I was amused by Jonathan Last’s analysis (H/T Mark Hemingway of The Weekly Standard) as to why he thinks Mitt Romney will again fail to win the GOP nomination. Last argues that Romney has no “core constituency” and has an abysmal election record – GOP primaries included:
Combine that with the rest of his runs and you get a 17-year career average of 5-18. I don’t think you could find any other figure in politics who has run this far below the Mendoza line and still managed to get taken seriously as a presidential candidate.
For those of you unfamiliar with the Mendoza Line, it refers to the batting futility of Mario Mendoza who played in the big leagues from 1974 to 1982 with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers. While Mendoza was a good fielding shortstop, his offense was anemic. In nine big league seasons, the Mexican born infielder had a lifetime batting average of .215. In general terms, the Mendoza Line refers to any batter who has a batting average of .200 or below.
The term “Mendoza Line” was coined by Kansas City Royals legend George Brett. During a slump early in the 1980 season. Brett told reporters, “The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who hit below the Mendoza line.” That season, Brett would flirt with history as he nearly became the first player to hit .400 since Ted Williams almost forty years earlier. Brett would hit .390 for the AL champion Royals and win the AL MVP. Curiously, Mendoza also hit a career high .245 in 118 games for the Mariners that season.
Now I think that Last is being somewhat unfair to Romney. Last characterizes Romney as being “far below the Mendoza Line” when, in fact, Romney is slightly above it. If we take Romney’s 5-18 record as a batting statistic, it means Romney has gone 5 for 23 which translates into a batting average of .217. Even if Romney isn’t actually below the Mendoza Line, he is far too close to it. A .217 batting average would only be acceptable if a) you are a National League pitcher or b) are a prodigious homerun hitter like Dave Kingman. In 1982, while with the New York Mets, Kingman batted only .204 but slammed 37 homeruns and posted 99 RBI. This generation’s Kingman would be Baltimore Orioles third baseman Mark Reynolds. Last season, while with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Reynolds hit .198 but belted 32 homeruns along with 85 RBI. In his first season with the Orioles, Reynolds has raised his average nearly thirty points to a modest .226 along with 31 homeruns and 72 RBI. Carlos Pena of the Chicago Cubs could also stake a claim as Kingman’s heir. I think it would be fair to say that Last thinks of Romney as neither a National League pitcher nor a power hitter. Suffice it to say, Mendoza hit only four homeruns during his entire big league career.
Yet one could make the argument that Brett unfairly singled out Mendoza. Yes, Mendoza will never be confused for Ted Williams yet he was hardly the only weak hitter of his era. What about The Kelleher Line? Mick Kelleher was a contemporary of Mendoza who played in the big leagues as an infielder from 1972 to 1982 with the St. Louis Cardinals, Houston Astros, Chicago Cubs, Detroit Tigers and the California Angels. His lifetime batting average was .213 – two points below Mendoza. Yet Kelleher, who has been the New York Yankees first base coach since 2009, never achieved Mendoza’s notoriety. In over 1,200 big league plate appearances, Kelleher never hit a homerun. I mean even Duane Kuiper, best known for calling San Francisco Giants games, hit one homerun. To be fair, Kuiper did have a respectable .271 lifetime batting average in twelve big league seasons. Kuiper hit more than 50 points above Kelleher, Mendoza and Romney.
Now Last does make a point of counting Romney’s decision not to run for re-election here in Massachusetts in 2006 as a loss. Last notes that some “might be more charitable” on that score. But I’m inclined to agree with Last. If Romney had run for re-election, Deval Patrick would have beat him as nearly as convincingly as he beat Romney’s Lieutenant Governor, Kerry Healey and his presidential ambitions would have been stopped dead in their tracks. Romney declined to run for his own political survival. Indeed, by February 2005, Romney was openly bad mouthing the Bay State while outside its borders. Coincidentally, it was also probably the last time Jon Huntsman would publicly refer to Romney as “the most exciting and effective leader in the Republican Party today.”
If there is a silver lining for Romney it’s that his past performance doesn’t necessarily guarantee what will happen in the future. Even a guy who’s batting .217 could get hot. At the moment, it appears that Michele Bachmann peaked too soon and it’s now Rick Perry’s race to lose. If Perry does stumble chances are Romney would be the beneficiary. With that said, if Romney were to somehow lose the New Hampshire primary again it would be game over. So Romney does have two strikes against him. But he does have one more pitch coming. Let’s see what he can do with it.