That a mere child, by his spontaneous actions, could possibly, though inadvertently, influence the outcome of the American League Championship Series means Jeff Maier has forged an everlasting place in baseball history. He didn't break into a box score but created an impact that is more than an italicized footnote. Will his glove, far from golden, go to the Hall of Fame?
Mantle, Maris and now Maier have won their share of games for the New York Yankees. He didn't jump out of a ceremonial cake at home plate and go up to pinch hit as once happened with the midget Eddie Gaedel. But, no, he decided the outcome while standing on the other side of the right-field wall, more than 300 feet from home plate, and turning an out into a home run while the competing teams, the Orioles and Yankees, were trying to qualify for the right to represent the American League in the World Series.
There's a serious message here that needs attention -- more relative to the Orioles than the Yankees or any other major-league team. The park at Camden Yards is a compact facility that almost invites fans to go after fly balls that are still in play.
Outfielders in Baltimore too often have to wrestle spectators in the front row of the left-field seats for the right to make a catch. They are at the mercy of the audience. At the zoo, you're not supposed to interfere with the animals, a warning that can be applied to baseball after Maier, this lad of 12, interfered with a play on the field and changed the outcome of the opening game of the pennant showdown.
The home-park facility the Orioles use, Camden Yards, presents similar problems. Acts of interference have happened and, unfortunately, will continue. There's a serious need to either put a screen in left field or install Plexiglas atop the existing wall. Anything to make the fans keep their distance.
Corrective measures need to be taken, or the incidents may reach epidemic proportions. Fan interference is one of the most difficult calls an umpire has to make. The clubs should do all within their authority to eliminate potential problem areas and make corrections before another fan skirmish arises.
In the case of umpire Rich Garcia, who failed to see the kid interfere with Tony Tarasco's catch in Game 1 of the championship and thus ruled the ball hit by Derek Jeter a home run, he is unfortunately being vilified -- mostly by observers who have no idea what Garcia's job entails. There's no reason to criticize Garcia. The home team, the Yankees, were entirely responsible for the field conditions and deserve to be blamed.
It's the same at Camden Yards. Orioles owner Peter Angelos should insist the Maryland Stadium Authority put up the proper type of screen to prevent such an occurrence in any regular-season game, not just in playoffs, championships and the World Series. It happens on a frequent basis at Camden Yards, fans reaching over the low left-field wall and jostling with players for the chance to make a catch.
This past season, a hit by Luis Polonia was ruled a home run after Reggie Jefferson of the Boston Red Sox had a ball pulled away from him by a fan in the left-field seats at Camden Yards. From another aspect, dealing with postseason games, the American and National leagues should add umpires for another type of foul line assignment.
They should consider placing additional officials in the corners of left and right fields to specifically watch for fan interference. Garcia had the difficulty, after the ball was hit by Jeter, of running directly toward Tarasco, and it was impossible to see how much space existed between his body and the wall itself.
Garcia didn't have the opportunity of radio announcer Jon Miller, who was looking at the play on a TV monitor and, thus, had a better angle to view what was happening. Miller's call was almost instantaneous. Had Garcia been able to approach the play from the side, he would have seen the ball was about to drop into Tarasco's waiting hands just in front of the wall.
The innocent kid, Maier, didn't know the seriousness of the situation when he reached out for the ball. He wasn't able to make a clean catch and only succeeded in deflecting Jeter's drive into the stands, where Garcia mistakenly called the rebound a home run.
Garcia didn't deserve to be placed in such a difficult position, caught in a veritable no-man's land halfway between first base and the right-field corner and then having to turn toward the outfield wall to make the call.
What transpired at Yankee Stadium could happen today, or in any game, at Camden Yards. On July 17, this reporter, after exploring the situation at Camden Yards, wrote: ". . . . add either a three- or four-foot wire screen to the wall that's already there, or install the type of Plexiglas used in hockey arenas."
Between now and the start of next season, the Orioles should do exactly that. They should have learned a lesson from the New York experience. And while at it, they also should take up the rubberized warning tracks in front of the walls that cause too many balls to bounce into the stands for ground-rule doubles.
Go back to the cinder and gravel paths that were originally used to warn outfielders of their proximity to the fences when in pursuit of batted balls.
Camden Yards has turned into a home run haven because of its modest dimensions, which are shorter than stated. The official posted distances, specifically the power alleys and to straight-ahead center field, disagree with the measurements taken by the Orioles' former publicity director, Dr. Charles Steinberg, and this reporter. The foul lines are accurate, but there's a 10-foot discrepancy in left- and right-center and also in dead center, even though groundskeeper Paul Zwaska disagrees.
A wire screen in left field or one of Plexiglas would not interfere with a spectator's view, yet would serve a double purpose. It would legitimize home runs and keep fans from leaning over the wall to interfere with players who deserve a fair chance to catch batted balls. The Orioles shouldn't just talk about the possibility. It ought to be a priority.
Pub Date: 10/13/96