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Mario Mendoza

The shortstop synonymous with big league futility -- Mendoza Line, anyone? -- maintains a reputation well north of respectability in his native country

Posted: Tuesday June 26, 2007 2:57PM; Updated: Wednesday June 27, 2007 1:59PM
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Where Are They Now?
After hitting .215 in the majors, Mendoza batted a robust .291 in Mexico, where
he was known as Silk Hands.
After hitting .215 in the majors, Mendoza batted a robust .291 in Mexico, where he was known as Silk Hands.
Victor Baldizon/SI
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By Alexander Wolff

This Where Are They Now feature and others like it can be found in the July 2nd issue of Sports Illustrated.

The Mendoza line rings. It's Mario Mendoza's wife, Irma Beatriz, calling to check on her husband. Not an hour earlier he had been fired as manager of Piratas de Campeche of the Mexican League. Mired in seventh place in the eight-team Southern Division, chronically unable to come up with a timely hit, Campeche felt it had no choice but to release a member of Salón de la Fama, Mexican baseball's Hall of Fame.

Mendoza nonetheless keeps an appointment with a writer and a photographer from the U.S. who have assured him that they're not interested solely in his other claim to immortality: the so-called Mendoza Line, major league lingo for a .200 average, above which all hitters are at pains to stay. In fact, these norteamericanos reassure Mendoza, they've come to the Yucatán as much to document his life today. And today . . . he got fired.

"It doesn't do any good to be at my apartment feeling sorry for myself," Mendoza says, sitting in a restaurant in Campeche in mid-May. "My philosophy has always been to enjoy life while you can. Now, I don't really know what will happen. But I've been through something like this a few times before."

Mendoza is 56, with knees brittle from patrolling ball fields as an infielder, coach or manager in the majors and minors, throughout the U.S. and Mexico, summer upon winter for 37 nearly unbroken years. He actually fared better in the big leagues than his Line would indicate, batting .215 over nine seasons with the Pirates, Mariners and Rangers. For seven summers after that, as a shortstop in the Mexican League, he hit a robust .291 and became known as Manos des Seda, or Silk Hands.

The knack for picking grounders is what prompted the Pirates to purchase the contract of the Chihuahua native from the Mexico City Reds in 1970. "There've been 100 Mexican players in the big leagues," Mendoza recalls. "I was number 28." It wasn't easy negotiating the Pittsburgh farm system, what with Dominican players snapping towels at him in the shower and an African-American teammate telling him, "You're not black, you're not white -- you're orange." By 1974 he was a part-time starter at shortstop, but with the better-hitting, lesser-fielding Frank Taveras gaining playing time over the next few years, Mendoza asked to be traded following the '78 season. The Pirates obliged, sending him to the Mariners in a six-player deal that brought Enrique Romo to Pittsburgh. "I still remember [Pirates manager] Chuck Tanner telling me they made the trade because they believed Romo could help them win a World Series," Mendoza says. "And the next year that's what happened."

Meanwhile, in Seattle, Mendoza started at short but hit only .198 -- the fourth major leaguer ever to play as many as 148 games in a season and fail to break .200. (Of course, he wouldn't have earned that distinction if he weren't doing some serious compensating in the field.) Though technically he was an every-day player, Mendoza would often be removed for a pinch hitter, once getting called back to the dugout in the second inning. "It made it hard," Mendoza recalls. "If I could have gotten to the plate three or four times a game, I could have made better adjustments."

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