By Dave Sheinin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 2, 2006
This is a story about fate, a story about a curse -- if you care to believe in such things. It is a story about coming to grips with them, and maybe, just maybe, reversing them. It is a story about a 12-year-old boy in a black T-shirt who is now a polished 22-year-old man with a marketable talent. And it is a story about a beleaguered baseball team that may be preparing to take a wild stab at manipulating fate by confronting it head-on.
Jeffrey Maier, a future Baltimore Oriole? Oh, dear heaven. The blood of Orioles fandom boils at the very thought of the name, let alone the thought of such a traitorous alliance.
The story begins on Oct. 9, 1996, when Maier, then 12 years old and a rabid New York Yankees fan, reached over the wall at Yankee Stadium and altered the course of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, as well as the fates -- if you care to believe in such things -- of two franchises.
And the story ends, at least for now, with a phone call Orioles owner Peter Angelos received a few days ago. You'll never guess, the caller said, who is a pretty good college baseball player now, the all-time hits leader at Wesleyan (Conn.) University, an outfielder-third baseman with a decent chance of being drafted during next week's Major League Baseball amateur draft.
Jeffrey Maier. Yes, that Jeffrey Maier.
"You're kidding," Angelos said.
There was a long pause, and one could imagine Angelos considering all that had transpired for -- but mostly, to -- the Orioles since the moment the young boy reached out with his glove.
For nearly 13 years now, Angelos has presided over a once-proud franchise whose fortunes never seemed to recover from that October night in the Bronx. The Orioles lost the game -- thanks to what still stands as one of the worst umpiring calls in history; while the play was ruled a home run, tying the game, replays showed Maier clearly interfered with the ball -- and lost the series. They returned to the playoffs in 1997, lost again, and since then have endured eight consecutive losing seasons, the longest such stretch in franchise history.
The caller expected Angelos to react to the news of Maier's collegiate exploits and professional aspirations with disdain, perhaps with a string of profanities.
Instead, he said this: "To forgive is divine."
It was as if Angelos had suddenly grasped the enormity of what was now in front of him -- an extraordinary opportunity to alter fate and, in doing so, recast it to one's advantage.
The Orioles, during the Major League Baseball first-year player draft next Tuesday and Wednesday, have the power to select Jeff (as he now calls himself) Maier of Wesleyan University and see what happens.
According to Angelos, they just might.
"I wouldn't be at all opposed to [drafting Maier]. In fact, I'd say it's a very interesting development," Angelos said. "You can say the Orioles are very seriously considering him. I know this much: I was at that game, and he certainly did seem to be a heck of an outfielder. Sure, we'd take him. In fact, I like the idea more and more, the more I think about it."Grown Up
In the lobby of the Freeman Athletic Center on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Jeff Maier appears in a white T-shirt, black workout shorts and sneakers.
He looks disarmingly the same as he did when he was 12 -- only hairier. On this day, he sports a scruffy goatee, longish sideburns and a few days' worth of stubble.
His face was famous back then, as The Play -- the swing of Yankees rookie Derek Jeter (Maier's idol), the retreat of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco to the right field wall, the glove of Maier reaching over the wall to swat the ball away, the mayhem that followed as the Orioles argued it should have been ruled fan interference -- was shown over and over on television. His exploits on the baseball diamond at Wesleyan have earned him another round of publicity, especially after he broke the school record for hits, finishing his career with 189, along with a .375 average.
"I guess it's an interesting story that I'm no longer 12, and that I've done something for myself, both scholastically and athletically," said Maier, who graduated last month with a degree in government and economics. "And I'm proud of what I've done. If anything, I've tried to get out of the shadow of what happened when I was 12, and in a way I've been able to use this attention to showcase what I am now and what I've done with my life since then."
Scouts and draft experts say there is a 50-50 chance Maier, who bats left-handed but throws right-handed, could be selected during next week's draft, which runs for 50 rounds. If not, he also could be signed as an undrafted free agent.
One National League executive whose team has scouted Maier said the knocks against him are his size (he is 5 feet 11, 190 pounds), his speed (he underwent surgery to repair a torn knee ligament last summer), his power (only seven career homers in college) and the level of competition he has faced. Wesleyan, a Division III school, has not had a player drafted since 1965 and has not produced a major leaguer since Lester "Red" Lanning made six pitching appearances for the 1916 Philadelphia A's.
"Life has a funny way of working things out," said veteran Yankees outfielder Bernie Williams, who won the Maier game in the 11th inning with a home run. "There are a lot of players in the major leagues today who were overlooked. There are a lot of intangibles you have to take into consideration -- heart and demeanor and perseverance."
The obvious story line here would be for Maier to get drafted by the Yankees, the team he grew up rooting for in Old Tappan, N.J., and the franchise that went on to win four World Series titles in five years while Maier was confronting life as a teenager.
"What would be really amazing," said pitcher Andy Pettitte, who started Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series for the Yankees, and who now pitches for the Houston Astros, "would be if he made it to the majors [with the Yankees] while Jeter was still playing, and they could be teammates."
However, Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said the team would not waste a pick on Maier just for the novelty of it. "Only if we saw him as a viable, potential major leaguer," he said, without divulging whether they do or don't. Asked about the Yankees' interest in Maier, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said only, "We've scouted him."
On Thursday, Maier was scheduled to take part in a pre-draft workout, along with several dozen other prospects, for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium.
"Anyone who grew up a Yankees fan," Maier said, "would certainly love an opportunity to play for the hometown team."
