Could fans stomach sight of Jeffrey Maier in O's uniform?

June 06, 2006|By RAYMOND DANIEL BURKE

It is an image that has burned itself into television screens all over Baltimore - the shadow vision of an outrageous and blatant robbery, the sting of which 10 years has failed to diminish significantly.

It happened Oct. 9, 1996.

Returning to the postseason for the first time in 13 years, the Orioles had dispatched the defending league champion and heavily favored Cleveland Indians in the first round to reach the American League Championship Series against the despised New York Yankees.

In the late evening chill of Game One at Yankee Stadium, the Bronx Bombers held a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the eighth inning when Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter sent a high fly toward the right field wall. The Orioles right fielder, Tony Tarasco, positioned himself at the base of the wall and stretched high to make the catch.

Then it happened.

In the thieving manner of the most sinister of forces, from out of nowhere, a dark glove reached over the wall and knocked the ball from Mr. Tarasco's reach and into the stands. Mr. Tarasco, deprived of the catch, immediately pointed to the source of what had clearly been fan interference.

But umpire Rich Garcia apparently was the only witness to the event who did not see the obvious spectator infraction. He ruled the play a game-tying home run, precipitating a tirade from Mr. Tarasco and Orioles manager Davey Johnson and utter disbelief and profound outrage throughout the Baltimore region. The unending stream of TV replays repeatedly confirmed the offense, making it all the more unbearable.

Nevertheless, the call stood, the game went to extra innings and, in one of history's most unsavory examples of the triumph of evil, the Yankees won on a Bernie Williams homer in the bottom of the 11th. It was a night when justice had been brutally violated.

Following the game, Mr. Garcia, having viewed the replays, acknowledged that he had blown the call, an act of little consolation to suffering Oriole fandom. The Orioles lodged a formal protest, which baseball Commissioner Bud Selig denied on the grounds that a judgment call cannot be protested. Judgment? Oh, if only there had been some exercise of judgment.

By the next day, the perpetrator of this crime against all things worthy had become a celebrity.

Jeffrey Maier had been identified as the figure who had swiped the ball from Mr. Tarasco and the game from the Orioles. The consequences of his having violated the fundamental commandment against interference with balls in play was to be treated by the Yankees and New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani to box seats to the next game, media interviews and even an appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman.

The Orioles won Game Two in New York, returned to Baltimore to blow an early lead in Game Three and lose all three games and the series. The Yanks went on to win the World Series. The curse of Jeffrey Maier?

Mr. Maier went on to college - at Wesleyan University in Connecticut - and became, of all things, a star baseball player. Mr. Maier, now 22, is the all-time hits leader at Wesleyan and an all-conference selection. A batting average above .400 in this, his senior year, has him talked about as a possible selection in Major League Baseball's annual draft today and tomorrow. And some of that talk speculates that he could be a prospect to be considered by the Orioles.

The image of that October night makes me unable to embrace or even fathom the concept of Jeffrey Maier as an Oriole. So much possibility was stolen in that moment.

So, please, no Jeffrey Maier. Unless, of course, he really could help us beat the Yankees.

Raymond Daniel Burke is a member of a Baltimore law firm. His e-mail is rdburke@ober.com.

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