A longtime utility infielder who played a dozen years for three National League teams, Mike Mordecai made more appearances for the Montreal Expos than for any other club, but had his most memorable moments with key postseason hits that helped the Atlanta Braves and the Florida Marlins win World Series titles.
An Alabama native who attended high school and college in his birth state, “Mordecai was a three—sport star at Hewitt—Trussville, but stuck with baseball for college. At the University of South Alabama, he was a two—time All—American and named to the All—Sun Belt Conference team each year. In 1987, he helped the Jaguars to the conference title.”
After languishing in the minors for six years, Mordecai played four games in the strike—shortened 1994 campaign. On May 10, facing Philadelphia’s closer Doug Jones, Mordecai got his first career hit and his only one of the season by pulling a three—run homer to left on a 1—and—2 pitch in the bottom of the ninth. The blast helped Atlanta rally from an 8—1 ninth—inning deficit in a game the Braves won 9—8 in 15 innings in a most unlikely fashion: a walk—off bunt single by relief pitcher Mike Stanton.
Mordecai made the 1995 Braves after hitting .412 in spring training and became a father with the birth of daughter Taylor Mae on April 27. He had his best offensive season as a 27—year—old rookie with career highs in on—base percentage (.353) and slugging (.480).
Atlanta faced Colorado in a tightly contested Division Series. The Braves won the opening game, 5—4, but trailed 4—3 going into the ninth inning of Game Two. A double by Chipper Jones and a single by Fred McGriff quickly tied the score. Three batters later, Mordecai batted for reliever Alejandro Peña with two on, two outs, and the game still tied. Darren Holmes, the third pitcher the Rockies used in the frame, fell behind Mordecai. “With a 3—and—0 count, I was looking for a fastball,” Mordecai said. “I had to get it if he gave it to me, and he gave it to me. You look at the playoffs as a chance to prove something.” Mordecai’s hard RBI groundball single between the second—base bag and the shortstop gave Atlanta a 5—4 lead in a game the Braves would win 7—4.
Mordecai had the right mentality for a long—term reserve. “Usually it’s the seventh, eighth, or ninth innings when you have to deliver,” he said. “You are in the game to help secure the ‘W’ already set up by the name guys. You’re in there to finish the deal, and that is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether people know your name or not at that point. It’s all about winning.”
In Game Three, Atlanta trailed 5—3 in the seventh when Mordecai had another key RBI pinch—hit, a double this time that plated Ryan Klesko. Mordecai remained in the game and came up for a second time with one out in the bottom of the ninth. The Rockies clung to a 5—4 lead as Mordecai and Holmes again went head—to—head with runners on the corners this time. Mordecai’s fly to left failed to score the tying run, but Luis Polonia did by singling with two outs. Colorado won the game in extra innings, but Atlanta captured the fourth game, the NLCS, and the World Series.
Beginning in 1996, Mordecai went into a three—year batting slump with OPS figures of .639, .449, and .602. A series of injuries started his slide. Mordecai had surgery on his elbow after the World Series and “a hairline fracture in his right wrist” that landed him on the disabled list during the first month of the 1996 season.
Mordecai hit his nadir in 1997 by batting just .173 with only three extra—base hits in 89 plate appearances. The Braves allowed him to sign as a free agent with division rival Montreal. While the move allowed Mordecai to go north geographically, he now played on a team well south of Atlanta in the standings.
A resurgence of sorts north of the border began in 1999 when Mordecai broke the 100—game mark for the only time in his career and also set a career high in homers with five and walks with 20. Stephanie Myles, who covered the Expos for the Montreal Gazette and was a correspondent for The Sporting News, damned Mordecai with faint praise, writing of him in 1999 that he “struggled less this year than last. He has had problems hitting breaking pitches, but that largely has been the result of not playing enough. Mordecai has hit well when he has made several consecutive starts, and his defense has been exemplary.”
Mordecai married Jennifer Meredith (his second wife) on February 5, 2000. She gave birth to their first son, Jackson, on August 2. Sons Jacob and John followed.
In 2001 Mordecai attained highs in hits (71), doubles (17), and RBIs (32). On Opening Day, Myles wrote, he “made his major league debut as the emergency catcher after backup Sandy Martinez blew out his elbow … in Chicago. Mordecai … played every position in the infield this year, and … is the type of player who figures to be a manager someday.”
Commissioner Bud Selig sought to execute the Expos (and Twins) via contraction, but he could not immediately eliminate the once—proud Montreal franchise. Selig nevertheless provided Expos owner Jeffrey Loria with a golden parachute that safely and softly landed him with the Florida Marlins franchise, while the suits at the Manhattan offices of Major League Baseball tightened the Montreal purse strings, essentially sealing their Canadian doom. Who would root for a team owned by absentee owners in another country that declined to invest in the ballpark or the roster? Opting to focus on baseball rather these machinations, Mordecai opined optimistically during 2002 spring training: “I look at the season as one long audition. … The eyes of baseball will be on us.”
