October 9, 1996. Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. New York Yankees versus Baltimore Orioles. Every dynasty has to start somewhere. The infamous play in the bottom of the 8th inning of this game may have been the moment that started the last great Yankee dynasty.
The game was a close one, with the Yankees trailing 4-3 heading into the bottom of the 8th. They had gotten off to a quick lead with 1 run in each of the first 2 innings, but the Orioles scored runs in the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 6th to take a 2-run lead into the final third of the game. The Yankees chipped away with a run in the 7th and had baby-faced Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter leading off the bottom of the 8th against fireballer Armando Benitez.
Benitez, in what would become his calling card fashion, hurled a first-pitch fastball right down the middle of the plate to start the at-bat. Jeter, in what would become his calling-card fashion, let the ball get a little deeper in the zone and drove it out the other way to deep right field. It looked pretty good off the bat, sounded pretty good too, but right fielder Tony Tarasco slowly drifted back onto the warning track, settled under the ball a step from the right field wall, and...
This is another play that I haven't re-watched in many years. My memory of this game and this play was that it was awesome that the kid did that, awesome that the call was ruled a home run, and even more awesome that the Yankees eventually won the game on a Bernie Williams walk-off homer in the 11th. That memory is the memory of a 10-year-old boy, however, one without the objectivity needed to discuss the play today in this context. As a 29-year-old man child today, I can say with confidence that this call was BS and the home run never should have been allowed to stand.
Just look at the second replay angle from the stands and it's blatantly obvious to anybody with half-decent eyesight that Jeffrey Maier reached well over the outfield wall and pulled the ball over and into the stands. Yes, Tarasco may not have caught it but that's not really the point. The point is that Jeffrey Maier interfered with his opportunity to catch the ball, and because of that the home run should have been disallowed.
In today's MLB environment, the ensuing chaos, confusion, and anger on the part of the Orioles' players and coaches never would have happened. The play would have gone to instant replay immediately, that second angle would have shown definitively that there was fan interference, Jeter would have been ruled out, and the inning would have continued with the Yankees down 1 and down to their last 5 outs. What's interesting about this play is that while there wasn't instant replay in place yet, there were pretty clear cut rules on spectator interference and there was an umpire (Rich Garcia) down the line in near perfect position to see the interference and make the proper call. He didn't, Tarasco hilariously lost his sh*t, the game continued, and the rest is history.
From that moment, Jeffrey Maier became a local hero and celebrity. He was everywhere after that play. He was on Letterman, he was on "Regis and Kathy Lee", he was sitting behind the Yankee dugout courtesy of the local papers in later postseason games. To this day he's still a legend in Yankee fan circles. He's almost the anti-Steve Bartman. Right or wrong, against the rules or for the team, he helped the Yankees to win that game and that's something Yankee fans will never forget. I don't know how many games he goes to today or where he's living these days, but Maier is definitely the type of person who should never have to pay for a beer or a burger in New York City ever again.
As for the Yankees, they went on to win the series 4-1 over the O's and then beat the Atlanta Braves for the World Series title thanks to a few more iconic postseason moments. The Orioles protested the play and the outcome of Game 1 but to no avail, and the sting of that bad call seemed to linger with them for the rest of the series.
This was one of those "Sliding Doors" moments that could have led to a completely different path for both teams if the call was made correctly. Maybe the Orioles hold on to win Game 1, then maybe the series, then maybe the World Series. Who knows what could have happened to them or the Yankees if the outcome of that play was reversed? What we do know is that the Yankees went on to great things from there and the Orioles started their descent into years of mediocrity that they've only recovered from in the last few seasons. For that, Jeffrey Maier will always have a place in the hearts and memories of Yankee fans.