• Sal Maiorana

Good thing for the Yankees there wasn't instant replay review back in 1996

NEW YORK (Oct. 9, 1996) – There was plenty of doubt about the eighth-inning “home run” Derek Jeter was credited with hitting off Armando Benitez to tie Game 1 of the American League Championship Series against the Baltimore Orioles.

There was absolutely no doubt about the home run walloped by Bernie Williams off Randy Myers in the 11th that gave the Yankees a memorable 5-4 victory at Yankee Stadium and ended a dramatic night in the Bronx.

No venue in baseball, perhaps all of American sport, has produced more unforgettable, sometimes historic, moments than the big ballpark nicknamed The House That Ruth Built which stood proudly at 161st Street and River Avenue from 1923 to 2008.

Usually, it was someone wearing pinstripes who authored said moments. But on this warm October night, it was a 12-year-old kid from Old Tappan, N.J. in a blue short-sleeved jersey that produced not only a memorable moment, but one of the most controversial.

Jeffrey Maier was his name, and no Yankee fan worth his salt has never forgotten who he is or what he did.

With one out in the eighth and the Yankees trailing Baltimore 4-3, Jeter hit a fly ball to right field that brought the fans out of their seats. Off the bat it looked like it had a chance to reach the short porch, but hopes began to die as Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco went back, got settled at the base of the wall and appeared ready to make the catch.

That’s when Maier indisputably reached over the wall with his black mitt and changed the flight of the ball, the course of the game, and probably the series. While he didn’t catch the ball, he deflected it out of the field of play, preventing Tarasco from recording the second out.

Immediately Tarasco went berserk and started pointing at Maier as he pleaded his case for fan interference to right-field umpire Richie Garcia. But in the days before instant replay could fix umpire screw-ups, Garcia believed the ball had carried over the wall to Maier and he ruled it a home run.

“Merlin is in the house,” Tarasco said. “It was like a magic act. I was ready to use my glove when the ball disappeared in midair. I was camped under it. I had plenty of time. I didn’t have to jump because it was routine. The kid reached out and down to get it.”

Announcers Bob Costas and Joe Morgan wholeheartedly agreed as NBC showed clear-cut replay evidence of what happened.

“It’s unbelievable,” Maier told reporters who flocked out to right field to interview him including Jim Gray on the NBC broadcast. “It’s pretty cool.”

Not exactly a feeling shared by the Orioles.

As Maier – who went on to play college baseball and in 2006 became the all-time career hits leader at Connecticut’s Wesleyan University – and other fans scrambled to retrieve the souvenir, bedlam ensued.

Jeter merrily jogged around the bases with the sellout crowd going crazy while several Orioles, including manager Davey Johnson, went after Garcia in a failed attempt to get him to reverse the call.

“In my judgment (Maier) did not interfere with the guy catching the ball,” Garcia said afterward. “He didn’t stick his hand in front of (Tarasco), he just stuck his hand out. After looking at it, it wasn’t a home run. The ball probably would’ve hit the wall. I probably would’ve called fan interference (if instant replay was in use) but I wouldn’t have called (Jeter) out.”

Who knows what would have happened had Garcia made the correct ruling? Perhaps the Yankees still would have rallied to win the game because thus far in the postseason they’d become quite proficient at that. Or, maybe not.

What we do know is that when Williams launched his massive home run to left, Manute Bol standing on the roof of a three-story building wouldn’t have interfered with it.

Williams, coming off an ALDS where he smacked three homers and hit .467 in four games against Texas, continued his torrid stretch with two more hits and two more RBI.

“I feel like a surfer; I’m just riding the waves,” Williams said. “It happened so quickly. I think it was a 1-1 slider, and I think it was pretty much a mistake. He got it up in the zone and I was fortunate enough to put a good swing on it.”

As they had all October, the Yankees fell behind for the fifth consecutive game, and for the fourth time rallied for the win. For the second time in a week Andy Pettitte struggled as he gave up four runs on seven hits and four walks and New York was on the wrong end of a 4-2 score entering the bottom of the seventh.

“Two stupid pitches,” Pettitte said of the gopher balls he threw to left-handed hitters Brady Anderson and Rafael Palmeiro, both of which wound up in the seats. “My head, I don’t know where it was. It wasn’t where it should be. It’s the postseason, that’s all I can tell you. These guys are locked in. I’m glad it didn’t cost us.”

The Yankees scored in the seventh when Benitez walked Darryl Strawberry to force in a run, but he left the bases loaded by striking out Mariano Duncan to keep Baltimore ahead.

After Maier’s sleight of hand enabled the Yankees to get even, John Wetteland pitched a scoreless ninth and Mariano Rivera a scoreless 10th and 11th to set the stage for Williams.

“Hell no, this isn’t tainted,” Joe Torre said. “You’re damned right we’ll take it. Derek still hit a pitch like hell and we still got the home run from Bernie.”

“Do I feel bad? We won the game, so why should I feel bad?” Jeter said. “I thought I hit it too high, but it carried some. I looked at the umpire and he signaled home run, so I wasn’t going to argue with him. Maybe I should probably send (Maier) something. That’s our boy.”

NEXT post on June 8: Joe Torre is finally going to the World Series.