There’s something about sports grudges that makes them never entirely fade away. Although the raw, immediate anger passes eventually, you never quite move on entirely, especially over slights that may have happened in your formative years.
This is all on my mind because a play in Saturday night’s Game 2 of the American League Championship Series between the Yankees and Astros brought up the inevitable references to the great Satan of my middle school years, Jeffrey Maier.
A young Houston fan in the front row reached his glove in the general direction of a Carlos Correa fly ball that was on the way to clearing the fence, just barely. Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge was not in position to make any play on the ball as it kicked off the heel of the kid’s glove and into the stands.
Unless you’re too young to have experienced it when it happened, the fact that this play is at all being compared to the Maier play might be enough to set your blood to boiling on the strength of that old grudge. Other than the superficial similarity of the kid in the front row with a glove, there’s nothing to make these situations comparable.
Maier, after all, reached over the fence, clearly taking the ball away from the waiting Tony Tarasco, turning what may have been an out and should have at most been a double into a game-tying eighth inning home run in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS between the Orioles and Yankees. The Yankees would go on to win the game in 11 innings.
I was 12 years old at the time, the same as Maier, it turned out. I don’t feel that rage in a fresh way any more. But I do still remember very well what it was like to be 12 and to have some 12-year-old Yankees fan give the Yankees an undeserved victory over my favorite baseball team in the playoffs. All feelings burn more strongly when you’re 12 and you’ve never experienced anything like it before.
There was a lot of stunned disbelief that resolved into anger the next day at school. My eighth grade Social Studies teacher was a big Orioles fan who, earlier that year when he was also my seventh grade Social Studies teacher, jokingly predicted a 160-2 record for the 1996 O’s. He came in to class and announced that he had been grading tests while watching the game and that he had enough of 12-year-olds and we all failed.
Among the students, there was something of an ongoing competition where kids were trying to come up with the most elaborate way to visit revenge upon Maier, most of which turned into who would choose to punch him in the face or who would choose to kick him in the nuts.
The fact that he went on to be on a bunch of talk shows only exacerbated this feeling that he was someone who slighted all of us and deserved the justice of empty threat-making suburban boys visited upon him.
As an adult who recognizes that violence is not a mature response to any petty grievance, the urge to punch Maier in the face is no longer there. I’ve seen a lot of bad Orioles baseball, the kind that makes even a heartbreaking playoff loss seem appealing, and I’ve seen some good O’s seasons an an adult, too, which really helps cut into lingering childhood bitterness.
It seems that Maier goes by Jeff now, a fact that I only know because the New York Times saw the Astros situation on Saturday as an occasion to check in on Maier and write about him. Aw, shucks, he was playing catch with his son while the game was going on. How adorable.
That’s not to say that none of the old irritation still burns, or that all is forgiven, especially considering the Times still engages in revisionism about what Maier exactly did. Compare the description of the Astros fan on Saturday to the same summation of Maier’s play.
This time it was Carlos Correa, the Houston Astros’ star, who lofted a deep drive to right off Luis Severino in the bottom of the fourth inning in Game 2 at Minute Maid Park. The Yankees’ right fielder, Aaron Judge, gave chase and leapt at the wall. But young Carson Riley — orange Astros cap, rainbow Astros jersey — reached with his glove and knocked it into the stands. Home run.
You can watch the entirety of a four-minute “extended cut” around Correa’s home run without finding any evidence that Judge leapt at the wall, because he did not leap at the wall. Much later in the article, Judge himself states that he got there late!
Also not present in the video, or any photograph, is anything to indicate that the young Astros fan - who in an appropriate bit of symmetry, is also 12 - turned an in-play ball into a home run. Which MLB confirmed with the instant replay that wasn’t available in 1996. Yet his action is still described as actively bringing the ball into the stands, as if it wasn’t already going there.
In the eighth inning, with the Yankees trailing the Baltimore Orioles by a run, Maier scrambled to the edge of the right-field wall to pursue a Jeter fly ball. The right fielder, Tony Tarasco, retreated to the wall and waited for the ball — but Maier’s black Mizuno glove beat him to it.
Only two paragraphs later does the article note that Maier deflected the ball into the stands, and even then, the Times doesn’t directly state what is transparently the truth based on both a photograph and video included with the article.
The article merely states that Bob Uecker, who was broadcasting the game, noted that Maier brought the ball into the stands, one man’s opinion rather than an assertion of the fact in the text, one more dodge of any responsibility for doing a wrong to anyone, even as Maier is credited with “having helped launch a dynasty.”
Would the Orioles have gone on to win that series and ultimately the World Series, as the Yankees did, if it weren’t for Maier’s interference, if perhaps there had been video replay available as an option back then?
Talk to me after a number of adult beverages have been consumed and you can hear all about that case in detail. Had the O’s, who went on to win Game 2, left New York with a 2-0 lead in that series, maybe things could have turned out differently, both that year and in the future.
That’s all old news now, water under the bridge. My adult self can grapple with Raul Ibanez-related disappointment from 2012, the storm of absurd luck that allowed an inferior Royals team to beat the Orioles in the ALCS in 2014, and the non-use of Zach Britton in the 2016 Wild Card game.
In short, Jeffrey Maier doesn’t matter any more. I just wish that things would stop happening where I have to think about him again, so I can get on with remembering that he doesn’t matter.