Mario MendozaSeptember 3, 2008
I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Dan Uggla)
Some guys just look scary at the plate. Their malevolent body language suggests to me not only the imminent production of screaming line drives but also, somehow, physical agony, as if I owe several grand to a mob boss and the hulking batter has cornered me in an alley to administer my late-fee penalties. Pujols, Sheffield, Bagwell, Belle. I don’t know how pitchers pitch to guys like this. If some nightmarish sequence of events somehow put me on the mound against one of these guys in their prime I’d surely just fling the ball over my shoulder in the general direction of the plate while diving behind the meager cover of the mound.
Come to think of it, this is how I’ve lived my life, more or less: cringing face-down behind a tiny dirt hill, braced for punishment. Life scares me. I don’t know why. What I probably should do is get up from behind the mound and face life in the moment, but old habits are hard to break, and one of my oldest habits is to pretend that while I’m cringing face-down in the crushed grass I’m also making some sort of internal progress by ruminating on the past. And so I’ll ponder the idea that somewhere in years gone by I crossed a line. Things were one way on one side of the line, but on the other side of the line they were different.
Let’s say it was the day I was riding in the car with my mother. I was eight or nine years old, looking out at a field on our right, specifically at some shapes off in the distance.
“Look at those cows,” I said.
“What did you say? Cows?” Why was Mom disturbed all the sudden? “Josh, those are hay bales.”
The world was no longer what it seemed.
Worse, soon after I learned that cows were actually hay bales, I became one of the very few children in my school with corrective eyeware. I understood this made me somehow different in the unafflicted eyes of others, and not in a good way. I began to try to stay out of sight as much as possible.
On car rides at night, I sat in the back and watched the headlights on the cars in the other lane, coming toward us. When I lifted my glasses to my forehead the pair of oncoming headlights turned into two blurry spheres. The spheres reminded me of dried dandelion bulbs, the kind you make wishes on, except these were the color of stars, not dust. I lowered my glasses, lifted them again. Headlights, dandelions, headlights, dandelions.
One world had become two worlds. I went back and forth between the regular one and the one only I could see.
But the world I loved most of all was baseball. When I go beyond merely thinking about those years, when I actually start seeing them, I don’t see myself cringing face-down behind the mound. I see myself at bat, trying to connect.
I see myself looking very much like the man pictured in the card at the top of this page. The glasses. The cap worn below the helmet. The curly hair sticking out beneath. The skittishness communicated by the tensed, bracing body and the rabbity protrusion of upper teeth. It’s all there. Even the suggestion of supplication:
Please let this pitch not punch me in the shoulder. Please let this pitch be nice and slow and fat. Please let me connect.
Mario Mendoza was a phenomenal athlete. He not only played baseball professionally, which only the tiniest fraction of the world’s baseball players ever do, he played it at the highest level for many years. On top of that, he played the most important and arguably the most demanding defensive position on the field and played it well. After his playing career he served as a baseball manager, evidence that as a player he augmented his physical gifts with an astute knowledge of the game. The chances are very good that he played baseball better than you or I ever did anything.
But Mario Mendoza was not a very good major league hitter. He batted .221 in his first season, and .180, .185, .198, .218, and .198 in the seasons that followed. Going into the 1980 season his career average stood at .201 in 814 at bats, a mere seven additional hitless at-bats from dipping below you know where.
By that point his fate was sealed. Ironically, he batted a career-high .245 in the coming season, just as the words “The Mendoza Line” were being passed from Bochte to Paciorek to Brett to the world. He batted .231 the following season before going 2 for 17 in his final year, 1982, his career average ending up at .215, safely above the term that bears his name.
I knew some of these batting average facts from my one and only Mario Mendoza baseball card, shown above. I found out the others from Mario Mendoza’s page on baseball-reference.com, a page I sponsor and plan to sponsor until I pass below that line from which there is no return.
But what I would really like to do, if such a thing can be done, is alter or at least shade the meaning of the term that bears his name. As of now, it is a synonym for mediocrity. But when I go beyond merely thinking about the term, when I actually start seeing it, I see my own life. And when I see my own life I see mediocrity, failure, disappointment, etc., but I see more than just that. I see star-colored dandelions. Walking the (Mendoza) line means seeing the whole world on either side of the line, seeing the ups and the downs, the inside and the outside, seeing it all clearly, seeing with your heart.
I’m not there yet, but I’m trying. So I add another prayer to the prayers I said many years ago while standing in the batter’s box, hoping to connect:
Please let me keep a close watch on this heart of mine. Please let me keep my eyes wide open all the time.
I remember the very first moments of seeing through my first pair of glasses. I hadn’t gone to school with them yet. I hadn’t been called four-eyes. I hadn’t gotten them swatted off my face and broken during basketball. I hadn’t even thought about how there were two different worlds, one with glasses and one without. All I saw was everything clearly, sharply, nothing between me and the world. I was amazed. I’d had no idea things always looked that good.