Cooperstown Confidential: The wonderful world of Manny Motaby Bruce Markusen
June 21, 2013
Few ballplayers, no matter how good or even great, will ever have their names mentioned in a major motion picture. That stuff is mostly reserved for the legends, the iconic likes of Ruth, DiMaggio, Mantle, Mays, and Robinson.
Yet, there are exceptions to this rule of celebrity. Manny Mota is one of those. If you remember the classic comedy hit of 1980, Airplane!, you might recall that the names of two journeymen ballplayers were mentioned during the film. As troubled pilot Ted Striker (played by Robert Hays) takes control of the damaged airplane, he starts to hear voices in his head. One of the voices is a public address announcer making the following irrelevant announcement. “Now batting for Pedro Borbon… Manny Mota… Mota… Mota.” The strange, immaterial announcement produces a moment of comedy while illustrating Stryker’s fragile mental state.
Mota and the late Borbon (who died in 2011) will never be confused for Ruth, Mantle, or Robinson. But they were sufficiently intertwined with baseball in the 1970s to merit inclusion in one of the funniest movies ever made. It also shouldn’t matter that Mota and Borbon were never teammates in the major leagues. (Perhaps the fact checkers for Airplane did not do their homework. Or more likely, they considered the small factual error irrelevant in a film that parodied the Airport movies of the 1970s.) What should matter is that Mota and Borbon managed to carve out a niche in the game while having an effect on American culture, when most players struggle to achieve any kind of social notoriety.
Why is this pertinent today? Mota made news earlier this spring when he was named one of the three new inductees of the Baseball Reliquary’s Shrine of the Eternals. Mota, Lefty O’Doul, and Eddie Feigner will be honored as members of the Class of 2013 at the Reliquary’s induction ceremony in July. In contrast to the Hall of Fame, the Shrine does not elect players based on their statistical achievements or their level of greatness. WAR (Wins Above Replacement) bears no relevancy in this argument. Rather, election to the shrine, which consists of a fan vote, is based on the player (or anyone else connected to the game) having a significant impact on American culture.
Born in the Dominican and signed as an amateur free agent, Mota began to build his baseball legacy in 1962, when he made his debut for the pennant-winning Giants. After the season, the outfield-rich Giants opted to deal with their excess of young outfielders by trading Mota to the expansion Houston Colt .45s for infielder Joey Amalfitano. But Mota would never appear in a game for the Colts. Just before Opening Day in 1983, the Colt .45s foolishly traded Mota to the Pirates for journeyman outfielder Howie Goss.
With the Pirates, Mota would establish a reputation as one of the game’s most productive singles hitters. Platooning with outfielders like Jerry Lynch and Bill Virdon, Mota showed himself capable of hitting in the .270s while filling in capably as a left fielder and center fielder. By 1966 and ‘67, Mota had become an offensive force, as he posted averages of .332 and .321 in back-to-back seasons.
Blocked by a starting outfield trio of Willie Stargell, Matty Alou, and Roberto Clemente, Mota made the best of the situation by evolving into a role as the game’s best fourth outfielder. Mota benefited from the hitting instruction of manager Harry Walker, who emphasized the importance of hitting line drives and ground balls, and the friendship of Clemente, who provided his fellow Latino with guidance and advice in making the transition to the States.
Mota also contributed with his defense and his versatility. He could handle all three outfield positions and possessed enough flexibility to fill in at third base and second base.
The Pirates would have loved nothing better than to keep Mota in the role of fourth outfielder, but baseball’s decision to expand by four teams ruined that plan. After the 1968 season, the newly-formed Montreal Expos selected the 30-year-old Mota with their first pick in the expansion draft.
Mota started the 1969 season by hitting .315 in his first 31 games. But the impressive batting average came with a caveat. Mota did not drive in a single run through his first 97 plate appearances. He showed virtually no power. Additionally, he was already 31 years old, hardly the age desired by a young and building expansion club.
So on June 11, just four days before the old trading deadline, the Expos decided to make a move. They sent Mota and shortstop Maury Wills to the Dodgers for first baseman/outfielder Ron Fairly and utility infielder Paul Popovich.
No one could have known it at the time, but Mota and the Dodgers would begin an association that would last the better part of 40 years, including time as a player and coach. During his first four seasons with the Dodgers, Mota would hit better than .300 as a platoon outfielder and pinch-hitter.
In 1972, he hit .324 and earned some back-of-the-ballot consideration in the National League MVP race. In 1973, despite being a reserve outfielder and platoon player, he was selected to his first and only All-Star teams by Cincinnati’s Sparky Anderson.
