Mario Mendoza

September 3, 2008

I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Dan Uggla)

Chapter Five

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.


  1. 1.  I was wondering when we were going to see the Mendoza card.

    Nice series, Josh. However, every time you go all self-deprecating, I wonder about you… Get up on that mound and hurl away, Josh! It won’t hurt as much as you think.

  2. 2.  Isn’t Josh hurling away with his columns?

    Someone with their face in the grass wouldn’t be able to see clearly enough to write these gems.

    Maybe you need to leave Chicago, the existence doesn’t seem to suit you. Come to SoCal where the warmth alone will make you feel better. Take a walk on a real beach, and feel the winter sun blaze into your soul. You know what they say about sunshine on your shoulder.

  3. 3.  The last time I hurled was several years back, the day after a friend’s Halloween party. I got home very late and plastered but was determined to get up in time to see defending champion Tegla Laroupe run by just up the street from my apartment in the New York City marathon. I staggered to the window just as the lead men’s group was running past, then staggered out the door and to Metropolitan Avenue just in time for the lead women’s group. “Tegla! Tegla!” I shouted, still drunk, as she ran by. The motion of the fast-moving women made me queasy. I staggered home and just made it to the bathroom in time to hurl.

    FYI: Some new comments on older posts: Jose Morales (Twins), Jim Sundberg (Rangers), Ken Forsch (Astros).

  4. 4.  By the way, I hope the comment in 3 didn’t come across sounding like a wiseass comment on the kind comments preceding it. I just can’t hear the word “hurl” without thinking of Tegla Laroupe.

  5. 5.  That stance is exactly what I think I look like at the plate. I’m probably wrong, but thank god there’s no camera at our weekend softball games.

    Also, I think you meant “hay bales.”

  6. 6.  Lately, I’ve felt like a rag armed Frank Tanana, trying to get through the 1988 Athletics lineup. Anything you throw inside, they pull into the leftfield seats. If you throw it away, they either take it for a ball or slice it viciously into the right field seats. You’ve tried curves, sliders, forkballs, changeups, and your sorry excuse for a fastball. What few outs you’ve gotten have been screaming liners hit right at a fielder. Your shoulder is aching, but you look out in the outfield, and nobody is warming up. You sigh, turn and throw, and Ron Hassey pulls a curve into the dugout, nearly decapitating your manager. The bases are loaded, so you can’t walk him, and Dave Parker is on deck, staring at you from the on deck circle.

    You try a changeup, away, and he goes with it, banging it off of the fence in right center. As you run in to back up the plate, you think, “What now?”

  7. 7.  5 : Yes, I did mean hay bales. Thanks for the sharp eye. I made the change.

    6 : Nice Tanana riff.

  8. 8.  4 The use of “hurl” in that context made me laugh, so no, it didn’t come across as being wiseassed to me.

  9. 9.  Excellent work, maestro. Your ruminating on things like the headlights reminds me of looking at objects with the left eye open, then closing it, looking at it with the right, closing it…..the world from two points of view, an inch apart, “camera one, camera two” as Mike Myers puts it…

    It’s funny you used Bagwell and Pujols as batting stance examples, I always thought those two chaps, much like Aaron Rowand simply looked like they were shitting their pants. The intimidating batting stances, at least to my less than discerning eyes, were the likes of Mel Hall, Gary “Sarge” Matthews, Rod Carew, and Cecil Cooper.

  10. 10.  I mentioned in a previous post that the name of my fantasy team is “The Mendoza Line”. Coincidently, the Mario Mendoza sponsorship on baseball reference is how I discovered your literary genius. You had me at “Polyester Rainbow” and kept me at “Everyone was Bo McLaughlin.”…..just for the record.

  11. 11.  wow, just as i read your last sentence a really great song by The Spinanes (the refrain “What can I do to make this change?”) came on my iPod and a chill ran up my spine. really, really great writing that always leaves a mark on my own soul. thanks for sharing, Josh, you help me see things in my own life that i tend to overlook. rgds, will

  12. 12.  by the way, there is (or perhaps was) a pretty good band called The Mendoza Line. Check them out. I like it when bands use a sports reference in their name. Like another band called Delgado, named after a well known bicyle racer. they name their albums after bicycle race terms like “Peloton”. rgds, will

  13. 13.  Thing is, in Mendoza’s early career it was still okay to be a no-hit, great field shortstop. But then Cal Ripken or somebody changed the rules, raised expectations, and what was once enough was no longer good enough.

  14. 14.  9 : Yes, I always thought it was somewhat gutsy of a guy named Pujols to adopt that stance. But that said, it still looks scary to me.

    10 : Thanks for letting me know you got here via the Mendoza page. That’s a first, as far as I know. My favorite Mendoza-page moment so far was the automated message I got after sending in my 5 or 10 bucks (I forget which): “Thank you for sponsoring Mario Mendoza.” Made me feel good.

    11 : I’ve heard of band called The Mendoza Line, but haven’t heard their music. I’ll have to try to hunt it down.

    I think I’ve passed this along before, but a band I like a lot, Yo La Tengo, has a baseball-derived name. From wikipedia:

    “During the 1962 season, New York Mets center fielder Richie Ashburn and Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacón found themselves colliding in the outfield. When Ashburn went for a catch, he would scream, ‘I got it! I got it!’ only to run into the 160-pound Chacón, who spoke only Spanish. Ashburn learned to yell, ‘¡Yo la tengo! ¡Yo la tengo!’ which is ‘I have it’ in Spanish. In a later game, Ashburn happily saw Chacón backing off. He relaxed, positioned himself to catch the ball, and was instead run over by 200-pound left fielder Frank Thomas, who understood no Spanish and had missed a team meeting that proposed using the words ‘¡Yo la tengo!’ as a way to avoid outfield collisions. After getting up, Thomas asked Ashburn, ‘What the heck is a Yellow Tango?’

    13 : Fittingly enough, Mendoza’s last year was the year Ripken won the rookie of the year.

  15. 15.  absolutely love Yo La Tengo and have just about everything they’ve released, and then some….

  16. 16.  It’s sorta been a Yo La Tengo summer for me.

    I kept seeing Ira Kaplan at various shows, including Sonic Youth / Feelies in Battery Park, Bob Dylan in Prospect Park, and at a McCarren Park Pool Party, though not when Yo La Tengo was performing.

    The headlights remark made me think of Christopher Walken in ANNIE HALL, but in this case the explosion he was anticipating would be coming off the bat of Darryl Strawberry, who had one of the best swings I’ve ever seen.

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