Imagining Maier in the Orioles' organization is another thing entirely, and not something the team's fans would easily embrace.
"Some people are still very bitter towards him," said Tony Pente, who operates the Orioles fan Web site, http://orioleshangout.com/ . "I hate to say it, but for some people, there's almost a hatred of him -- to this day."
Although the lingering outrage of Orioles fans is more accurately directed at Richie Garcia -- the right field umpire who blew the call that night -- through the years Maier has become a symbol of the Orioles' futility.
"You can't blame Jeffrey Maier for all the bad [management] decisions that led to eight straight losing seasons," Pente said. "But if you believe in fate, you could see [the Maier] play as the beginning of it spiraling downwards."
Fans are not the only ones still bitter about the Maier play.
"I could still be in Baltimore if that didn't happen," said Davey Johnson, the Orioles' manager at the time, whose departure from the organization at the end of the 1997 season came under disputed circumstances -- he says he was fired; Angelos claims he resigned.
"It was a real big game, and we were going to win it," Johnson said. "It changed a lot of things. It got me fired -- not immediately, but it got me fired. I didn't win [it all]. I won a little bit, but not enough."
Pitcher Scott Erickson, who started the game for the Orioles and was in line to get the win before Armando Benitez served up the fateful pitch in the eighth inning to Jeter, said he hopes Maier makes it to the major leagues, "just so I can drill him -- I'd like to get one shot at him."
As fate would have it, Erickson is now a member of the Yankees, having signed there in February and been called up last month. On his first night in a Yankees uniform, he found himself sitting in the bullpen next to closer Mariano Rivera, the winning pitcher in the Maier game following two scoreless innings of relief.
"Rivera claimed [the ball] would've hit the wall and probably gone for a double" if Maier had not touched it, Erickson said. "But everyone knows it would've been an out. Tarasco was right under it. I told [Rivera] he's insane."'My Ballplayer Instincts'
If all you knew of Maier was The Play, you could still draw some decent conclusions about him as a player. Here's what the scouting report might say:
"Has good instincts, gets excellent reads on the ball." (Maier shot out of his seat above the right field wall at the crack of the bat and hustled to the exact spot on the rail where the ball would end up.)
"Has excellent agility and coordination." (To get to that spot, he had to run down a short flight of steps that ran from the first row of seats down to the railing, while keeping his eye on the ball.)
"Has very poor hands." (He did, after all, drop the ball.)
Asked to describe the play for approximately the eight millionth time in his life, Maier happily obliged, as if wondering what took his questioner so long.
"The ballplayer in me just took over," he said. "I always had a knack for the ball, whether in soccer or baseball or whatever. Part of it is just being aware of the situation. Being 12, I had never seen a ball hit that high before. But I was able to get to the spot. I had a pretty good idea of where it was going.
"It's what every kid wants to do at a ballgame -- catch a ball. It was my ballplayer instincts. I saw a ball in the air, and I was going to go get it."
It being New York, there would need to be a news conference, and the network morning shows would need to line young Jeffrey up for the following morning. He made appearances on "Good Morning America" and "Regis & Kathie Lee." The New York Daily News gave the family free tickets to Game 2 -- this time right behind the Yankees' dugout, as opposed to way out in right field -- in exchange for letting the newspaper document the day.
"My mom used to always say it was a foreshadowing -- that I was destined to do something big," Maier said. "I just look at it as . . . I have a very aggressive personality. When there's something I want, I usually go out and get it.
"But I do think everything happens for a reason."
What could that reason be? Could it be that Maier was destined to be drafted by the Orioles, to make the major leagues a few years later and lead the Orioles to the World Series, so many years after helping keep them out of one? Perhaps, if you believe in that sort of thing.
"It would be ironic, for sure," Maier said. "Those [Orioles] fans might give me a hard time at first. But if I was playing well, eventually they'd have to start cheering for me."
Cal Ripken, the legendary Orioles shortstop who went 2 for 5 in the Maier game, now owns the Aberdeen IronBirds, a Class A affiliate of the Orioles that, in all likelihood, would be one of the stops in Maier's minor league career if the organization drafted him.
"I don't blame the kid," Ripken said. "It was a reaction. It was not premeditated. Why harbor any resentment? If the Orioles draft him, great. I'd look at it as, 'Here's a kid trying to fulfill a dream.' "
To this point, Maier's interactions with Orioles fandom, and the Baltimore region as a whole, have been limited, for the most part, to some angry letters with Maryland postmarks that, according to Maier, "basically condemned me to hell."
He was recruited after high school by Johns Hopkins University. "But I was like, 'I can't do that,' " he said. "It would've been nuts for me to go down there."
Earlier this year, a Wesleyan classmate from outside of Baltimore, a film major, made an eight-minute movie as her senior thesis titled "I Hate Jeffrey Maier." The movie is about an Orioles fan who winds up attending the same college as Maier, and who confronts his own repressed anger over The Play -- and Maier himself makes a cameo at the end.
"At the end [of the film], I do apologize," Maier said. "I just say, 'I'm sorry. I was just a kid trying to get a ball.' "
If the Orioles do in fact draft Maier, there would not be much time for folks to wrap their minds around that staggering notion. The Bluefield Orioles, the organization's rookie league affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va., and a draftee's presumed first assignment, begin their season on June 24.
That would leave everyone less than three weeks to prepare for a sight out of a sick nightmare, or a lovely dream: Jeff Maier, all grown up and hell-bent on making the majors, down from the stands and out on the diamond, a single word visible across his chest: "Orioles."