I Walk the (Mendoza) Line
(continued from Bill Plummer)
Thanks in part to Tom Paciorek, there’s a term for the borderline between just barely getting by and not getting by at all. Some say Paciorek coined this term, but Paciorek himself claims that he heard the term—which alluded to the .200 batting average that a Mariner teammate always seemed to be either just above or just below—from a third Mariner, Bruce Bochte. Either way it seems to have been Paciorek, a gregarious type, who started spreading the term around, most significantly passing it along to Royals third baseman George Brett, who shared it with ESPN’s Chris Berman, who carried news of The Mendoza Line to the rest of the world. Oddly enough, this seems to have transpired in 1980, the year Brett ended up making the most serious charge toward a .400 batting average since the last time the legendary mark was actually reached, in 1941 by Ted Williams.
Tom Paciorek, like all but two or three living human beings (Brett, Gwynn, Carew), never got close to hitting .400. At the time the card pictured here came out, 1979, he had not hit above .300 in a season either. Conversely, he had hit below .200 once in his career, a mark that may have suggested to Paciorek that the end was always near, which may explain why he so enthusiastically latched onto Bochte’s term. Gallows humor.
The most recent year listed on the back of the card shows that Paciorek hit .299. One more hit in 1978 and the 32-year-old outfielder would have cracked that barrier for the first time in his 8-year career. It’s difficult for me to refrain from associating his troubled expression in the photo on the front of the card with the disappointment of just missing that mark.
Below the stats of that .299 season is a single line of text: “Brother of John Paciorek, outfielder with Houston Colt .45’s during 1963.” In 1979, the year I started seventh grade, I was first and foremost a Younger Brother. So it’s likely that the message on the back of Tom Paciorek’s card sent me to the baseball encyclopedia to look up John Paciorek. Anyone who has ever treated the baseball encyclopedia as something of a bible likewise eventually comes to John Paciorek, for John Paciorek is in a way the greatest hitter, or at least the most perfect, ever to grace the pages of that glowing tome. Because of injury his career ended very early, but not before he played in a single game for Houston, going 3 for 3 for a lifetime batting average of 1.000. (In 2007, Jose Morales—no apparent relation to Jose Morales—matched this perfection, but he is only 24 years old and may well have a chance to mar his record and leave John Paciorek alone in 3-hit perfection.)
Tom Paciorek finally did hit over .300 in 1981, finishing second in the batting race. At the end of that year I started a tradition, which I only kept up for a couple of years, of cutting out the final Sunday batting average list from the paper and taping it to my wall. So Paciorek was right at the top of that list, just under Carney Lansford. That was the year I stopped buying baseball cards. That was the year my brother went away to school. That was the year I started living more inside my head than ever before.
That list yellowed and curled in on itself in the years to come, right up until we sold the house and I threw it away, along with most of the other things on my wall. That sale occurred in 1987, Paciorek’s last year. A professional hitter, he batted .283 that year, one point above his lifetime average. He was 40, the same age I am now. Last night I lay in bed, unable to sleep, feeling as if I had arrived at my age via a high-speed train that I had moments earlier boarded as a 24-year-old.
(to be continued)