (287-for-1337), but during the 1979 season in which he played 148 games at shortstop for the Pittsburgh Pirates, he posted a .198 average. I wish I could say that was his career-low, but lesser numbers can be found plastered on the back of his baseball cards.
The origins of the phrase are widely speculated, but popular opinion points to George Brett as the first person to make the nametag famous. It’s said that Brett used to check the Sunday newspaper’s statistics section to see who was listed below Mendoza in the batting average category. Brett, who once flirted with a .400 average in the 1980 season, was actually listed below Mendoza in the paper once during the years they both played in the American League.
In an ironic twist, Brett actually credited the man he made infamous with helping to keep him from reaching the .400 mark. “I remember Mario Mendoza, the shortstop for the Mariners, making two or three diving stabs up the middle,” Brett said in an interview about his quest for the holy grail of batting statistics. “When that starts happening, you think, ‘Geez, I wonder if it's in the stars.’”
But some people, including Mendoza, say that Brett’s teammate Tom Paciorek was the true inventor of the phrase. Paciorek, however, points to another teammate. “It wasn’t my idea. It was Bruce Bochte’s. I got the credit, but I don’t want it,” Paciorek said in an interview with Sports Illustrated.
Despite the confusion over who coined the term, the “Mendoza line” is now a part of baseball culture. Ask any ballplayer, and they’ll say they never want to hear their name and Mendoza’s uttered in the same sentence. But fans will continue to use it as a clear distinction of a batter who just can’t seem to notch that extra hit every ten at bats.
But the widespread use of Mendoza’s name in relation to a low average does beg the question: What if his last name had been Smith? Or Johnson? Or some other name that isn’t nearly as fun to say as “Men-doh-zah?” Would the legend really have grown so large without such a cool sounding name?
Something tells me the “Ron Tingley line” would not have caught on the same way.