September 27, 2022

Manny Mota Mojo

August 20, 2022 by · Leave a Comment 

Manny Mota 1963 Topps baseball cardI’ve amassed a large collection of autographed baseball cards (around 3,000) over the years, but my policy has generally been to avoid paying for autographs and catch the players at the ballpark, on the practice fields at spring training, or at off-season fan fests, winter warm-ups, caravans, or whatever they call them.

Recently, however, I went to a baseball card show and came across a card autographed by Manny Mota. Right away I knew I would make an exception to my rule – and not just because the price was a reasonable $5.00. Why would I make that exception?

Well, to my mind Manny Mota was exceptional – but certainly not in a physical sense. He stood 5’10” and weighed 160-170 pounds. In other words, pretty much average size in the pre-obesity, pre-HGH days of yore. Sure, he looked good in an MLB uniform, but who wouldn’t?  In civvies Manny Mota was just an average BMI kind of guy.

Mota never played for my hometown Phillies, but as a lifelong NL career man, he came to town on a regular basis. His name evokes pleasant memories of lazy afternoons and muggy evenings at Connie Mack Stadium and Veterans Stadium. But I also have pleasant memories of numerous visiting ballplayers not named Manny Mota. What made him so special?

Well, it wasn’t just my opinion. A number of my friends also thought Manny was cool. Nobody could explain why, but coolness isn’t given to rational explication. In fact, an attempt to define it or explain it would only dissipate the aura as well as the essence of cool.

Once we name something, however, we have begun to define it, and the name Manny Mota is a key clue to his coolness.

Manny Mota has a mellifluous sound: two words, four syllables, accents on syllables one and three. If you prefer, think of the name as one word: mannymota. It almost sounds like a noun, not a proper name. Imagine it in an unabridged dictionary between other four-syllable words like Manichaean and manumission.

So how would one define mannymota?  Consider the cognates (more or less) manual and motor, which are almost antonyms. Manual is an adjective pertaining to labor done by hand – literally the human touch. A motor is a device that, among other things, represents the triumph of mechanization over that human touch. So manualmotor or mannymota fuses these antithetical concepts!  It’s a classic Hegelian dialectic: thesis (made by hand) plus antithesis (manufactured by machine) = synthesis (mannymota)!

A good name makes for a good start in life, but Manny did not name himself. We can thank Manny’s parents for that, though I doubt they were Hegelians.

Manny Mota a/k/a Manuel Rafael Mota y Geronimo, a native of the Dominican Republic, was born in 1938 and signed by the Giants in 1957.  Working his way up the minor league ladder, he hit .349 for the Double-A El Paso Sun Kings in 1962 and was promoted to the big club.

Manny was one of the last players signed by the New York Giants; also, he is on the rapidly diminishing list of old-timers who played at much-maligned Colt Stadium, the modular monstrosity that preceded the Astrodome. Manny, however, never played for the Colt .45’s, no matter what it says on his 1963 Topps card. To be sure, he was traded to Houston, but just as the youth of America surely flipped his ’63 cards, the Colts flipped him to Pittsburgh before the season started. So Mota’s appearances at Colt Stadium were in the sleeveless grey uniform of the visiting Pirates.

Manny was a valuable part-timer – guess you could say he played irregularly on a regular basis – mostly as an outfielder, with the Pirates. In 1968, however, his batting average dropped 40 points, so at age 30 he was expendable again. As sort of a backhanded compliment, the Montreal Expos made Manny their first pick in the expansion draft.

Manny’s tenure north of the border was brief, as he was traded to the Dodgers on June 11. He didn’t realize it at the time, he had not only found a home but was on his way to becoming a legend.

After being acquired by the Dodgers, Manny never hit less than .300 as a platoon player through 1973, when Sparky Anderson named him to the NL All-Star squad. At age 35, it looked as though his career had peaked. Not hardly. In subsequent years, he played much less while his legend grew, thanks to his exploits as a pinch-hitter. After 1973, that was his specialty.

In 1979 at age 41, Mota surpassed Smokey Burgess (145 career pinch-hits) to become the all-time pinch-hit leader. He retired with 150 safeties. Since then, his total has been eclipsed by Mark Sweeney (175) and Lenny Harris (212).

Now we cannot claim that Mota was tearing the cover off the ball in setting his record. From 1973 through 1982, he had just one home run (in 1977). When he retired he had 1,149 hits. All but 208 were singles. His lifetime BA was .304, his slugging percentage just .389. In 1979, when he set the career pinch-hit record, all 15 of his hits were singles.

On the other hand, if you had men on base and wanted a batter who could make contact and make something happen, Mota was your man. In 4226 plate appearances he struck out just 320 times. From 1974 till the end of his career, when he was used almost exclusively as a pinch-hitter, he had just 18 strikeouts in 279 at bats. In 1975 he had one in 49 AB; in 1977 he had none in 38 AB.

