Every summer at about this time, a battle is waged by a cadre of struggling hitters trying to push their batting averages past .200 — baseball's dreaded Mendoza Line.

It is not pretty to watch previously productive hitters like Brad Ausmus and Pat Burrell, Royce Clayton and David Bell hovering around the Line this season. Mendoza never was thrilled about living in that neighborhood, either.

Mario Mendoza was a slick fielding shortstop who was offensively challenged. In parts of nine seasons with Pittsburgh, Seattle and Texas, he batted under .200 five times. His first full-time season was 1979 when the Pirates traded him to the Mariners. He played 148 games and batted .198.

Others — especially in his clubhouse — noticed his hitting problems and invented the Mendoza Line. Most accounts blame the creation of the term on Tom Paciorek, who pleaded innocent.

"I was there, but I swear it was not me," Paciorek said. "I get blamed for everything. I am an innocent victim of circumstances. I didn't invent it, but I don't deny using it."

If not Paciorek, then who?

"It was Bochte," he said.

Bruce Bochte was a productive first baseman who batted .282 in a 12-year major league career. He was in Seattle with Paciorek and Mendoza in 1979 and remains a suspect. He did not return phone calls to confirm or deny the accusation.

Another suspect is Hall of Famer George Brett. In 1980, when he batted .390, Brett was asked about batting averages and reportedly said, "The first thing I look for in the Sunday papers is who's below the Mendoza Line."

Mendoza's manager in Seattle was Darrell Johnson.

"He was a tremendous shortstop. Smooth, graceful, everything a shortstop could use," Johnson said. "But he struggled with the bat."

That seems an understatement.

Johnson said he did not recall teammates getting on Mendoza about his hitting.

"One ballplayer to another wouldn't do that," he said. "If you didn't hustle, a player might get after you. But not for not hitting.

"Mario was a good guy, but I guess you'd better be a good guy if you can't hit."

For his part, Paciorek remembered Mendoza as a fun teammate.

"He always picked on Willie Horton, jabbing him, fooling with him," Paciorek said.

Horton, a home run hitter with muscles on his muscles, was troubled by the slender Mendoza, who wore thick glasses.

"I remember one spring-training bus ride, Willie was sleeping next to me," Paciorek said. "He must have been dreaming. He jumped up and said, 'Get away from me, you crazy Mexican!"'

The innocent Mendoza merely giggled. It wasn't so funny when he tried to hit, though. "We used to say his bat jumped off the ball," Paciorek said.

Mendoza's dreadful 1979 stood as the most games played in a season while batting below .200 until Steve Jeltz beat it with Philadelphia in 1988, batting .187 in 148 games. Jeltz's career average for eight seasons was .210, compared to Mendoza's .215.

You never hear about the Jeltz Line, though.

After retiring, Mendoza stayed in baseball as a minor league manager in a variety of venues from Palm Springs and Lake Elsinore in the California League to Midland and Shreveport in the Texas League. This season, he managed Dos Laredos in the Mexican League.

His fame even reached Athens, Ga., where musicians Pete Hoffman and Tim Bracy, both huge baseball fans, formed a rock band and searched for a name.

"I was writing an ill-fated series of sports-related songs," Hoffman said. "They were so terrible, they were never recorded. Anyway, one was about the Mendoza Line. I told Tim about the song and he said, 'Hey, that would be a great name for the band.' The name stuck."

So did Mendoza's reputation.

"It's not such a bad thing," Paciorek decided. "It keeps his name alive. Mario's legacy is being perpetuated."

Consider that an autographed Mendoza baseball goes for a pricey $143.10 on the Internet, marked down from $159. An autographed card is available for $26.10, down from $29.

Both are under $200, of course.