By: Chris Spurgeon
August 19, 2017

One in a series of ten posts reprinting installments of HILOBROW friend Chris Spurgeon’s LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE, a newsletter celebrating the rules, constants, principles, theorems, effects “shining a tiny bit of light onto one tiny bit of how the universe operates.”

Mendoza Line

The dividing line between competence and incompetence at a skill.

Earlier this decade I worked as a programmer at a large, multi-national, mouse-mascotted entertainment company. Our division of the company seemed to be perpetually in the red, which led to several rounds of layoffs. Once or twice a year word of a pending layoff would sweep through the building like a measles outbreak at a Gwyneth Paltrow convention, and the next day a bunch of programmers would be gone.

In the wake of each of these layoffs I found myself mentally running through the list of the newly departed, and comparing my skill and experience levels to theirs. The first few times I could take comfort in the fact that I had better programming chops than most of the folks who got the axe.

But with each new round of layoffs, the number of programmers worse than me diminished. Finally after one layoff l had to admit to myself, “Holy crap, everybody who’s still here is at least as good as I am, and most are a lot better.” Sure enough, a few months later when the next downsizing hit, I was one of the casualties.

It turns out I had been approaching, and then finally crossed, the Mendoza line.

The Mendoza line is the line of demarcation that separates people who are good at some skill or task, from those who aren’t good enough.

The term is named for Mario Mendoza (born 1950 in Chihuahua, Mexico) a major league baseball player from the mid 1970s to the early 1980s.

Mendoza was a fine defensive infielder, but he was never very good as a batter. Year after year his batting average would hover right around .200, while the average for players at his position was about .265(*).

During the 1979 season, when Mendoza’s batting average hovered pretty much precisely at the .200 mark, his teammates would jokingly warn each other not to drop below the level of Mendoza’s batting average. They referred to that point as the Mendoza line. The phrase was popularized by the SportsCenter program on ESPN, and from there found its way into popular culture.

The use of the term Mendoza line varies widely from field to field. Sometimes, as in the case of Mario Mendoza’s batting average, it refers to an exact value. Other times it may a relative value, like when a professor automatically flunks the bottom 10% of the class. Hollywood uses the term to refer to any movie that brings in less than $2,000 per theater on opening weekend.

One of the most notable applications of the Mendoza line was instituted because of this man…

That’s Michael Edwards, better known as Eddie the Eagle. In the 1980s Edwards was the only competitive ski jumper in England. That made him the de-facto English ski jumping champion, and that qualified him for the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary.

Edwards finished dead last in both ski jumping events at Calgary(**). Although his quixotic attempt at Olympic glory became the feel-good story of the Calgary games, the International Olympic Committee (not to mention many of the other ski jumpers) thought he was an embarrassment. The IOC instituted rules mandating that anyone taking part in the Olympics must be in either the top 30% of their sport’s international competitors, or the top 50, whichever is fewer. As a result, all 56 Olympic sports are now and forever Mendoza’d.

There’s a tendency to view being below the Mendoza line as a sign of failure, but that can be far from the case. To see that you need look no farther than Mario Mendoza himself. Mendoza played in the Major Leagues for eight seasons, which is about 2 1/2 seasons longer than the average player.(***) Not to mention the fact that to have the combination of skill and dedication that allows you to rise to the level of making a major league team at all is an absolutely phenomenal achievement.

After his major league career ended, Mendoza played in the Mexican league for seven years, and managed a number of minor league clubs. He was elected to the Mexican League Hall of Fame in 2000.

(*) A quick bit of explanation for those of you not familiar with baseball statistics. Batting average is a measure of how often a player safely gets a hit when at bat. A batting average of .200 means the player gets a hit 20% of the time, a batting average of .265 means the player gets a hit 26.5% of the time. (The calculation ignores the times the batter is automatically awarded first by being walked or struck by a pitch.)
(**) When I say last, I mean LAST. Eddie the Eagle’s scores were so bad that in both the 70 and 90 meter events, the second to last finisher had about twice as many points.
(***) The average player’s major league career lasts 5.6 seasons. Fewer than half of all players make it to their 5th season, 20 percent don’t even last a year. Fewer than 1% of major league players will become 20 year veterans.


CURATED SERIES at HILOBROW: UNBORED CANON by Josh Glenn | CARPE PHALLUM by Patrick Cates | MS. K by Heather Kasunick | HERE BE MONSTERS by Mister Reusch | DOWNTOWNE by Bradley Peterson | #FX by Michael Lewy | PINNED PANELS by Zack Smith | TANK UP by Tony Leone | OUTBOUND TO MONTEVIDEO by Mimi Lipson | TAKING LIBERTIES by Douglas Wolk | STERANKOISMS by Douglas Wolk | MARVEL vs. MUSEUM by Douglas Wolk | NEVER BEGIN TO SING by Damon Krukowski | WTC WTF by Douglas Wolk | COOLING OFF THE COMMOTION by Chenjerai Kumanyika | THAT’S GREAT MARVEL by Douglas Wolk | LAWS OF THE UNIVERSE by Chris Spurgeon | IMAGINARY FRIENDS by Alexandra Molotkow | UNFLOWN by Jacob Covey | ADEQUATED by Franklin Bruno | QUALITY JOE by Joe Alterio | CHICKEN LIT by Lisa Jane Persky | PINAKOTHEK by Luc Sante | ALL MY STARS by Joanne McNeil | BIGFOOT ISLAND by Michael Lewy | NOT OF THIS EARTH by Michael Lewy | ANIMAL MAGNETISM by Colin Dickey | KEEPERS by Steph Burt | AMERICA OBSCURA by Andrew Hultkrans | HEATHCLIFF, FOR WHY? by Brandi Brown | DAILY DRUMPF by Rick Pinchera | BEDROOM AIRPORT by “Parson Edwards” | INTO THE VOID by Charlie Jane Anders | WE REABSORB & ENLIVEN by Matthew Battles | BRAINIAC by Joshua Glenn | COMICALLY VINTAGE by Comically Vintage | BLDGBLOG by Geoff Manaugh | WINDS OF MAGIC by James Parker | MUSEUM OF FEMORIBILIA by Lynn Peril | ROBOTS + MONSTERS by Joe Alterio | MONSTOBER by Rick Pinchera | POP WITH A SHOTGUN by Devin McKinney | FEEDBACK by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FTW by John Hilgart | ANNOTATED GIF by Kerry Callen | FANCHILD by Adam McGovern | BOOKFUTURISM by James Bridle | NOMADBROW by Erik Davis | SCREEN TIME by Jacob Mikanowski | FALSE MACHINE by Patrick Stuart | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE (AGAIN) | ANOTHER 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE | UNBORED MANIFESTO by Joshua Glenn and Elizabeth Foy Larsen | H IS FOR HOBO by Joshua Glenn | 4CP FRIDAY by guest curators


Codebreaking, Kudos