N.Y. fan hands O's reason to grin

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was maybe the surest sign yet that the Orioles are destined to beat the Yankees this year.

The ghost of Jeffrey Maier turned on the Yankees yesterday at Yankee Stadium.

It was such an encouraging development for the Orioles that manager Davey Johnson smiled wickedly after a 13-6 loss to the Mets yesterday at Camden Yards.

"This might be our year," Johnson said.

You wouldn't normally expect him to say that after one of the Orioles' ugliest losses of the season.

But the sight of history repeating itself in New York, with a devilish twist, provided the Orioles' clubhouse with a powerful dose of good karma.

"I love it," said outfielder Tony Tarasco, a central figure in the original Maier drama last year during the American League Championship Series.

A taped replay of yesterday's new version, shown on the video scoreboard at Camden Yards, drew one of the day's biggest cheers from a sellout crowd.

It also helped the Expos to a 7-2 victory that kept the Yankees 7 1/2 games behind the Orioles.

Everything started with a ball hit hard and long by the Montreal Expos' Darrin Fletcher with two runners on in the top of the second inning in the Bronx.

The ball floated toward the right-field stands, but the Yankees' Paul O'Neill ran to the fence, leaped and seemed set to make the catch.

Just as the ball nestled into O'Neill's glove, a twentysomething male fan reached out, knocked the ball free and reeled it in over the fence.

Home run, Expos.

It was almost an exact replay of the ball hit by the Yankees' Derek Jeter in Game 1 of the ALCS last season, when Tarasco seemed set to make the catch until Maier reached over the fence, interfered and turned the hit into a home run.

Jeter's "home run" tied the score, the Yankees won in extra innings and Maier, a 12-year-old from New Jersey, became the king of New York for a day. He did the talk shows and the front pages of the tabloids, and sat in box seats the next day. The guy who interfered with O'Neill yesterday certainly won't get the same treatment after turning an apparent out into a three-run homer for Montreal, dooming the Yankees to their third straight defeat.

He briefly raised his hands in triumph after catching the ball, then ran away, probably sensing that his life was in danger.

"They'll probably find him floating in the river tomorrow morning," Tarasco said.

After failing to make the play, O'Neill spun away in disgust and pointed to the stands, but, as in the Tarasco play, the umpires didn't rule interference.

"Now they know how it feels," said Johnson, who complained jTC bitterly when umpire Richie Phillips ruled Jeter's homer good last year.

Incredibly, Phillips also was umpiring yesterday at Yankee Stadium, although he was stationed at third base and not responsible for the right-field call.

"I can't believe Richie was there again," Tarasco said. "It's kind of funny. Extremely funny, actually."

And as if the symbolism weren't thick enough already, the Yankees pitcher who threw the ball yesterday was -- ta da -- David Wells, the former Oriole.

In other words, poor Wells has been victimized by Maier and Maier's revenge-seeking ghost.

There's a moral in there somewhere.

Tarasco said he just shook his head when he saw the replay on the scoreboard at Camden Yards.

"It was just like my play, no different at all," he said. "O'Neill was going to make the catch, too."

He smiled as he dressed in the Orioles' clubhouse.

"All I can say is [the Yankees] better not complain about not getting that [interference] call," he said. "Not one guy on that team better say anything."

The play was the latest sign -- and certainly the most celestial --indicating that the baseball gods are smiling on the Orioles in 1997.

On Wednesday night, the Yankees lost in Oakland on an error in the ninth by O'Neill.

Friday night in the Bronx, the Yankees again lost on an error in the ninth; the Expos' Doug Strange reached base on a throwing error by Rey Sanchez and came around to score.

As if those two losses weren't depressing enough for a club that can't seem to make up any ground on the Orioles, now the ghost of Jeffrey Maier has turned on them and delivered a knockout punch.

"At least now they know what it feels like," Tarasco said.

The Orioles still have 30 games left, of course, including eight with the Yankees, so there is time for the lead to shrink.

But the Yankees had better get going.

If the Orioles play .500 ball the rest of the season, the Yankees have to go 23-6 to finish first.

It could happen, but it isn't likely.

More and more, this season has the markings of an Orioles year in the AL East.

If there were any doubts left about that, there aren't now.

Little Jeffrey's ghost has spoken.

Pub Date: 8/31/97

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