All across SB Nation this week, sites are posing the amazing, frustrating, and sometimes terrifying question: What if?
The moment that Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence at old Yankee Stadium is seared forever into my consciousness. What should have been an at-the-fence flyout by Derek Jeter to Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco that kept a 4-3 O’s lead in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series intact instead turned, thanks to some still-inexplicable umpiring incompetence and a lack of modern video replay, into a Yankees game-tying home run.
What I remember very nearly as well is the next day at school. Maier was and remains right about my age, and so the actions of this distant New York age group peer of ours was a topic of much discussion. A lot of adult language was lobbed about with him as the subject, jokes whose punchlines were funny to middle schoolers in 1996 but aren’t as funny today.
My eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Thursz, a huge Orioles fan, handed back some tests to us after saying, “I was grading these when that punk kid reached over the fence last night and I decided I was sick of 13-year-olds, so you all failed.” He drew a whole-page zero everybody’s test. He did give us the real grades eventually.
This October will make 24 years since that happened. That is nearly a quarter of a century gone by. Still it haunts me to this day:
What if Jeffrey Maier had never reached over that fence?
The biggest reason why the question still haunts me is a simple one. The Orioles have never won the World Series in my lifetime. I was born about a month after the last time they won one. I am old enough now, heading towards my late 30s and with it feeling awfully likely the Orioles will do this thing before I turn 40, that this is a painful thing.
The what-if doesn’t hurt nearly so much if your favorite team ends up winning it all before too long. “What if there were better refs when Maryland played Duke in the 2001 Final Four?” stopped hurting Terrapins fans the next year when the men’s basketball team won it all.
“What if Lee Evans had caught that ball?” and “What if Billy Cundiff hadn’t shanked that kick?” were less painful once the Ravens won the next Super Bowl. The worry that they might not get so close again any time soon went away. Instead, the Ravens inflicted their own what-if on Broncos fans with the Jacoby Jones play, and avoiding the danger of “What if the power hadn’t gone out in the Superdome?” becoming a painful question.
That soothing balm is not there for any O’s fans who weren’t alive for, or have no memory of, the last time the team hoisted a trophy. We can only wonder about this and other things that might have gone a little differently, which you’ll hear about as the week goes along. You’ve probably already got your own list.
Imagining a just outcome of the Maier play is an easy flight of fancy on whose wings you can get carried away. Obviously, if the Jeter fly ball turned into the second out of the eighth inning as it should have, the Orioles would have gone on to a 4-3 victory in Game 1 of the series instead of a 5-4 extra-innings loss.
Given that the O’s won Game 2, also in New York, it is inconceivable that they would have then failed to win the series after taking that 2-0 lead. Just as obviously, if the O’s dispatched the Yankees, who proved themselves better than the Braves, then the Orioles would have done so also and would have won the World Series.
This title belonging to the Orioles instead of the Yankees, it is clear that the late-90s collapse would have happened to the team in the Bronx instead, the 14-straight losing seasons, the dysfunction, and all the rest. Davey Johnson and Pat Gillick would have stuck around to make more winners in Baltimore.
Mike Mussina would have never left the place where he won a World Series and would have cruised to Hall of Fame induction much sooner; he’d have a statue by now and his jersey retired since he only ever would have been an Oriole.
Perhaps Rafael Palmeiro, having an early-career championship, wouldn’t have felt the need to ingest stanozolol (you may even believe the story that he did so unknowingly) in 2005, and he would be in the Hall of Fame too, just like his 1996 teammates Roberto Alomar, Eddie Murray, Mussina, and Ripken. Those would be the era’s postseason legends now instead of the endless media worship of Jeter and Mariano Rivera and other pinstriped players.
It’s all rather nice to dream about, certainly nicer than contemplating back-to-back seasons with 100+ losses and the likelihood that the Orioles were only spared a third straight 100+ loss season by the fact that 2020 won’t be a full baseball season.
The fervor with which I will argue all of these things goes up in direct proportion to the number of adult beverages currently in my system. As I’m not much of a drinker even in COVID quarantine, I can recognize there are some generous leaps in the assumptions from points A to B to C and beyond here.
In reality, there’s no guarantee that Armando Benitez, who threw the pitch that created the great haunting moment of my pre-teen years, wouldn’t have just found a way to make his name be spoken with a sigh a year earlier than he ended up doing when he blew up the 1997 ALCS for the Orioles.
Since the actual Orioles went on to lose three straight in Baltimore after escaping New York with a 1-1 split in the series, that’s a bit of a tough sell too, to say nothing of all the wilder ideas about how the fate of one dynasty could have ended up in the annals of a different franchise instead.
What I do know for sure, and what no one can argue, is that the 1996 Orioles deserved, on the basis of their play, to have taken a 4-3 lead to at least two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. They were prevented from doing so by a combination of Maier and the poor vision of playoff right field umpire Rich Garcia. That sucked when I was 12 and as I think 24 years later about what if it never happened, it still sucks.