So Mota was something of a throwback, a deadball era hitter. He couldn’t have stood out more if he had used a bottle bat. But why does Mota deserve extra credit for being a contact hitter?  What difference does it make whether one strikes out, flies out, or grounds out?  As Gertrude Stein once opined in a baseball debate with fellow expatriate Ernest Hemingway, “An out is an out is an out.”  Well, redundancy aside, baseball is more interesting when it’s like pinball. Putting the ball in play makes things happen.

Today contact hitters are déclassé if not downright passé, and pinch-hitters are also increasingly rare. The DH rule has removed the weakest bat in the lineup, thus narrowing opportunities for pinch-hitters. With teams carrying more and more pitchers, there are fewer and fewer bench players, and hence fewer slots for pinch-hitting specialists. Also, given today’s MLB salaries, GM’s are understandably reluctant to pay even a minimum big-league salary (currently $700,000) to a guy who spends 99% of his time on the bench.  On the other hand, it’s a sweet gig if you can land it.

During Manny Mota’s mature years (1974-1982), he never came to the plate more than 72 times. He rarely played the outfield. He maxed out at 6 games (1975 and 1976) in left field. In 1977 he made just one appearance in left field. In 1979 he made none. Granted, he was 41 years old that year and had likely lost a step or two or three, but he was still on that 25-man roster. Despite the fact that he was used so sparingly, he still got that full-time paycheck plus benefits.

And I think that’s the underlying reason why I found Manny Mota so appealing. During Manny’s heyday with the Dodgers, I was anywhere from 19 to 30 years old. In the early going, I was finishing school and wondering where I would fit into the world and what my life’s work would be. Later I was experiencing the world of full-time work…changing jobs, paying off student loans, and doing the time-honored deferred-gratification thing.

As my work experience mounted, day by day, more and more the question arose, “Is that all there is?”  I was ready for retirement, but that was not an option. I eventually made my peace with trudging through drudgery, but my work ethic lacked enthusiasm. The fault was within me; it had nothing to do with my environment.  I did my duty but without conspicuous gallantry; I was a slacker at heart. What would become of me?

Well, Manny Mota didn’t know it, but he was a role model. I would not say Manny Mota was a slacker, but he had slack. Like cool, slack has a slippery definition – but it’s a positive trait. Look how it worked for Manny Mota in his glory years:

Mota stayed at the best hotels and had ample meal money, medical coverage, and a great pension plan. Most days he only worked for a few minutes – if at all. If he did get a base hit, it was almost always a single, so he didn’t have to break a sweat running out a double or a triple. The rest of the time he got to sit back and watch baseball. He had it made in the (dugout) shade. Sure, he had to participate in batting practice most days, but that isn’t work. Most people pay to swing the bat in batting cages at amusement centers.

Imagine the equivalent of Manny Mota in a conventional place of employment:

A secretary is called in from the break room to type one letter, then goes back to the break room. For this, she gets a full-time paycheck plus benefits and maternity leave.

An auto worker is awakened by his foreman and called in to tighten one nut on one bolt on a car moving along the assembly line. Mission accomplished, he goes back to his hammock and goes back to sleep. For this, he gets a full-time paycheck plus benefits. Admittedly, he still has to pay union dues.

A short-order cook punches in, flips one hamburger, then punches out. After this trying day, he gets a full-time paycheck plus benefits and free on-site  meals.

A surgeon cleans up and dons the scrubs, then heads to the operating room where an appendectomy patient is waiting to be closed up. The surgeon makes one stitch, then calls it a day and heads for the golf course. The hospital gives him a full-time paycheck, all the usual physician privileges and employee benefits – including a matching 401-K plan!

A cosmetic clerk goes to work behind the counter at a local department store, sells one tube of lipstick, then calls it a day. She still gets a full-time paycheck plus benefits, company discounts on merchandise, plus free meals at the employee cafeteria.

Nice work if you can get it, eh?  Well, Manny Mota got it!

Put me in coach, I’m ready to play…a little bit. On the other hand…if you don’t, that’s all right too. Wake me if you need me. Either way, I’m adding to my service time for the MLB pension plan.

When Manny finally called it quits, he had 20 years of service time. That pinch-hit record was a nice addition to his résumé, but to my mind the most notable aspect of his career was the minimalism of his later years. Talk about a state of grace!

So that’s why I spent $5.00 for an autographed Manny Mota card. I sensed a kindred spirit. In fact, after purchasing the card, I flipped it over, read the vital statistics on the back, and discovered another reason why Manny was so simpatico. Let me digress for a paragraph.

If you’ve ever seen those astrological squibs about “Born on this day…” you have likely checked your birthday to see whom you share it with. Typically, the famous writers, actors, politicians, scientists, artists, whatever…seem about as far away from you as the man in the moon. But every now and then a name rings true.

On February 18, the day I was born, Manny Mota came into the world (in 1938). So he has been walking the earth for 84½ years. Given the stress-free life he has led, he will likely enjoy many more.

Or should I say manny more?

 

REFERENCES AND RESOURCES:

SABR Biography of Manny Mota by Rory Costello

www.baseballalmanac.com

www.baseballreference.com

1963 Topps MLB Card Set, #141 (Manny Mota)

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