NEW YORK -- Twelve-year-old Jeff Maier dreamed of making a big play at Yankee Stadium, but he never imagined that it might happen before he got out of middle school.
The baby-faced Oriole killer reached over the right-field fence yesterday and deflected Derek Jeter's eighth-inning fly ball away from Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco, turning a likely out into a game-tying home run in the first game of the American League Championship Series.
"I just leaned over and it jumped into my glove," said Maier, of Old Tappan, N.J., who was mobbed by reporters and cameramen moments after the incident changed the course of Game 1 -- an eventual 5-4 New York victory in 11 innings -- and perhaps the best-of-seven playoff that will determine which team will go to the World Series.
Tarasco argued heatedly that the ball would have settled easily into his glove, an opinion that was supported by video replays from several angles. Umpire Rich Garcia didn't see it that way, and signaled home run.
The guy with the best view was standing 10 feet above them, being high-fived by dozens of Yankees fans who all knew that he had done something the Yankees could not do themselves. He had stolen the lead from the hated Orioles.
Maier acknowledged afterward that he had leaned over the railing to reach for the ball, but gave conflicting accounts of whether it would have cleared the fence on its own.
"I think it would have gone out," he said, "but I may have leaned over. I was just trying to catch the ball."
He didn't make the catch. He pulled it back over the wall, but it popped out of his glove and was lost among the fans. But nobody cared. The outcome was the same. In an instant, he was New York's newest and youngest celebrity.
"I'm just, like, shocked," Maier said. "I didn't mean to do anything wrong. It just happened. I thought it was going over [the wall]. 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."
But he did. Tarasco and reliever Armando Benitez surrounded Garcia and argued their hearts out. Manager Davey Johnson soon joined the debate and was tossed out of the game.
Maier plays center field for his Little League team. Asked whether he was a good player, he showed he already has a major-league handle on dealing with the media.
"You'll have to ask my teammates about that," he said.
Pub Date: 10/10/96