The eyes of baseball rarely focused on Mordecai, but Loria’s new team ironically rescued him. On July 11, 2002, Florida and Montreal made a trade that eventually involved seven players. The Expos included Mordecai as a throw—in with the boldfaced names of Carl Pavano and Graeme Lloyd going to the Marlins and Cliff Floyd and Wilton Guerrero returning to Canada.
Florida won its second World Series in 2003. Mordecai played in neither the NLDS nor the World Series, and had only one hit in six NLCS plate appearances, but his second and last postseason double put an exclamation point on one of the most notorious innings in baseball history.
The Marlins battled the Cubs in the NLCS. The teams split the first two games. In Game Three Florida trailed 4—3 in the bottom of the eighth. Miguel Cabrera led off with a single. Mordecai pinch—hit and sacrificed Cabrera to second. With two outs, Todd Hollandsworth singled in the tying run. Mordecai stayed in the game and had a chance to win the game. Facing Joe Borowski with two outs and the bases loaded, Mordecai flied to center. Chicago won 5—4 in 11 innings.
The Cubs won Game Four before the Marlins took Game Five. Chicago needed but one win in two Wrigley Field contests to return to the World Series for the first time since 1945. As part of a double switch, Mordecai entered Game Six in the bottom of the seventh inning with Florida down 2—0. The Cubs soon extended their lead to 3—0. When Chicago’s Mark Prior retired Mordecai to start the eighth, the Marlins had a win expectancy of only 5 percent.
Juan Pierre doubled before Luis Castillo hit a foul fly. Moises Alou, the left fielder for the Cubs, seemingly had a play as the ball descended into the front rows of the Wrigley stands, but Chicago fan Steve Bartman ended up with the ball, Castillo ended up walking, and a nightmare scenario for the cursed Cubs had commenced.
Mordecai would bat again in the same frame. After Castillo, Florida batters singled, reached on an error, doubled, walked (intentionally), hit a sacrifice fly, and walked (again intentionally). Kyle Farnsworth faced Mordecai with two outs and the bases loaded. The Marlins led 4—3. Doing color commentary on Fox, Al Leiter, a still—active left—handed pitcher with the Mets, presciently commented before the 2—and—1 pitch that Mordecai “has always been a very good fastball hitter.”
In the 20th and final plate appearance of his postseason career, Mordecai cleared the sacks with a screaming double off the bottom of the ivy—covered wall in left—center. Leiter continued, saying Mordecai “waited for the fastball and jumped all over it.” Thanks to the two—bagger, Florida now enjoyed a commanding 7—3 advantage. Pierre drove Mordecai in with a single, and the Marlins maintained the 8—3 score to even the NLCS.
“When I faced Farnsworth … the adrenaline was flowing because we were back in the game,” Mordecai recalled. “I knew he threw hard and the ball ran a little bit. I was thinking, ‘Just one more run and we have a two—run lead. I’ll take that.’ I felt like if I could fake a bunt on that first pitch and draw the infield in a little bit, I might hit a blooper off the end of the bat and that might be the difference.
“I missed a really good pitch when I led the inning off against Prior. Didn’t put a good swing on it. I worked the count in my favor and put a better swing on a 2—and—1 pitch and hit a ball to the left—center field gap off the wall. That was an exciting time.”
Although still playing in Florida, Mordecai became a footnote in Montreal baseball history on September 29, 2004. The Marlins led the Expos 9—1 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth at Stade Olympique. Terrmel Sledge popped to third. Mordecai made the putout that finished the game and ended the run that the Expos had begun in Montreal in 1969. (The franchise ended the season at Shea Stadium.)
“I’m probably the last guy who should have caught that ball, but it happened the way it happened,” said Mordecai. “It was weird walking off the field, because I’m thinking, ‘Man, I really grew up here as a big—league ballplayer and now that’s it, they’re moving.’”
Mordecai retired after the 2004 season but stayed with the Florida organization. In 2005 he managed the short—season Jamestown Jammers to a 31—44 record. “We started good and finished bad,” Mordecai said. “I enjoyed it a lot.”
Just short of enough service time to qualify for a 10—year pension, Mordecai returned to the Marlins after the rosters expanded in September with Florida in the mix for the wild card. The specter of Mordecai magic lurked. After rejoining the team, he humble—bragged, “Obviously, some of the younger [players] have never been in a race like this. I’ve done it a couple of times. … Does that mean I’m any more capable of helping out than they are? You never know. We’ll just have to wait and see how that pans out.”
Mordecai went hitless in two at—bats, and the Marlins missed the playoffs.
Mordecai has bounced around baseball ever since. He coached at Houston Academy in Dothan, Alabama, before joining Toronto as a minor—league infield coordinator. In that role, “he earned rave reviews for his defensive work with then prospect Brett Lawrie.”
In 2019 Mordecai returned to minor—league managing with Toronto’s Double—A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. “I would like an opportunity to manage at the major league level,” Mordecai told a newsman. “To get to that position there are many different routes. … I’m here to help players. I want to do what’s best for the organization. … I’m relaxed, but there are expectations.”
