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     L E A D I N G  O F F

MAY 5, 2001

Confessions of a Futility Infielder
A Manifesto from South
of the Mendoza Line

It happened one night as I was chasing the Mendoza Line, surfing the Internet in search of the salient facts behind a baseball legend. A legend responsible for the entry of a new term in the baseball lexicon, one which has transpired during the course of my career as a fan. What I found went beyond a need to satisfy my own intellectual curiosity and validate my witnessing a crucial little slice of baseball history. It inspired me to create this web site,, and to write the words you are reading here.

• • •

For over twenty years, I've been a baseball fan. My elementary school years were ones of spending my allowance on baseball cards, blackening my elbows on fresh newsprint while reading the morning's box scores, devouring each and every baseball book in the school library. I scored at home while watching NBC's Saturday Game of the Week, invented dice baseball games I played with my cards, kept stats of imaginary teams and leagues long before the concept of fantasy sports became socially acceptable. My retention for facts and numbers served to differentiate me from my classmates, and even aided my academic progress. What challenge could long division and fractions represent to a third-grader who had mastered the calculation of batting averages and ERAs? I was a prodigy.

My love for the game, however, did not translate to prowess on the baseball field. I never had a chance, really. My earliest commitment to organized team sports came on the soccer field, and it wasn't until the summer following sixth grade that I made my little league debut. I wasn't unprepared or overmatched, having spent evenings playing catch or hotbox with my father and brother, and long summer days hammering my grandfather's underhanded pitching into a backstop (I kept stats even then, scoring a single for any ball that hit above the first rung, a double above the second... and, naturally, a home run over the backstop). But as I reached the age limit for Little League, I was too far behind in my development, especially vis a vis live overhand pitching, to make much progress.

Not that my Little League career was without its merits. I played on the Phillies of the Wasatch Heights League in Salt Lake City, a team coached by the father of my classmate, and populated by two of his seven siblings (they were Mormons). I didn't get much playing time; in nine games I had ten offical at-bats (hitting .300), the best of which was undoubtedly the bases-loaded, game-tying single I lashed up the middle in the fourth inning of the championship game. For my contributions I was promptly removed from the game, and I digested a harsh lesson about team play as I choked back tears. We won that game, but my career was downhill from there.

I later attended a baseball camp run by the University of Utah baseball coach, Mike Weathers, and tried out for the freshman baseball team at East High. The book on me was that I fancied myself a second baseman, but my relatively small size made physical contact unappealing, so I was often stuck in left or right field. Forget power, I could barely catch up to live pitching. I scratched out a handful of meager singles, beat the peg on fielder's choices, moved runners over, and struck out too damn often. I knew how to bunt, could take a proper leadoff, execute a perfect pop-up slide, hit the cutoff man from the outfield, and make a technically correct relay throw from second base. I always threw to the right base when the ball was hit my way, but I don't recall ever catching a fly ball. If the secret to batting success is, as Wee Willie Keeler of the original Baltimore Orioles opined, hitting them where they ain't, my presence in the field acted as a deterrent toward any opportunity to make an impact play. Where they ain't, I stood, waiting for the fly ball or the hard-hit chopper that would prove my coaches wrong.

This motley assortment of talents was deemed too esoteric for East High's freshman team coach, and my name was not among those posted for a call-back after the first week of practice. I raged inside—I knew more about baseball history than all of my potential teammates combined. Who among them could recall the batting order of the 1978 L.A. Dodgers? Could recite, word for word, AP Special Correspondent Jules Loh's update of Ernest Thayer's classic baseball poem "Casey at the Bat," as he recounted Reggie Jackson striking out at the hands of Bob Welch to end Game 2 of the '78 World Series? Had ever owned a 1975 mini George Brett rookie card? Had at age ten read and re-read Jim Bouton's Ball Four, mastering the swear words along with the necessary mindset to endure the ups and downs of a long season toiling in obscurity? I loved the game more, damn it! Didn't that count for something? A late-inning defensive replacement with a solid knowledge of baseball trivia, perhaps?

Emphatically, the answer was no, and so I settled back into my life as a baseball fan, where I still reside.

• • •

The adage "good field, no hit" has been hung on many a ballplayer, but a significant handful of these players stick around the game, and some of them seem to last forever. Learn to adequately field several different positions and you're a valuable stop-gap even if you can't hit your weight. The Seventies seemed full of these guys: Darrell Chaney, Jim Mason, Mike Phillips, Kurt Bevacqua, Pepe Frias, Chuck Scrivener, Doug Flynn, John Vukovich and Fred (Chicken) Stanley come to mind. These days it's Mike Benjamin, Pat Meares, Rey Sanchez, Wilson Delgado, Jose Vizcaino, Donnie Sadler, Lou Merloni, Manny Alexander, Luis Sojo, Luis Alcea, Luis Ordaz (parents of Hispanic descent with aspirations of big-league careers for your children: Please be careful what you wish for if you name your son Luis).

These players tend to leave long and undistinguished trails of brutally honest statistics, like report cards swimming in a sea of bad grades. Humiliatingly pitiful totals. Duane Kuiper had 1 home run in over 1000 games played—who wants that on their tombstone? And may God help you if you can't break the magic .200 barrier before your time on Planet Baseball expires. Tony LaRussa: .199. Now who's the genius?

In 1979, following five years developing as an infielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates, sllick-fielding Mario Mendoza was traded to the hapless Seattle Mariners in a six-player deal which brought reliever Enrique Romo to the Pirates. Romo bolstered the Pittsburgh bullpen, winning ten games for the World Champion Fam-I-Lee (this was the team, led by Willie Stargell, bolstered by a Sister Sledge soundtrack in coming back from a 3-1 deficit in games to beat the Baltimore Orioles). But it was Mendoza who set the baseball world on its ear. Just as Ted Williams had captivated the attention of the nation 38 years earlier in his pursuit of a mythically round percentage of batting success, so did Mario Mendoza. Simply put, Mendoza fought a war on .200. Overmatched by big-league pitching—hell, overmatched every time he held the wood in his hands—he succumbed in an epic struggle, finishing at .198 over the course of appearing in 149 games. Teammates and opponents took notice of his futility, and the Mendoza Line, the mathematical and psychological barrier which separates the .200 hitter from the poor schlub at .199 was born.

Imagine what it must be like to toil through an entire season in the bigs, knowing that the number next to your name will start with a 1 instead of a 2, your every at-bat another nail in the coffin if you don't get a hit..200 is terrible for a full season's work, but .199 or .198 is an entirely different country. But Mario Mendoza rose above all that. Through the aid of his teammates and opponents, his ineptitude merited not just notice, but the birth of a new phrase.

• • •

Researching the exact origins of this phrase has brought me to this point (I should add that for the third straight year, I have christened my entry in ESPN's Fantasy Baseball the Mendoza Line Drivers—it has a nice ring, no?). In searching the web, I came across a page devoted to Mario, written by one Al Pepper. Pepper collected various anecdotes while searching for the true origin of the phrase. Unconvinced by his pet theory—that the masterfully talented George Brett was the perpetrator—I emailed him in support of a theory attributing the phrase to his Seattle Mariner teammates. "I remember Mendoza vividly from having spent the better part of a few summers in Walla Walla, WA, at the foot of my grandfather, watching Mariners (and any other teams') games on TV, " I wrote. "I find the [Tom] Paciorek/[Bruce] Bochte version more plausible, as they were his teammates and thus more likely to be aware of Mario's epic war on .200."

A few days later, Pepper returned my email, commenting that in the time since writing the page, he had written a book, Mendoza's Heroes, about obscure players and their times in the big leagues. In doing his research, he had concluded that Mariner Tom Paciorek was indeed the man responsible for the phrase. Needless to say, I took some satisfaction in being proven correct. I had also offered Pepper a parallel theory regarding a 19th century player with the unlikely name Tony Suck, whom I discovered, as these things happen, during an overlong Yankees game accompanied by the Baseball Encyclopedia. Suck, a catcher/shortstop/whatever had a career average of .151 in over 200 at bats (see here for the whole story). Plus of course the name. Without even knowing it, he may have set a standard: one didn't just hit like Tony Suck, one Sucked. (Well, that's my story and I'm sticking by it.)

As I ponder these players and their careers of infamy, I am struck by the inescapable notion that the reason the Mario Mendozas and the Tony Sucks and Chicken Stanleys of the world fascinate and haunt me is this: with my small size, pseudo-versatility and mediocre hitting talent, they are clearly the best-possible outcome I could have attained had I managed to stay in Organized Baseball. "Seventh game of the World Series. Here's the late inning replacement, on for the starting shortstop, whom they pinch-hit for in the top of the ninth. There's a ground ball up the middle, looks like it's going to drop for a leadoff—but wait! Jaffe dives, spears it, rolls over and throws to first in time. Got him! Jaffe, by the way, is well-versed in baseball trivia. His manager tells me that his command of the ins and outs of the 1977 baseball season is unmatched..."

• • •

Thus the Futility Infielder web site was born, an outlet for my own meager contributions to the game of baseball and its history. I watch well over 100 games a year, mostly Yankees games, and I spend a good portion of the time I should be working at my real job swapping emails back and forth among friends, commenting on baseball. Coupled with my stifled career as a freelance writer, I found myself itching for a larger forum, and at the encouragement of those same friends have decided to create one. As to how it will take shape, time will tell, but I invite you to join me as I relate the experiences of one dyed-in-the-wool baseball fan, a good glove man who still can't hit his weight except when it comes to writing about the game he loves.