Crossing the Mendoza Line

“Baseball,” he said. “It gets into you and it never gets out.” Then he smiled and reached for his wallet and said, “Let me show you something.”

Crossing the Mendoza Line
Crossing the Mendoza Line | Photo by Pao Edu on Unsplash

Capital Thinking • Issue #84 • View online

“I had met him before, but this was the longest time I had ever spent with him, a couple of hours in the middle of the Theater District with a Broadway night beginning to come to life outside.

And so now I was finding out for myself why he was one of the most popular and likeable figures to ever come out of the movies, or television. And what great company he had always been.

We had been talking about his childhood, and growing up in the Bronx, and the old Yankees, and how much he loved Scooter Rizzuto. He had talked a fair amount about how disappointed he was to be missing his softball team’s game that night back in Los Angeles.

I asked him what position he played.

"I pitch,” he said, at 81, and reminded Heather to make a call later to find out how the team on which she also played had done.

“Baseball,” he said. “It gets into you and it never gets out.” Then he smiled and reached for his wallet and said, “Let me show you something.”

He put the wallet on the table and reached into it, and I was sure it was going to be an old-Yankee baseball card. Had to be. Maybe Mickey Mantle.

My friend Bob Costas carries around an old Mantle card, almost as a talisman. But it wasn’t Mantle and it wasn’t the Yankees.

It was Mario Mendoza.

It was Mario Mendoza’s face on that card, Mendoza in thick glasses, out of the 1970s and his own odd corner of baseball history, the man for which the “Mendoza Line” – a batting average of .200 in the big leagues – was once famously named.

Out of all that and now on the table between us.“- Mike Lupica

How it all began

Mario Mendoza, Shortstop

Lupica continues:

“Mendoza first appeared in the big leagues for the Pirates in 1974 and last appeared in the big leagues for the Rangers in 1982, before returning home to Mexico to play in Mexican baseball leagues.

In between the Pirates and the Rangers, he also played in Seattle, where he hit .198 in 1979. For a season. In 148 games.

At the time, he was only the fourth player in all of Major League history to appear in that many games and not be able to average .200 for the season.

And before long, the "Mendoza Line” was not just born, but became a part of the lore and language of what my friend Bob Ryan of the Boston Globe has always said is the greatest game ever invented by mortal minds.“

But the real story is...

Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Mendoza always claimed the story really began when two of his teamates, Bruce Bochte and Tom Paciorek, started to tease him about his poor batting average in the 1979 season.

Those same two were friendly with another ball player, George Brett, a much better hitter, who wasn’t off to the best start himself that year.

Mendoza goes on to say they would call Brett and say “Hey, you need to be careful. You don’t want to sink below the Mendoza line.”

Before long, Brett himself was using the term and when talking with an ESPN spokesman, Chris Berman, he said the first thing he did every morning was to check the papers to see who in the league had fallen below the Mendoza Line.

Berman ran with it and began using the label on the air, and of course, it soon grew far beyond Mendoza, Brett, his teamates, Berman, and even baseball itself.

On Going Viral

Casting above the Mendoza Line

Since then, the term has been used to describe the performance of the US Economy, which model of automobiles to avoid, how to remain “above average” in salt-water fly fishing, the stock to book price of large banks, how poorly city council meetings are run, stock market winners and losers, and even in oil-field analysis.

In fact, Peter Smyth went so far as to title his paper The Mendoza Line of Oil Analysis and finished with this paragraph:

I’ll mention the old business adage “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” Set a goal for 4 or 5 key factors of your oils health and then simply and consistently monitor those numbers to stay above your established “Mendoza Line of Oil Analysis.” If you can’t answer the question, “how is the oil in x piece of equipment” within a few seconds of looking at your last oil analysis, perhaps it is time to streamline and simplify your process. While all the time, striving to keep contamination out of your oil and addressing issues when they arrive. Don’t be like Mario Mendoza and continue on a path of mediocracy, but measure, compare, and improve to get better results. As in baseball, the same holds true for industrial purposes.

Wow! That’s probably great advice, but a little harsh on Mario, wouldn’t you say?

39 years later

Photo by Joey Kyber on Unsplash

Never one to leave a well-worn metaphor alone, even the world of technology has used the Mendoza Line to outline the point at which a company might reasonably expect to gain the attention - and perhaps, some cash from - venture capitalists.

Here’s a piece from Tech Crunch written by Rory O'Driscoll, a partner at Scale Venture Partners 39 years after Mario won his title:

Understanding the Mendoza Line for SaaS growth

“How fast do I need to be growing to be interesting to a venture investor?”This is a question we get asked all the time by CEOs, and we realize “it depends” is not the most actionable answer to give. Instead, we have come up with a simple model that allows us to give a clear numerical answer to this question.The model allows us to identify, at every stage in the life of a SaaS company, a growth rate, below which that company is not on a clear, venture-backable trajectory. We call the graph of those growth rates the Mendoza Line for Growth.

Bringing it home

Photo by Mark Duffel on Unsplash

But what about Mario Mendoza himself?

Mario continued to play in the Major Leagues for several more years and ended his career with a lifetime batting average of .215, which if you’ve been paying attention, is actually above the notorious cutoff point that bears his name.

He was a gifted fielder whose golden glove stole many a base hit from batters far better than he - including a few from George Brett - who always said that Mario got even with him by keeping him from becoming MLB’s first .400 hitter since Ted Williams.

Mario went south and played seven seasons in the Mexican League and after he hung up his glove, he coached baseball teams on both sides of the border. Mendoza was inducted into the Mexican League Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000.

All of which leads you to the conclusion that Mario was a better ball player than his unfortunate label would lead you to believe. But while baseball careers are short, a good story lives on forever.

And so we come back to the place we began. With Mike Lupica talking with Garry Marshall, a man who truly knew the value of a good story, Here’s Lupica taking up the story just after Marshall slapped Mario’s baseball card down on the table.

Garry Marshall said, “You know who he is, right?”

I laughed and said, “I can’t believe you even asked me that question.”

Then said: “But now I have to ask you a question: Why?”

“I’ll tell you why,” said the man who directed “Pretty Woman” and “The Flamingo Kid” and “The Princess Diaries” and created “Happy Days,” and that’s just the short list from a career in Hollywood that gives off a beam of light every time you read about it, like today.

“When I’m shooting a movie, I take the card out of my wallet and tell everybody, including myself, that we gotta make sure not to drop below the Mendoza Line today.”

And so, Mario’s fame continues to live on in places far removed from baseball.

Lupica has the best take,  

But he had his place now in history. A place invented for him, if not by him.”


What Is The Automotive Mendoza Line? - The Truth About Cars
It’s not clear exactly just which weak hitting infielder named Mendoza unwillingly gave his name to baseball enthusiasts’ term for batting mediocrity or who coined the phrase. It’s also not clear if the line is Bob Uecker’s .200 on the dot, career minor-leaguer Minnie Mendoza’s .188 in 16 at bats fo…
Understanding the Mendoza Line for SaaS growth – TechCrunch
“How fast do I need to be growing to be interesting to a venture investor?” This is a question we get asked all the time by CEOs, and we realize “it depends” is not the most actionable answer to give. Instead, we have come up with a simple model that allows us to give a clear numerical answer to th…
Mario Mendoza - Wikipedia
Beyond the Mendoza Line
How does it feel to have your name associated with something negative? Thankfully, most of us won’t know the answer to that. But Mario Mendoza isn’t so fortunate. Mendoza was a shortsto…