Mota’s proclivity with the bat helped make him a favorite with members of the Los Angeles media. As famed sportswriter Jim Murray once described, Mota could wake up at two o’clock in the morning and hit an aspirin tablet with a toothpick, lining it to right field for a single.
By 1974, the 36-year-old Mota was no longer playing semi-regularly, as the Dodgers instituted a youth movement. Mota moved into the next phase of his career, serving almost strictly as a pinch-hitting specialist. Over the next six years, he never accumulated more than 72 plate appearances in a single season. He hit a grand total of one home run during that span. But he consistently posted batting averages of better than .280, reaching a peak of .395. Most importantly, he became the game’s most prolific pinch-hitter.
During the final days of the 1979 season, Mota collected his 146th career pinch-hit, breaking the major league record set by Smoky Burgess in the 1960s. The milestone pinch-hit capped off another successful season for Mota, who hit .357 in 42 at-bats. That October, President Carter took notice of Mota’s milestone by inviting him to the White Office so that he could personally offer him his congratulations.
Unfortunately, the Dodgers seemed to take more notice of Mota’s birth certificate than his batting average. He was now 41. At the end of the 1979 regular season, the Dodgers released Mota, though they would retain him as the team’s batting coach.
Yet, Mota wasn’t done. Realizing that he still possessed the ability to swing the bat (if not chase down fly balls in left field), the Dodgers took advantage of the expanded regular season roster and activated Mota in September of 1980. Coming to bat seven times, all as a pinch-hitter, the geriatric Mota delivered three more hits. Even at 42, Mota could still swat line drives into the seams of a team’s defense.
After a one-game cameo in 1982, Mota finally called it quits as a player, stepping aside with a lifetime average of .304. But he stayed with the Dodgers as their fulltime hitting coach. He would remain in the position for most of the decade, before transitioning into a role as a part-time coach. Mota would serve as a Dodger coach for a total of 33 seasons, before being taken off the staff and moved into an expanded role as a Spanish language broadcaster in the spring of 2013.
In looking at Mota’s career, his legacy is pronounced on several fronts, making him a deserving candidate for the Baseball Reliquary. Let’s consider these three areas where Mota has had a profound impact.
*Mota perfected the art of pinch-hitting, as evidenced by his lifetime mark of .297 in such situations. Balanced in his batting stance and approach, Mota used a compact and level swing to skillfully spray the ball to all fields. He was particularly adept at taking inside pitches to right field, thanks to a controlled inside-out swing. An aggressive hitter, he showed special aptitude in handling high pitches that most other hitters would have found daunting.
Pinch-hitting has become a lost art, particularly in an era where teams carry too many pitchers and too few backup position players. The pool of good pinch-hitters is simply not very deep. There is no one in today’s game who can match Mota’s skill in coming off the bench and delivering a good at-bat and a line drive—seemingly at a moment’s notice. It might be accurate to call Mota the last of the great pinch-hitters.
*As much as his long playing career, Mota’s staying power as a coach has made him a Dodger favorite. His 33-year tenure with the Dodgers ranks as the second-longest streak for a coach with one team, with only Nick Altrock (42 years) exceeding that number. Mota’s fun-loving, upbeat personality won him the favor of most players, who came to view him as a positive force around the ballpark. His ability to speak both English and Spanish allowed him to connect with both American and Latino ballplayers, an especially important consideration for a batting coach. In particular, Mota became a role model and a positive influence on the many Latino ballplayers who played for the Dodgers from 1980 to the present day.
*Mota has become the patriarch of one of baseball’s greatest families. Two of his sons, Jose and Andy, went on to professional careers as ballplayers, including short tenures in the major leagues. His other sons, Gary and Tony, played minor league ball. One of his cousins, Jose Baez, played for the Mariners in the late 1970s. And then there is the admirable work that he and his wife Margarita have done in running the Manny Mota International Foundation. The organization provides assistance to underprivileged youngsters and their families in both the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Like the late Clemente, Mota conducts free baseball clinics for disadvantaged children.
Earning a mention in one of the best comedic films of all-time ranks as a pretty good accomplishment in and of itself. But there is much more to Manny Mota than that, as fans of the Baseball Reliquary already know very well.
Bruce Markusen is the author of seven books on baseball, including the award-winning A Baseball Dynasty: Charlie Finley’s Swingin’ A’s, the recipient of the Seymour Medal from the Society for American Baseball Research. He has also written The Team That Changed Baseball: Roberto Clemente and the 1971 Pittsburgh Pirates, Tales From The Mets Dugout, and The Orlando Cepeda Story.
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