Jeffrey Maier — a name that brings overwhelming rage to the hearts of every Baltimore Orioles fan, regardless of age.
A name that causes instantaneous yelling and throwing of objects a full twenty-four years after the Baltimore Orioles incident occurred. I was not alive at the time and I still feel this unending pain as if I witnessed it in person.
Why do I bring up an event none of us want to be reminded of? On Thursday ESPN put out a list of great debates for each MLB team, and it is worth reading if you find baseball history interesting like I do. While many of them are clearly the most compelling question for their respective team, I thought the prompt of whether Cal Ripken Jr. should have rested after breaking the streak was a pretty underwhelming one. To me, the big “what if” for the Orioles is what would have happened if Jeffrey Maier never interfered.
For any bird enthusiasts who mistakenly wandered onto the wrong website, let’s recap what happened: In game 1 of the 1996 ALCS between the Orioles and Yankees, the road Orioles were leading 4-3 in the bottom of the 8th when rookie Derek Jeter hit a fly ball off Armando Benitez to the short porch in right field when twelve-year-old Jeffrey Maier obviously reached into the field of play and caught the ball before right fielder Tony Tarasco could.
See for yourself, as MLB has provided a copy of the moment for posterity:
Instead of calling fan interference, umpire Rich Garcia ruled the play a home run, and since this was long before instant replay, the other umpires agreed with him. Jeter officially tied the game with an assist from his new best friend, and then Bernie Williams hit a walk-off homer in the 11th inning to win the game.
Despite our fond memories of past Oriole playoff teams, the 1996 version was not a particularly fearsome one. They finished 88-74, good enough to earn the wild card spot, three games ahead of the Red Sox, White Sox, and Mariners. Even with little depth, the Orioles had a pretty good lineup starring Cal Ripken, Roberto Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro, 50-homer Brady Anderson, and mid-season acquisition Eddie Murray, who provided a much-needed leadership boost.
The pitching, on the other hand, was the complete opposite. At the height of the steroid era, Hall of Famer Mike Mussina did not have a Hall of Fame season with a 4.81 ERA, but him, David Wells, and Scott Erickson all threw over 200 innings, and the rotation ERA+ was around 100, which is league average. The bullpen was pretty good, featuring Jesse Orosco and Arthur Rhodes, and Randy Myers tallying 31 saves.
In the ALDS, the Orioles upset the mighty Indians, part of arguably the greatest dynasty not to win a World Series (see Cleveland entry), so the Birds had a lot of confidence heading to the Bronx. Baltimore already had a lot to be proud of, but there is nothing more satisfying than taking down the Yankees in the heart of the Evil Empire.
The Orioles came a historically terrible call away from doing just that. They won game 2, so if Maier doesn’t reach over or Garcia gets the call right, then the Orioles would have won both games in New York and headed back to Camden Yards up 2-0. The Yankees won all three games in Baltimore, but the momentum heading into game 3 would have been very different than the 1-1 split that happened. My bet is that the Orioles would have pulled out one of those games and then clinched at Yankee Stadium, reaching the World Series for the first time since 1983.
That doesn’t mean they would have won, though, The Orioles would have faced the Braves, another historically great dynasty behind the powerhouse rotation of Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz, and rising stars Andruw Jones and Chipper Jones. The Orioles did not match up as well as the Yankees did, and while we will never know, my guess is that the Braves would have won back-to-back titles.
The Jeffrey Maier Incident holds up as the single worst moment in Orioles history, but in all honesty it probably did not prevent them from winning it all. Maybe the 1996 Orioles would be a great underdog story, but more likely the Braves would cement themselves as an all-time team.