In baseball, the difference between a .300 batting average and a .200 batting average is one hit every ten at-bats. The difference between .300 and .200 is also the difference between a multimillion-dollar contract and unemployment. The low end of the scale — a .200 batting average — has come to be known as The Mendoza Line.
Mario Mendoza was a slick-fielding shortstop; his defensive skills were so good, in fact, that in his native Mexico he was known as Manos de Seda (Silk Hands). He joined the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1974 and was used primarily as a late-inning replacement for Frank Taveras, who was a better hitter, but whose hands invited comparison to madera (wood) or hierro (iron).
Since Mendoza didn’t get to the plate very often, it’s understandable that he didn’t hit very well. With limited ABs, his batting average in 1975 was .180; it was .185 the year after that, and “surged” to .198 in 1977.
He was traded to Seattle before the 1979 season, and it was during his time with the Mariners that Mario Mendoza’s name became permanently associated with mediocre hitting.
At the beginning of the 1980 season, Kansas City’s George Brett was off to an uncharacteristically miserable start. To give you an idea, on April 22 Brett was batting .209. A couple of Mendoza’s teammates, Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, apparently were taunting Brett that he was going to fall below the Mendoza Line — meaning that Brett’s name would appear below Mendoza’s when newspapers listed all players’ batting averages. (Bruce Bochte, by the way, is not the same person as Bruce Bochy, the current manager of the San Francisco Giants.)
There are slightly different versions of what happened next, but one way or another, that expression got from George Brett to Chris Berman of ESPN. Berman used it on the air frequently, and The Mendoza Line got absorbed into baseball lingo.
No one seems to want to take credit for the term; Paciorek says it was Bochte’s idea, Berman says he got it from Brett, and so on. They all say it was a joke, but Mario Mendoza didn’t find it very funny. Over 30 years later, he’s still a little touchy about it.
Brett, as you may recall, rebounded from his bad start and wound up hitting a spectacular .390 in 1980, while Mendoza’s average was a semi-respectable .245 that year.
He was traded to the Texas Rangers in 1981, and was released by them in June of 1982. Mendoza’s career batting average was not .200, as most baseball fans assume; it was actually .215.
In case you’re wondering about the guys who were involved in coining “The Mendoza Line”, Brett’s lifetime average was .305, part of the reason he’s in baseball’s Hall of Fame. Tom Paciorek’s career average was .282, and strangely enough, so was Bruce Bochte’s. As far as I know, Chris Berman does not refer to a .282 average as either The Paciorek Line or The Bochte Line. (Bruce Bochy, who had nothing to do with any of this, had a career average of .239.)