Mordecai seemingly gave up on or postponed these plans when partway through the season he announced he would leave the Toronto organization and return to coaching at Northside Methodist Academy in Dothan. “Getting back close to the family and spending some time at home with my wife and kids and still be a part of baseball and teaching young people, not only sports, but the game of life is what has drawn me (back to Dothan),” Mordecai said. … “I feel like I kind of fulfilled everything I wanted to do (in the big leagues). … I would love to be a big—league manager someday, but there are way too much hoops of fire to jump through for that to happen.”
1 Michael Seale, “Who Is the Most Famous Former Husky?” [Trussville, Alabama] Patch, June 27, 2018. “Mordecai is one of the all—time greats to play at South Alabama. In his three years, he led USA to one Sun Belt title and two NCAA Tournament appearances, including the regional championship in 1987. … Owns four school records including career marks for runs scored (235) and hits (277). … He holds single—season records for at—bats (262) and runs scored (94). … Ranks third in career batting average (.373) and RBI (174). … Played in 195 career games, fourth best in USA history. … Ranks sixth in career homers with 26.” usajaguars.com/hof.aspx?hof=24 (accessed August 5, 2019).
2 Jones threw a changeup or a hanging offspeed pitch that stayed in the middle of the plate. See youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2124&v=zE2MBAAwa_Q (accessed August 2, 2019).
3 Todd Thompson, “Mordecai Recalls Games in Sheffield,” Florence (Alabama) Times Daily, December 23, 1995: 3D.
4 Jay Privman, “Braves Pull Away From Rockies for 2—0 Lead,” New York Times, October 5, 1995.
5 youtube.com/watch?v=fSkMRUFGLKY (accessed August 5, 2019).
6 Craig Barnes, “Handy Man to Have Around,” South Florida Sun—Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale), March 16, 2003.
7 Tim Luke, “Atlanta Braves,” The Sporting News, February 5, 1996: 45.
8 Bill Zack, “Atlanta Braves,” The Sporting News, April 29, 1996: 28.
9 Stephanie Myles, “Montreal,” The Sporting News, October 4, 1999: 59.
10 Stephanie Myles, “Montreal Expos,” The Sporting News, September 10, 2001: 48. Mordecai allegedly had a gift for discerning pitches. “In Mordecai’s estimation, if he sees three pitchers per game a week he can pinpoint how 10 or 12 are tipping. He has been looking for tendencies since his A—ball days in 1989. Juan C. Rodriguez, “Private Eye Mordecai Is Marlins’ Top Dugout Spy,” South Florida Sun—Sentinel, March 21, 2004.
11 Michael Farber, “Last Swing in Montreal,” Sports Illustrated, March 18, 2002. The Expos hung on in Montreal for three more years, and the mastermind of their move unjustly sailed on to Cooperstown (adding delayed insult to previous injury, Selig went to the Hall of Fame in the same class as Montreal stalwart Tim Raines), a stupefying outcome for those who see a commissioner’s job as growing rather than contracting a sport.
12 youtube.com/watch?v=nOyQEmAs6u8 (accessed August 5, 2019).
13 Roger Brown, “New Fisher Cats Manager Helped Ruin Some Childhoods,” New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester), January 14, 2019.
14 Shi Davidi, “Former Expo Mike Mordecai Flooded with Memories in Return to Montreal,” Sportsnet, March 26, 2018. Actually, Mordecai aptly made the catch given his appreciation for international players. Fifteen years later, he observed, “If Lou Gehrig or Babe Ruth or Jackie Robinson came back today and saw the game, they might not recognize it. They would say, ‘What the hell?’ to the defensive shifts or the relievers starting games. But you know what? If you told them that there’s a right fielder from Germany or a pitcher from Lithuania or a catcher who’s from Italy, they might actually like that. They would see that the national pastime has gone global.” Steve Wulf, “Twins’ Max Kepler Leading Baseball’s Charge Into Europe,” ESPN, June 27, 2019.
15 Associated Press, “The Marlins’ Mordecai: Player—Manager—Player,” New York Times, September 25, 2005.
16 Kevin Baxter, “Vet Is ‘Ready to Help,’” Miami Herald, September 14, 2005.
17 baseballcoachesclinic.com/site/mike—mordecai/ (accessed August 2, 2019).
18 Roger Brown, “Fishers Make Former Major Leaguer Mordecai New Manager,” New Hampshire Union Leader, January 10, 2019.
19 David Mundee, “Mordecai Returning to Coach Baseball at Northside Methodist,” Dothan (Alabama) Eagle, July 31, 2019.
This biography appears in Braves Win! Braves Win! Braves Win! The 1995 World Champion Atlanta Braves (SABR, 2020), edited by Tom Hufford and Bill Nowlin. SABR members can download the e—book for free or get 50% off the paperback edition at SABR.org/ebooks.