The ball jumped off Derek Jeter‘s bat and headed out to right field. Down by one run in the eighth inning of game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series to the Baltimore Orioles, the Yankees needed runs, and fast.
As the ball traveled to the outfield, then 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier left his seat in the front row, and went down the few steps to the walkway in front of the fence.
“I really wasn’t thinking about much,” Maier, now 28, recalls. “[I thought] anything any ordinary 12 year old, and for that matter, any ordinary fan thinks when they see a ball at a game: instinctively watched it, and tried to catch it and thinking it was a home run all along.”
Maier reached out over the fence just as the ball was coming down. At the same time, rightfielder Tony Tarasco was settled underneath it at the warning track, his glove outstretched, sure he was going to catch it.
The ball deflected off Maier’s glove and landed somewhere near him in the stands. The play was ruled a home run by umpire Richie Garcia as Jeter circled the bases, and the game was tied at four.
The Yankees would eventually go on to win the game (and the series in five games) in 11 innings, on a Bernie Williams walk-off home run.
“I brought the ball over the fence, it hit the heel of my glove, then went to the bottom of the scrum,” said Maier. He didn’t come away with the ball, but instead came away with a few black and blues on his arms as everyone fought for the treasured souvenir.
Maier was lifted onto the shoulders of another fan, and the stadium went into a frenzy. “I have no idea who the gentleman was that put me on his shoulders. The place got pretty loud. It was a pretty overwhelming experience,” Maier added.
Shortly after the “home run”, Maier was taken into a hallway where members of the media assembled to find out who this mystery kid was. He was with family friends, who had given him the ticket because another friend couldn’t make it due to work commitments. Game 1 was rescheduled due to inclement weather, so without the postponement, Maier might not have been at the game.
After being swarmed by the media, Maier and the group he was with decided it was best to go home. This was only the beginning for the young boy, as he was all of a sudden thrust into the national spotlight. He entered Yankee Stadium that day as an ordinary 12-year-old kid, and left as a key figure in Yankee and baseball history.
The next day, Maier attended game 2 courtesy of the New York Daily News. Earlier in the day, he did the weather for ABC’s Good Morning America and was a guest on Regis and Kathy Lee. He was even offered to appear on The David Letterman Show, but didn’t attend because of game 2.
“One day you’re the average kid who loves sports and does relatively well in school, the next day you’re doing the weather on GMA, and on the front page of most newspapers in the country,” he said. “It definitely changes things.”
However, the play wasn’t received well by others in the days and weeks to come. “We had to have our mail screened at one point at the police station. You had reporters and camera crews following you home from school,” said Maier. “I had to hide in the backseat of my moms car; we had to make sure people didn’t go on the property. For a couple of days it was pretty wild.”
He even received death threats from around the country from disgruntled fans. As a 12-year old, he was forced to deal with things at an early age. “Receiving negative letters and having people write negative things about you in the media was a very difficult thing to deal with,” Maier said. “No one likes to know that people don’t like them, especially when they haven’t had the opportunity to be judged as a person.”
Maier looks back at the event and what transpired after as something that forced him to grow up. He was offered to be in multiple commercials and to star in promotional projects, but he turned all of them down, something he says to this day was the best decision he ever made.
“I was fortunate to have a very grounded set of parents to make sure I stayed grounded too. So I went back to going to school and playing sports.”
Maier went on with his life, hanging out with friends and family to keep his mind off of the media circus he stumbled into. “It was hard to understand. But I had a good support system so I could continue with my life,” he said. Things eventually died down for him during everyday life, but he still carries the familiar name with him.
“People would always remember me,” he said. “Baseball fans are pretty bright.”
In February of 1997, he had the opportunity to meet Jeter at an autograph signing in New Jersey. For Maier, the experience was something he’ll never forget.
“I was there with my father and Derek was a really nice guy, really complimentary of me for how I handled the whole process and wished me well with everything,” he said. Jeter signed a ball for Maier, which read: “To Jeff, thanks a lot. – Derek Jeter.”
Maier also had the chance to meet Tarasco in 2002 when he was a guest speaker at a baseball camp Maier was working at.
“We had the opportunity to spend some time with one another, we engaged in some conversation,” Maier said. At the time, Maier was getting ready to attend college at Wesleyan University and play baseball. Tarasco was understanding about what happened that night in the Bronx. “He was wishing me well, and said if he was a kid he would’ve done the same thing. He was a standup guy.”
Maier went on to become the all-time hits leader at Wesleyan. He is now married (to a Red Sox fan) with two sons, one of which is already throwing a wiffleball and hitting off of a tee at 20 months old. He lives in Red Sox Nation and prefers to keep his whereabouts private. “There are some crazy people out there,” he said.
Maier took a trip down to Camden Yards several years ago to watch the O’s take on the Sox, and said it was a pleasant experience, especially since he made it out of the ballpark unharmed. Every now and then, someone will recognize his name and poke and prod his story.
As time goes by, Maier says he doesn’t mind it, and often enjoys it. “It’s not something I try to flaunt. You kind of awkwardly smile,” Maier said. “I enjoy the excitement people get about it now.”
He summed up the whole event simply and innocently.
“At the core of it, its a story about a kid who loves baseball, who brought his glove to the game like most kids do,” Maier said. Even though the experience was a lot to handle as a young boy, he looks back on how it has impacted him with no regrets. He admits he’s kept a chest full of articles and letters that were sent to him back then, as a reminder of the unique experience he went through. The event will always be a part of him, no matter what.
“I don’t have regrets, you live life day by day. I think 99.9 percent of people would have done the same thing, reacting to the ball,” said Maier. “It’s a unique story. It’s something you kind of embrace. I’ve always been a Yankee fan, I’ve always understood the history of the Yankees, but also the history of baseball.”
Maier is forever etched into that history, and now the memories of that October night come flooding back since the Orioles are facing the Yankees in the playoffs for the first time since that series. The anniversary of the controversial play is Oct. 9, one day before game 3 is to be played at Yankee Stadium.
Maier is excited for this year’s playoffs, and is happy a certain team is back to prominence. “I’m really glad the Orioles are back in it. I think they’re a great team,” he said.
“I’ll stay away from Camden Yards and Yankee Stadium and let the 18 guys on the field fight it out and figure out the outcome.”
Make sure to check out our Series Preview between the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees.