NEW YORK — In an incredible twist of irony, a young boy sitting in the rightfield stands became the instant focus in the series opener between the New York Yankees and the Baltimore Orioles.
Twelve-year-old Jeff Maier interfered with a ball hit toward the rightfield grandstand in the bottom of the eighth inning. That was when the fly ball, lofted by Derek Jeter is certain to take its place as one of the most disputed hits in postseason history.
The controversial event stole the limelight away from even Bernie Williams, the soft-spoken Yankee centerfielder who delivered the game-winning hit - a solo homer to lead off the bottom of the 11th, that gave New York its 5-4 victory.
The controversy grew out of umpire Rich Garcia's missed call, which awarded a game-tying home run to the Yankees and discounted any interference by the glove-wielding youngster, who was doing what countless fans attempt to do, namely snag a souvenir baseball.
Baltimore rightfielder Tony Tarasco said he was camped under the ball, ready to catch it on his tiptoes, when suddenly it disappeared over the wall, deflected by the young boy's outstretched glove.
In such a case, according to Garcia, the batter is out if the ump judges the ball would have been caught, or he is awarded a double, most probably, if the ball appears it would have hit the fence above the fielder's reach.
Garcia is a veteran umpire who, to his credit, was remarkably candid and good-natured during a press interrogation that followed on the heels of this four-hours-plus marathon, which saw both teams go to the wall trying to pull out a victory in the rain-postponed series opener. (Games 3, 4, and 5 are scheduled to begin in Baltimore tonight, with the series shifting back to New York next Tuesday if necessary.)
"Only I can get in trouble [umpiring] in right field," Garcia lamented afterwards, confessing that he never detected the young fan touching the ball and only realized what had happened after seeing a postgame replay.
Umpiring along the rightfield foul lines, a position only staffed in the postseason, is normally a quiet assignment, but it became anything but once Tarasco heatedly argued Garcia's home run call. Baltimore manager Davey Johnson quickly joined in and was tossed from the game for pushing the issue too vociferously.
"I didn't cuss [at] Richie, I just wanted to know how he could have missed the call, and sometimes in the heat of battle you go too far, when you should have stopped," Johnson said.
Johnson indicated he could see the youngster reaching over the fence from the Orioles' dugout and had this impression confirmed upon seeing a replay in the clubhouse. "When I came in after I was ejected they [NBC] were interviewing the kid as a hero, and that didn't make me feel too good either."
Among the ironies here is that Johnson claims that there supposedly was going to be increased ballpark security aimed at preventing fan intrusions on the playing area. He said the Orioles formally protested the game on this basis, not because the team disagreed with Garcia's call, although it obviously did.
The rules state that a protest cannot be filed over a judgment call.
The further irony here is that there was a heavy police presence at the game. Police encircled the field moments after the game ended, yet had no noticeable responsibility for securing it during play.
The stadium's reputation for unruly spectators is widely known, and everybody was on alert with the Orioles' Alomar in town. Outside Baltimore, he has been the target of fan scorn since he spat on an umpire several weeks ago.
In a bizarre twist, however, the Alomar umpire controversy suddenly was replaced by another umpire-related episode, only this time, one that put the onus elsewhere.
Unsure of his call, Garcia said he sought the help of three colleagues, the first base, second base, and home plate umpires, yet none reversed his decision. If Baltimore should go on to lose the series, especially in seven games, the "what ifs" will fly fast and furiously, perhaps prompting some to suggest using instant replays to backstop difficult and potentially decisive calls when the situation warrants.
The following morning, columnist Murray Chass in The New York Times raised the possibility that the game could, or should, be replayed from the point that the interference took place. But Chass conceded that American League president Gene Budig would take heat from umpires if it appeared he was not supporting them.
Before New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani threw out the first pitch of this game at Yankee Stadium, journalists were having a field day with all the angles and story lines impregnating the matchup between the Yankees and Baltimore Orioles.
Do you like long-running serials? What could be better than a best-of-seven games engagement between a division champion, New York, and the division rival that dogged the Yankees until finally forced to settle for a wildcard postseason berth?
Is a contrast in playing strengths your thing? Ah, this series is viewed as a classic, with the most prolific home run-hitting team of all-time, Baltimore (257 homers), confronting a Yankee pitching staff that allowed only 143 homers, the fewest by far in the American League.
On and on it goes, with loads of alluring factors and facets.
These are baseball's highest-paid teams. New York's $66.5 million payroll is tops, followed by $61.4 million spent by Baltimore.
Both teams are managed by guys who once directed the New York Mets, Joe Torre of the Yankees and Davey Johnson of the Orioles. Johnson, in fact, guided the 1986 Mets to a World Series title. Former Met Darryl Strawberry has rebounded from drug-related problems, and now suits up for the Yankees.
One club (Baltimore) has an incredibly admired veteran shortstop (Cal Ripken), the other an immensely poised rookie (Derek Jeter) at this same key position.
One has a controversial owner (New York's George Steinbrenner), the other a suddenly controversial second baseman (Roberto Alomar).
One plays in the house that Ruth built (Yankee Stadium), the other in the city where the Babe was born.