NEW YORK -- The New York Yankees are known for developing great young players, but this is ridiculous.
Twelve-year-old Little Leaguer Jeff Maier of Old Tappan, N.J., reached over the right-field fence and pulled a fly ball away from Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco yesterday, turning a likely out into a game-tying home run by Derek Jeter and buying the Yankees time to score a 5-4, 11-inning victory in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium.
Yankees center fielder Bernie Williams eventually won the game with a bases-empty home run off Orioles closer Randy Myers in the bottom of the 11th, but the game clearly turned on the eighth-inning play in right field, when umpire Rich Garcia ruled that Maier did not interfere with Tarasco's opportunity to catch Jeter's fly ball.
The umpire might have been the only person in the stadium who saw it that way. The video replay showed that Tarasco was in position to catch the ball and that the boy reached over the fence to deflect it away from him.
"To me, it was a routine fly ball," said Tarasco. "It was on the track, but I was camped underneath it. It was like a magic trick. I was ready to close my glove, but the ball never made it to my hand. Merlin must have been in the house. It was like abracadabra."
Maier didn't come up with the ball, but he became an instant hero to millions of Yankees fans. He was mobbed by reporters and photographers almost as quickly as Garcia was mobbed by angry Orioles, and gave conflicting accounts of whether the ball would have cleared the right-field fence.
"I think it would have gone over," Maier said, "but I may have reached out there.
"I'm just, like, shocked. I didn't mean to do anything wrong. It just happened. I thought it was going over. I'm a Yankees fan, but I didn't mean to do anything to change the outcome of the game or do anything bad to the Orioles."
Tarasco and relief pitcher Armando Benitez surrounded Garcia and argued vehemently. Manager Davey Johnson joined them and eventually was ejected from the game, but not before he registered a protest over the failure of the Yankee Stadium security staff to keep fans away from the railing.
Garcia conceded afterward that he had missed the call. He couldn't deny what the replay showed, but still maintained that Tarasco could not have caught the ball. If the umpire thought that the ball was catchable, he could have called Jeter out, but he also could have ruled that an uncatchable ball was interfered with while in play and awarded Jeter second base.
"No umpire likes to miss a call," Garcia said, "but I had to make a call instantly. That's part of my job."
It was a judgment call, so Johnson did not protest the decision of the umpire. He protested instead that the Yankees had failed to fulfill a pre-game agreement to beef up security in areas where fans are in position to interfere with the ball in play.
"I'm smart enough to know that you can't protest a judgment call," Johnson said. "I was told that because of fans reaching around foul poles and reaching over the fence that there would be security out there to prevent that."
That decision stemmed from an incident during the American League Division Series, when a fan reached in front of the foul pole to intercept a line drive by Texas Rangers outfielder Juan Gonzalez. That time, the umpire ruled correctly that the ball would have landed fair and called it a homer.
"I always say that one play doesn't beat you in a ballgame, but this is about as close as you can come to one play beating you," Johnson said. "We had opportunities. It shouldn't have been that close."
The Orioles came into the game concerned about the impact that rowdy Yankees fans might have on the game, but that concern centered on the negative reaction to second baseman Roberto Alomar. No one imagined that they would be undone by a baby-faced Little League center fielder from Jersey.
"Then I look up and they're interviewing the kid as a hero," Johnson said. "That didn't make me feel too good either."
Alomar, who spit in an umpire's face two weeks ago, did get an earful. He was booed heavily during pre-game introductions and was subjected to a deafening chorus of obscenities every time he came to bat. He had weathered that kind of abuse in Toronto and Cleveland -- stepping up with homers to clinch the wild-card berth and win the Division Series -- but was not a big factor in yesterday's game.
If not for the questionable Jeter home run, the Orioles probably would have gone into the ninth inning with a chance to score a victory that would have negated the Yankees' home-field advantage in the series. The Orioles still can do that by salvaging a split of the first two games in New York today.
Pub Date: 10/10/96