Mendoza

Posted on February 26, 2011

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One of the things most people don’t know about Kansas City is that it’s not just an hour away from St. Louis.

It is, in fact, on the other side of Missouri from St. Louis, adjacent to the state of Kansas, which is contiguous with the Pacific Ocean, and therefore seems as far away as Guam.  This means that, theoretically, if someone** were to drive from Louisville, Kentucky to Kansas City for a soccer tryout, that person would have to drive ALL THE WAY across Indiana, ALL THE WAY across Missouri, and then ALL THE WAY back.  No doubt, this theoretical someone would be very upset to discover the true location of Kansas City halfway into his trip.  He would also be very worried that Lowe Elementary will revoke the bronze medal from his fifth grade geography bee.

**- Not me.   Seriously.  Let’s talk about something else.

It’s helpful to know that Lewis and Clark made this same geography mistake.  When they set out on their westward trek, historians tell us that Lewis exhorted his team to push on through Missouri territory by saying that “the Pacific is just beyond this giant metallic arch!”  We don’t know if Lewis intentionally lied or not, although we do know that, after that, the Lewis and Clark team wandered in circles around Missouri  for years like an expeditionary Daytona 500.  They didn’t get back out again until they met a Native American woman named Sacajawea, who explained that, in order to get to the Pacific, Lewis and Clark would have to take her with them as a guide.  They agreed, the terms of the deal being that 1) Sacajawea’s face be put on a form of U.S. currency, and 2) it would be one of the ones nobody ever uses.

I’m also unsure if people know that Kansas City has a baseball team, the Royals.  This is potentially because, for the last fifteen to twenty years, the Royals have been abject in every possible way related to baseball.  If the Royals were a stock brokerage, they would be investing in cryogenics start-ups and bootleg DVD cartels.

But they used to be good, especially back when Hall of Famer George Brett played third base for them.  Along with making one of the last serious runs at hitting above .400 for a season, and raising awareness for pine-tar use, Brett is often credited with popularizing a fun part of the baseball lexicon: the Mendoza Line.

Mario Mendoza played shortstop in the late 70’s and early 80’s.  During his journeyman career he gained a reputation as an elite fielding, weak-hitting player whose batting  average hovered around .200 in any given season.  So when reporters asked George Brett about his statistics, he would reply, “The first thing I do in the morning is check the newspaper to see who is below the Mendoza Line.”  The term caught on, and is now common baseball slang for hitting above or below .200 for a season.

Children today cannot even fathom this concept of a .200 hitter playing major league baseball.  To them, a batting average that pathetic is as mythological as ballpark nachos that cost less than $11.  These kids have only known a world where ballplayers injected themselves with top-secret performance enhancers, similar to the way Marvel Comics originated Captain America.   A .200 hitter at the major league level?  Don’t make them put down their one gallon energy drinks and LOL right in your digital face.

But unless the Wikipedia is lying, Mario Mendoza was extremely real.  And today, the sum total of his major league career is a slang term, derived from his futility at  one-half of his  profession.  There’s a mystery in that futility that’s worth exploring, one that no doubt Mendoza himself wondered about:  Why am I only half good at baseball?  How can hands that scoop grounders with ease be so worthless when it comes to swinging a bat?

Jeremiah was the most futile prophet that the Old Testament records.  There is a reason he is called the “wailing prophet”, and it’s not because he was the inspiration for Captain Ahab.  It’s because at every turn, his repentance calls to Jerusalem generated no response at all.  In his vocation as prophet, tension existed between the results of his work and the way he was called to do it in Jeremiah 1.

The word of the LORD came to me, saying,  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

“Alas, Sovereign LORD,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am too young”….

…Then the LORD reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “I have put my words in your mouth.  See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

The opening paragraphs of Jeremiah describe a personal call to Jeremiah coupled with a mandate to speak God’s truth to the rebellious people of Judah.  Yet for the rest of his recorded ministry, Jeremiah gets no results.  Chapter after chapter of the biblical record captures both Jeremiah’s diligence and skill at ministering God’s word, and the city of Jerusalem’s complete disinterest in hearing it.  Jeremiah was good at what he did.  But no one cared, and nothing changed.

This tension bred frustration in Jeremiah, and he was not shy to express it.  His reputation for ‘wailing’ comes from from his regular outbursts of despondence, often addressed to the Lord.  He accused God of seducing him with promises of power and prestige.  Jeremiah complained that God abandoned him and reneged on his promise for support.    He even expressed regret that he had ever been born, asking “Why did I ever come out of the womb to see trouble and sorrow and to end my days in shame?”

It reminds me of West Virginia.  West Virginia has a random, but real, place in my heart.  I love that the sky is overcast every time I drive through, like the state government banned sunshine, and the jet stream obeyed.  I love that my sister and I once ate at a place named ‘Biscuit World’ along I-64.  I love that my brother and I once slept in a West Virginia rest stop after vaporizing a deer with our car in Maryland at 2 AM.  West Virginia is just great.

West Virginia is also one of the poorest states in America.  Its literacy rates are near the bottom of national rankings.  Its per capita income is half that of California’s.   Most Americans dismiss it as a backwater, as if it were just a haven for yokels and hillbillies.  It has no cachet, no sexiness, no spark to commend it to others.   Yet it is also is part of God’s creation, a thing that He made and pronounced good.  And so sometimes I imagine West Virginia as a person, like Mario Mendoza, or Jeremiah, looking at its endless green landscape that hides so much poverty and hopelessness, and wondering how it can be so good and so bad at the same time.  “Didn’t you make me?” I can hear West Virginia asking the Lord.  “If you did, how come you made me badly?”

Most of us have felt this way at one time or another.  This is the question in the body language of the office worker, slumped in his cubicle, swamped by emails and spreadsheets and and fax confirmations.  It’s the question in the pregnancy test, negative again, telling a couple that their desire for a family will go unfulfilled a while longer.  It’s the question in Mario Mendoza’s hands, and in West Virginia’s coal fields, and in Jeremiah’s ministry.

The answer comes, not in any secret formula to achieve success, or in a magic code to ward off failure, but in a reminder.  “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart…”  These were God’s first words to Jeremiah.  The foundation of God’s call to Jeremiah was in his known-ness.  Before he said “…I have put my words in your mouth.  I have appointed you…” God told Jeremiah that he was created.

To ask God if he has “made us badly”, we first admit that He “made us” at all.  This is the blessing that framed all of Jeremiah’s complaints and self-doubt, and that frames us as well.

Years earlier, the same promise moved King David to poetry in Psalm 139: “You have searched me, LORD, and you know me….I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made…Your eyes saw my unformed body; all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”

Into the midst of our confusing lives comes the blessing of being fully known to the God of the universe.  We may feel like an accident, but we are not.  We are an un-enigma, an anti-riddle, the opposite of a mystery.  While we fret about if our lives are going right or if we’re doing as well as we should, God blesses us with a reminder of how completely on purpose we are.  While we try to unravel the mystery of why we suck at hitting baseballs, or being a good American state, or preaching repentance to ancient Semitic people, God speaks- “Before I formed you, I knew you…”

Mario Mendoza has taken his piece of baseball infamy with good humor.  Perhaps its because he knows that’s the best way to deflect attention from it, or because he’s just a naturally positive person.  But hopefully it’s because he learned from Jeremiah that his hands aren’t worthless because they hit .200- they’re worth everything because God made them in the first place.

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