Don’t overstate the importance of Jeffrey Maier. Yes, he likely cost the Orioles a playoff game in the 1996 American League Championship Series; but despite how many Os fans recall the incident, it wasn’t a pivotal game—the 1996 Orioles could blame themselves (and the eventual world champions, my beloved Yankees) more than the 12-year old in the right field stands.
Here’s how many Orioles fans (judging by the arguments I’ve had with them over the years) remember the Maier incident: Baltimore, in their recollection, won the first game of the series, in New York (baseball still followed the quaint practice of playing the first game in a playoff series at the park of the team with home field advantage) and was leading in Game Two when in the bottom of the eighth rookie shortstop Derek Jeter arced a fly ball toward Yankee Stadium’s short right field porch. Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco drifted back and as he bumped up against the padded blue wall, just to the right of the “Nobody Beats the Wiz” sign, he put his glove up to catch the downward racing ball. It would never reach him.
At the last moment, a black baseball glove on the hand of young fan Maier interposed itself between baseball and player. Right fielder umpire Richie Garcia called it a home run, one of the most famous blown calls in sports history. The home team would win on a walk-off home run by Bernie Williams in the 11th. The rest, as they say, is history—spurred by their stolen victory, the Yankees went on to win the series and then the championship.
There’s one critical error in this recollection, however: Maier’s catch came in Game One. It didn’t stifle the Orioles who won the second game, taking away the Yankees’ home field advantage as the series moved to three games in Baltimore. They had the momentum and the home field, but New York swept those games, 5-2 (after leading going into the 8th inning), 8-4, and 6-4. That’s not Jeffrey Maier, that’s just baseball.
Sixteen years later, Maier is married to a Red Sox fan (!) and lives in New Hampshire, working as director of sales for League Apps, a company which specializes in building software for sports leagues. The men who donned the New York pinstripes or Baltimore black and orange those days are mostly out of baseball: Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr., and Eddie Murray are all in the Hall of Fame; Jim “King” Leyritz is in the hall of shame.
But a few of the players we’ll see this week when the Yankees and Orioles square off in Baltimore will carry first hand memories. Andy Pettitte, who started that long ago Game One, is back after a brief retirement. Joe Girardi, a catcher who pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth with the winning run on second base and lined into a 6-4 double play, will fill out his lineup card as Yankees manager and probably wish Mariano Rivera (the winner of the Maier game with two shutout innings in relief) weren’t on the disabled list. (If the playoffs break properly, he might square off in the World Series against 1996 Orioles manager Davey Johnson, now in charge of the National League East champion Washington Nationals). And Derek Jeter, the American League’s 1996 Rookie of the Year who hit his controversial home run from the ninth spot in the lineup, will see the first pitch of the series as the Yankees’ lead-off hitter tonight.
Orioles fans can take comfort from the fact that the Maier anniversary, October 9, falls on Tuesday—the 2012 League Division Series’s single travel day (unless tonight’s game is rained out).