In the bottom of the 8th inning, the Baltimore Orioles were leading the New York Yankees 4-3. It was Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS. The Yankee Stadium faithful had come to see their beloved Bronx Bombers play the O's, while mercilessly booing Roberto Alomar, who had spat at an umpire two weeks earlier. They did not come to cheer the name of a preteen Jewish boy who had just experienced a Yankees-themed Bar Mitzvah. Yet that's exactly what happened.
With one out in the inning, the Yankees No. 9 hitter, rookie shortstop Derek Jeter, dug in against Armando Benitez. Jeter hammered a Benitez fastball to the opposite field, where the outfield wall stood at 314 feet away.
The Orioles' right fielder, Tony Tarasco, raced back to the warning track. Tarasco had replaced Bobby Bonnila, who started in right only to bruise his left shoulder, only a few minutes earlier. Now he had a chance to make an immediate impact by robbing Derek Jeter of an extra base hit.
Tarasco planted himself with his glove outstretched. Several fans in the bleachers rose from their seats, hoping to come away with a souvenir. As the ball descended, 12 year-old Jeffrey Maier extended his black glove over the wall. The baseball ricocheted off the kid's mitt and into the stands, where it vanished among the throng of spectators. Umpire Rich Garcia ruled it a home run, and Derek Jeter rounded the bases as the stadium roared with delight.
Tarasco was incensed and frantically pointed at the young perpetrator, who was being hoisted into the air by jubilant Yankee fans. Without the luxary of instant replay, Garcia was unaware that the kid had touched the ball and stood with his decision. Orioles manager Davey Johnson, coming to Tarasco's defense, argued with the umpire before being tossed. Benitez retired the side, though the damage had been done. With the score tied at 4, the game advanced into extra innings.
After the game, Rich Garcia watched replays of Jeter's homer for the first time and openly admitted that he got it wrong. ''The way I saw it, I thought the ball was going out of the ball park," said the 22-year veteran official. "I really don't feel he was going to catch that ball. I don't think he could have caught that ball. The ball went out of the park and I called it a home run.''
Asked if he still thought it was a home run, Garcia replied, "After looking at it, no, obviously. At the time I saw it, I never saw anybody touch the ball and I thought the ball was out of the ball park."
The Orioles took little solace from the umpire's admission. With the loss, they had dropped 11 out of their last 14 games to the Yankees; losing by technicality only fueled their anger. Under Major League Baseball rules, ''If spectator interference clearly prevents a fielder from catching a ball, the umpire shall declare the batter out.'' Because Garcia didn't see Maier's glove until after the game, spectator interference was not recognized.
''It was like a magic trick,'' said Tarasco, who claimed he would have caught the ball. ''I was getting ready to catch it and suddenly a glove appeared and the ball disappeared. When the kid reached over the wall, the kids' glove was very close to mine. We almost touched gloves."
''I was camped underneath the ball. If the ball was going out, I would've at least tried to jump. It was magic. Merlin must be in the house. Abracadraba."
The image below suggests (to me at least) that Tarasco had a very good chance of catching the baseball (keeping in mind that the ball was coming straight down and probably wouldn't have hit the wall). Yankee fans contend that he wouldn't have caught it anyway, and because Tim Raines followed Jeter with a line drive single, Jeter would've scored anyway.
Still, Orioles fans cried foul. Several thought it was the umpires' revenge for what Alomar did to umpire John Herschbeck. Beltway residents had nothing but bad things to say about Maier. Never had a 12 year-old been more reviled.
In New York, Maier became an instant hero. He made the front page of every tabloid, got booked on Good Morning America, The Late Show with David Letterman, and Live With Regis and Kathie Lee. Maier's tale quickly became commonplace to the public -- he had ditched school to go to the game with the excuse that he had an orthodontist's appointment and also played center fielder on his little league team.
''I didn't mean to do anything bad,'' Maier said. ''I'm just a 12-year-old kid trying to catch a ball.'' "I hope it didn't affect the game that much, but I am a Yankee fan, and I do want them to win the game. I can see why Baltimore is mad."
The Orioles filed a protest to AL president Gene Budig, though it was not upheld. Baltimore won Game 2 but lost the final three matches to lose the series 4-1. The Yankees then beat the Atlanta Braves in the World Series, establishing Joe Torre as a top-caliber manager and Derek Jeter as a clutch performer. It was their first World Series title in 18 years.
Maier's fifteen minutes of fame, stretched to the brim, ran out when the 1997 season commenced. He went on to become the all-time hit leader at Wesleyan University and had several unsuccessful tryouts with the New York Yankees.
In 2003, Cubs fan Steve Bartman got in the way of a potential catch by Chicago right fielder Moises Alou. While Maier helped his respective team and was young enough to avoid serious criticism, neither was the case for Bartman.