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This isn't how you play the game Youngsters: Baltimore kids say they know the difference between right and wrong. And what Jeff Maier did doesn't make him a hero.

When 12-year-old Daniel Luban came away from the television set Wednesday night, he was fighting back tears. Daniel is an Orioles fan, and he had just witnessed the outrage of the 1996 season: another 12-year-old, Jeff Maier, had reached for a fly ball, interfered in an American League championship game, and saved his beloved New York Yankees from probable defeat at the hands of the Orioles.

He also became a celebrity. "Give that fan a contract!" joked his dad, David Luban.

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Daniel was not amused. Instantly he transferred his fury to his father. Luban, an ethicist and law professor at the University of Maryland, realized he had a more serious issue on his hands. He tried to explain the realities of life and sports.

"I told my son that the tradition in baseball is if a fan interferes in the success of another team, that fan is made a hero. I said I didn't approve, but it does show something about the intense loyalty that baseball fans have to their teams' winning."

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He then asked his son how he would have felt if the situation had been reversed. "Daniel said he would be happy for the win, but [still] would have been angry and think it was terribly unfair."

Daniel, it seems, knew the right and wrong of the matter, and probably also understood that when provincial passion collides with universal morality, some flexibility is called for.

So what ethical points do you make to your kids about a child who -- intentionally or not -- broke a rule, changed the course of a game and then became a celebrity?

Kathleen Smith, mother of 8-year-old Andy and 4-year-old Rebecca, thinks it's a good idea to let children know that being on television isn't exactly a badge of honor. Jeff Maier is on TV, she says, but "so are serial killers."

To Dr. Jack Vaeth, attending psychiatrist at the Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, "It's important to let kids know that we live in a world where some people take winning too far. The Super Bowl and the World Series are not everything. Playing fair and winning fairly is much more important."

Baltimore, he added, might give some thought at this time to its recent defense of Roberto Alomar, who was vilified elsewhere for spitting in the face of an umpire.

Bernie Walter, Arundel High School's athletic director and baseball coach who has led his teams to seven state baseball titles, and the national title in 1993, would simply ask, "How would you feel if you were in the other person's shoes and they were failing to play by the rules."

The boy, he said, changed the game.

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"But I would be more concerned about the ethical behavior of the fans of New York about throwing bottles and lead batteries at the players," Walter continued. "That was clearly with the intention of hurting someone."

The ethics of Yankees fansdon't seem to be much in question. Nor in evidence either. The boy's been photographed, interviewed and celebrated on a variety of talk shows. His parents seem to have embraced the celebrity and win-by-any-means attitude.

"I really think that the media is irresponsible in not taking the opportunity to make moral distinctions here," said Susan Wolf, head of the Johns Hopkins philosophy department, whose specialty is ethics. "You don't have to villainize the kid, but he is not a hero."

She told her own two girls as much. But Katie and Lisa, 12 and 10, already seemed to know that. They were both aware that Jeff rTC Maier is a hero in New York. Just as they knew he wasn't one here.

"I do think they recognized the idea of being a hero from the point of view of one group doesn't make you a hero from the point of view of another," said Wolf.

The girls understood the other side of the question as well. If it happened in Baltimore, they told their mother, everyone would make a hero of the guy who stopped the Yankees.

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Moral considerations aside, who could honestly doubt that?

Pub Date: 10/11/96


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