A talk with Mario Mendoza about The Mendoza Line

November 20th, 2023
Pittsburgh Pirates infielder Mario Mendoza in Chicago on July 7, 1975.

Dating back to 2021, five Major Leaguers -- , , Max Muncy, and -- ended their season hitting below “The Mendoza Line” with at least 450 at-bats.

The Mendoza Line is a baseball phrase named after former Major Leaguer Mario Mendoza for a player who finishes with a batting average below .200.

When reached by phone recently, Mendoza, 72, was aware he was going to be asked about the stat infamously named after him. The light-hitting infielder was a member of the Mariners in 1979 when teammate Bruce Bochte coined the phrase after watching Mendoza struggle in the batter’s box to start the season.

“Bochte … was a real smart guy. He was a lot smarter than the rest of us. He had a way to instigate [things like The Mendoza Line] and put it in your mind,” said Tom Paciorek, another teammate. “It has a life of its own. They are still talking about it."

By May, the Mariners were playing the Royals when Paciorek was teasing third baseman George Brett about his slump entering the four-game series.

“You might fall below the Mendoza line,” Mendoza recalls Paciorek telling Brett.

By the time the season ended, Mendoza had a .198 batting average in a career-high 148 games. He said there was a reason for his problems at the plate.

“The thing that hurt me a lot was, they would sometimes pinch-hit for me early in games,” Mendoza remembered. “I had only 373 at-bats instead of 500 at-bats. They didn’t give me the ABs the way it was supposed to be.”

Before anyone knew it, The Mendoza Line became part of baseball lore thanks to ESPN broadcaster Chris Berman. However, after nine years in the big leagues, Mendoza had a career batting average above The Mendoza Line (.215). His best year came in 1980, when he hit .245 in 114 games for Seattle.

“I was doing better as a hitter and then I was traded to the Rangers,” Mendoza said.

At first, Mendoza was not a fan of the popular baseball phrase. When he was coaching in the Angels system, fans would tease him about it. By the early 1990s, however, Mendoza tried to patent “The Mendoza Line,” but somebody beat him to it.

“I wish I could make money off it, but I couldn’t do anything,” he said.

Mendoza was asked about Schwarber's 2023 season. The Phillies' DH hit a career-high 47 home runs, but had a batting average below the Mendoza Line (.197).

“Nowadays, [home runs] are what they want in the big leagues. They don’t care about the average,” Mendoza said.

While he is known for his futility in the batter’s box, Mendoza lasted nine seasons in the big leagues because of defensive skills. According to Paciorek, Mendoza was outstanding with the glove.

“The best shortstop I ever saw was Ozzie Smith, but from a standpoint of making the routine plays and every play he was supposed to make, Mario made them,” Paciorek said. “I tell you what, Mario had one of the greatest arms I ever saw at shortstop, and I mean great arm. I felt he could have been a great closer. His arm was just as good as anybody at that time.”

Mendoza credits his older brother, Luis, for teaching him how to play shortstop the right way.

“He was very elegant when it came to fielding,” Mario said about Luis. “He was much better than I was. He made his throws. He was pretty good. Scouts tried to take him to the United States, and he didn’t want to go. When I signed and went to the Pirates, he would cry and would tell me, ‘I didn’t go, little brother. You go get ‘em for me.’ He usually cried, too. I played shortstop and I tried to emulate him.”