“In right-field, Tarasco ... going back to the track ... to the wall ... and what happens here!? He contends that a fan reaches up and touches it! But Richie Garcia says no ... it’s a home run!”
— Bob Costas on the call on NBC
For New York Yankees fans, the autumn of 1996 remains a golden memory. This was when the team went from being regarded as a contender to establishing itself as a champion and launched the team on its path to a dynasty.
The list of heroes is long. A recitation of the stars sparks grateful smiles and makes us appreciate their greatness: Derek and Bernie and Tino and O’Neill the Warrior and Coney, Pettitte and Mariano and Wetteland and Girardi and Joe Torre and, oh yes, Darryl and Doc (by 1996, improbably, playing across town for the Yankees).
And The Kid, then only a few weeks shy of his 13th birthday.
Without young Jeffrey Maier’s unique contribution 25 years ago, on Oct. 9, 1996, there might not have been a latest installment of the franchise’s dynasty, from 1996 to 2000.
Conjuring memories of the Yankees’ championship years helps now, especially. The team was recently eliminated in the wild-card round by the hated Boston Red Sox. The team had such an ignominious exit that it seems hard to believe that this proud franchise could have once ruled the baseball landscape.
It was game 1 of the best-of-seven 1996 American League Championship Series. The Yankees were playing the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium. The winner would go on to meet the Atlanta Braves in the World Series.
The Yankees were trailing Baltimore, 4-3, in the eighth inning. Derek Jeter, then a rookie, came to the plate and smashed a pitch deep to right field, with his characteristic inside-out swing, and on what the brilliant New Yorker baseball writer Roger Angell might describe as a “frightening parabola.”
But in an instant, it seemed that Jeter hadn’t gotten enough of the pitch and the ball might settle into the glove of Orioles’ right fielder Tony Tarasco, who seemed poised to catch it, instead of reaching the seats and dramatically tying the score.
But before Tarasco could snare the ball, the precocious Maier did what a kid of any age at the ballpark would have done: He reached over from his seat in the right field stands and snatched the ball right out of the air. Right field umpire Richie Garcia at once declared it a home run.
As Jeter rounded the bases, celebrating the biggest hit of his career to that point, all hell broke loose at the site of Maier’s youthful indiscretion.
Tarasco violently pointed up to the spot where the kid was sitting and protested that he had committed interference. Tarasco’s operatic plea went unheeded. The home run stood. The Yankees had tied the score and would win the game on Bernie Williams’ extra-inning, walk-off home run. Jeter’s magical, heroic career was on its way.
And to this day, Jeffrey Maier – today a father of three children who lives in New England – remains a Yankee immortal. He played high school ball in New Jersey and went to college at Wesleyan – but he will always be remembered for his audacious act that night in the Bronx.
Looking back, we can’t help but wonder: Did umpire Garcia make the proper call?
Would the Yankees, deflated after what surely have been a draining game 1 loss to a formidable rival, have been able to rally and win the series against Baltimore?
Would the Yankees dynasty have been stopped in its tracks?
Would Jeter have pressed on to enjoy the same sort of remarkable career?
I suspect that these questions are moot, ultimately. Jeter would certainly have enjoyed a rare Hall of Fame-caliber career. Yes, the Yankees, a team as tenacious as it was talented, would have relied on its resourcefulness to find a way to defeat Baltimore that fall.
Longtime Yankees fans have seen their team pull off some remarkable wins. Remember when Reggie Jackson stuck his hip out and deflected a double-play toss in game 4 of the 1978 World Series versus the Los Angeles Dodgers? Remember Jeter’s sensational “flip play” in the 2001 playoffs against Oakland? Remember when Tino Martinez and Scott Brosius hit two-out, game-tying ninth-inning home runs off the same luckless Arizona Diamondback relief pitcher on successive nights in the Bronx during the 2001 World Series?
Maybe the Yankees were just destined to defeat Baltimore that night.
But they couldn’t have done it without the assistance of Jeffrey Maier.