NEW YORK -- Umpire Rich Garcia understands the excitement and the feeling of being part of something important that 12-year-old Jeff Maier experienced when he knocked Derek Jeter's ball into the Yankee Stadium stands with an outstretched glove.
In the fall of 1954, when Garcia was growing up in Key West, Fla., his father, Eloi, packed up the Garcias' Ford station wagon and drove his son to New York to see the World Series, the New York Giants against the Cleveland Indians. "We didn't have any tickets," said Garcia, "but my father got us a couple."
Father and son made the same trip again the next year, to see the Dodgers play Garcia's favorite team, the Yankees. "I've been a baseball fan since I was born," said Garcia, 54.
Once out of school, Garcia coached high school baseball and a friend asked if he wanted to try his hand at refereeing basketball and football, and umpiring baseball. Garcia loved it, and three years later, in 1970, he enrolled in umpires' school. The team that gave Garcia the hardest time in the Florida State League was the Fort Lauderdale Yankees. "That," Garcia said, laughing, "diffused being a fan anymore."
He broke into the majors in 1975, and 22 years later, he says he still gets nervous before games. "I get nervous because I care. I get nervous because I don't want things to happen like what happened yesterday," Garcia said. "That's not what we're all about."
What happened Wednesday in the first playoff game has been replayed and reviewed across the country:
Jeter hit a high fly to right, Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco backed up to the wall, reached up to make the catch. But Maier, a New Jersey Little Leaguer, stuck out his glove. The ball hit his glove and bounced into the stands, tying the game. The Orioles went crazy in protest.
Garcia -- who will be working third base during tonight's Game 3 at Camden Yards -- saw the replay after the game, and admitted that Maier had knocked the ball into the stands, admitted that he had made a mistake. Garcia maintained yesterday that he believes Tarasco wouldn't have caught the ball; he thinks it would have hit the wall for an extra-base hit.
"I feel really bad about it," said Garcia. "I don't think that play cost the game anymore than the fly ball hit to left field in the first inning. There were nine innings in the game, and that's part of the game. I feel bad about it, I don't feel responsible [for the Orioles' eventual 5-4 defeat]."
After the game, Garcia went into the umpires' dressing room, anxious to watch a replay. As soon as he saw it, he realized he made a mistake.
"I saw it in my dreams," said Garcia. "I went out of my room and picked up the paper, and there it was. Obviously, it's a picture, and the picture makes it a whole lot worse. If I had taken that picture, we wouldn't be talking here today. We'd be talking about it the other way [with Garcia ruling fan interference].
"Something definitely has to be done about fans getting in the way of ballplayers making catches. I know we want to involve the fans, we want them to get closer to the players. We need the fans, and we're trying to get the fans back. But something has to be done."
Before yesterday's game, Garcia exchanged friendly words with several Orioles as he took his position. "The players understand we're human," Garcia said. "We're in the heat of battle. They're going to argue, they have the right to argue. I played baseball, I know what it's like when there's a call you don't like. But we're in the big leagues, we're professional and we should handle it professionally."
Garcia was asked what he thought of Maier, an instant national celebrity. "He was 12 years old and trying to get a ball," said Garcia. "If I was 12 years old, I'd try to get a ball, too."
What they're saying
Jeff Maier got instant fame by turning a potential out into a crucial homer during the AL playoffs Wednesday night. Here's what people were saying about the "Yankee Kid" and the call by umpire Rich Garcia:
"He's such a nice kid. I am sure he is very excited about what is happening. But he has got his feet on the ground."
Maier's grandmother, Lorraine Briemer of Alexandria, Va.
"We were robbed and they saw it and nobody did anything about it."
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who added that stolen catch showed New York doesn't have a true zero-tolerance policy toward crime
"It happens all the time. It is not all right to do it. But it is a judgment call. It is not like hockey, you can't reverse it. It is tough for an umpire to judge."
Yankees Hall of Famer Yogi Berra on fan interference
"Jeff is an intense competitor. When Jeff plays at any sport, Jeff plays to win. And Jeff can very easily get caught up in the excitement and thrill of whatever he's participating in."
Maier's Little League coach, Gregory MacLean
"I just think that they're glorifying the wrong thing. I'm not saying if I was a 12-year-old I wouldn't do the same thing, but it was wrong. To glorify what he did is not the right message to send out."