O's Tarasco rises above empty glove

February 22, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Tony Tarasco had it all figured out. He was going to return to the scene of the crime -- New York City -- and exact his revenge.

Little Jeffrey Maier might have robbed the Orioles, but he wouldn't have gotten away with winning an ESPY for "Outrageous Play of the Year."

"I was going to come out from the back, reach over his shoulder and snatch it from him," Tarasco said yesterday, smiling.

Alas, Tarasco didn't attend the awards ceremony at Radio City Music Hall -- ESPN informed him in advance that some crazy hockey goal would win.

So, he remains known as The Outfielder Who Lost The Ball To The Kid.

Which, truth be told, has its benefits.

"I got free meals, got into every club for free [this off-season]," Tarasco said. "Even in star-struck Los Angeles, everyone knew who I was.

"But, when you'd get into line, you'd have to listen to, 'Oh, that's the guy who had the kid take the ball from him.' "

He heard it all winter. He'll probably hear it forever.

Tarasco, 26, would prefer to be recognized for his play, but he's resigned to his accidental celebrity.

"Even if I hit 50 home runs, I won't be known for that," he said. "I'll be known for this."

Still, one item got overlooked -- an important item, considering the lack of grace that athletes often display in such moments.

Tarasco lost the ball, but not his dignity.

He never blamed Maier.

Not the night the kid reached over the right-field wall to knock Derek Jeter's fly ball into the stands for a game-tying home run in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series.

And not even now, knowing the ALCS might have turned out differently had the Orioles won the opener at Yankee Stadium.

"I fell over the rail at Dodger Stadium three or four times reaching out for balls," Tarasco said, recalling his days growing up in Santa Monica, Calif.

Maier, now 13, was just being a kid.

The failure by security to keep him away from the wall?

The failure by umpire Rich Garcia to call fan interference?

Those were adult mistakes, worse errors.

Tarasco said he turned down offers to appear with Maier on David Letterman's show and in a Kodak commercial, explaining, "I'd rather the kid have the attention."

Now, he's moving on, trying to rejuvenate a career that once held such promise. He was one of those Atlanta Braves prospects who was destined for stardom. These days, he's fighting to make the Orioles as a reserve outfielder.

It's funny, but Tarasco said the Maier incident served him well in one sense. He had missed most of the season due to tendinitis in his right shoulder. After Little Jeffrey did him wrong, people remembered who he was.

"It got my name mentioned again," he said.

But such was the bizarre nature of Jeter's homer, many people fail to remember why the play was so controversial. Tarasco was camped under the ball, arms raised above his head. He was going to make the catch.

"What really upset me is that a lot of major-league ballplayers questioned whether I would have caught the ball," Tarasco said.

"I have to remind people that Davey [Johnson] put me in for defense, and I'm known for being a good outfielder. If I said I was going to catch the ball, I was going to catch the ball."

Who questioned him?

"My brother told me he watched Jeter on Letterman," Tarasco said. "Letterman asked, 'Do you really think it would have been a home run?' Jeter said, 'I don't want to make Tony mad. I know Tony. I'm going to say Tony would have caught the ball.' "

Wink, wink.

"It's kind of bothered me," Tarasco said. "Even my friends would ask, 'Would you have caught the ball?' I'd look at 'em and go, 'You're forgetting who you're talking to.' "

The Orioles remember.

"There's no doubt he would have caught the ball," Johnson said.

"Below his head," center fielder Brady Anderson added.

The point is moot -- the Orioles won the next day, then dropped three straight at home to lose the series. Perhaps they could have taken a 2-0 lead in New York. Or perhaps they would have lost Game 1 even if Tarasco had made the catch.

In any case, Tarasco remains haunted by Maier.

"In batting practice, taking balls off the bat, I'll be running back to the wall -- and if the ball goes over the fence, I always feel everyone is looking at me," Tarasco said. "I'm taking extra time this year to work on the wall, just so I don't have any problems, so no one can say anything to me about it."

But what will happen the next time he plays right field at Yankee Stadium?

Will he turn around to check if Little Jeffrey is back?

"I try not to turn around out there. You get your feelings hurt when you look back," Tarasco said, laughing.

"But I'll tell you what I do. If someone hits a home run to right field, I'll go back and jump. Even if it's a blast, I'll jump -- depending on if we're winning or losing. But I'd do it, just to goof."

He kept his dignity.

He kept his sense of humor.

What he lost over the wall, he gained in respect.

Pub Date: 2/22/97

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