On October 15th, 1997, after a 1-0 loss to the Cleveland Indians booted the Baltimore Orioles from the American League Championship Series for the 2nd straight year, Orioles fans left Camden Yards disappointed but optimistic. Back to back postseason runs had left them on the doorstep of the World Series and O’s fans couldn’t wait to do it all over again next season. 14 years later, they’re still waiting. I’m still waiting. For a World Series, for a playoff appearance, hell, just for a winning season. But it’s not the way the 1997 season came to an end that I want to talk about today. It’s a series of strange circumstances that came together over the course of several years that led me to ask myself the question, “Did Cal Ripken Jr., perhaps the most beloved Oriole to ever play the game, single-handedly send the franchise into a spiraling abyss of immeasurable defeat?”
“How dare you talk about Cal Ripken that way Jim. He’s an Orioles hero, a Maryland institution!”
Whoa, slow down O’s fans. Holster those torches and pitchforks for a minute. If you let me tell this story, I guarantee you’ll be asking yourself the same question.
“Very well Jim, tell your little story.”
Thank you for so enthusiastically allowing me to continue. Now back to the story.
It seemed like a catchable ball to me. It seemed that way to the announcers and the commentators in the booth as well. It certainly seemed that way to Tony Tarasco, as he didn’t even feel the need to jump for it. Perhaps if he had known that a 12-year-old boy sitting in the stands above his head was about to pluck that “catchable ball” out of the sky before it landed safely in his glove, he may have made the leap.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me go back to the beginning.
It was 1993, and young Brian Altman of New York was heading to a Yankees game. Brian was 9 years old and not a fan of the home team. He was going to this game because the Yankees were hosting the Orioles and Brian was a Ripken fan. He had learned of Cal’s consecutive games played streak years before and had idolized him growing up. In fact, his mother had paid a sporting goods store to take an orange t-shirt of Brian’s and add Ripken’s #8 on the back for him to wear for Halloween that year.
On this day, he wore that t-shirt proudly as he and his father headed to their seats just behind the Orioles dugout. Arriving early, they were able to catch some batting practice and that’s when Brian saw him. Ripken was in the cage taking some BP and Brian stood in awe of the Ironman. His father instructed Brian to turn his back to the field for a moment and in a booming voice, called out to the Orioles’ shortstop, “HeyCal, check out the jersey!”
Despite the sounds of the park and the screaming fans vying for his attention, Ripken heard Brian’s father’s voice and looked in their direction. Amazingly, he smiled at the father and son and began to walk towards them. Brian stood frozen, like a deer in headlights, as Cal approached. He offered to sign a ball for Brian and then, in a move that defined the classy nature of the man himself, Ripken extended his hand and shook Brian’s. That was the moment that changed Brian’s life…and possibly changed the fortunes of the Baltimore Orioles.
Fast forward three years to the fall of 1996. Brian’s allegiance to the Orioles, and more specifically Cal Ripken, had only grown stronger since that fateful day at Yankee Stadium. After a solid season and a wild card berth in the playoffs, the O’s had defeated the Cleveland Indians in the divisional round, leading to a matchup with the Yanks in the ALCS. Brian was desperate to see a game and so his father paid the hefty price tag for 5 tickets to game 1 at Yankee Stadium; 3 for his family and 2 for Brian’s friend and his father. The game was scheduled for October 8th at 8:00pm and Brian and his friend Matthew couldn’t have been more excited.
Unfortunately for Matthew’s father, a weather system bringing heavy rain was just as excited to show up and so the game was moved from the evening of the 8th to the late afternoon of the 9th. Matthew’s dad was a truck driver with routes scheduled for that afternoon and despite his pleadings to his boss, was unable to make the new game time.
With only a few hours before the game, and one extra ticket available, Brian and his parents had to find a replacement. It was an easy decision. Another friend of Brian’s; a friend since their toddler days on the playground who loved the game of baseball. A friend named Jeffrey Maier.
Oh how I wish I could see your face right now, loyal O’s fans. You know that name like a nerdy high school kid knows the name of the jock that stole his prom date. You know that name because that day was the first time you realized a grown man or woman such as yourself could harbor pure hatred towards a 12-year-old boy.
Jeffrey received the call about the extra ticket and, before Brian could finish his sentence, had accepted and grabbed his glove. Brian’s parents, along with the three boys, arrived at the stadium and divided up the tickets. There were three in the front row of the right field seats and two more a few rows back. Being the good parents that they were, the kids were given the three up front and they headed into the stadium.
To the joy of Brian, but the disappointment of the rest of the crowd, including Jeffrey, the Orioles led the game 4-3 through seven innings. With a young Derek Jeter at the plate and the hard throwing Armando Benitez on the mound, Jeffrey and the rest of the Yankee fans were hoping for a little magic. That’s when it happened. On the 2nd pitch from Benitez, Jeter launched a fastball high into the night sky and in the direction of the right field seats. O’s right fielder, Tony Tarasco, had a bead on it right away and slowly glided towards the wall, keeping the ball in his sights while feeling for the wall with his other hand. As the ball made its descent on a direct path to Tarasco’s glove, Tony felt the wall behind him and knew there was plenty of room to make this catch. He raised his glove and prepared to close it around the stitched leather sphere when a second glove appeared over his head and snatched the ball away at the last moment.
It was Jeffrey’s black Mizuno mitt.
The ball caromed off his glove and into the stands as fans swarmed the three boys trying to be the first to grab it. Meanwhile, on the field, Tarasco was blowing a gasket. The umpire had ruled it a homerun, despite the clear interference of young Jeffrey Maier, and Tarasco was pleading his case. There would be no reversal of the call however, only the ejection of both Benitez and manager Davey Johnson for excessive arguing of the situation.
Jeffrey never got that ball, though he was cheered by the fans in his section and even lifted onto their shoulders at one point. The “homerun” by Jeter tied the game at four and in the eleventh inning, Bernie Williams gave the Yankees the victory with a solo homer of his own. The history books tell the rest of the story. The Yanks won the ALCS, 4 games to 1 and went on to win the World Series that year; the first of 4 Championships in a 5 year span.
The Orioles led the division from opening day to the final game of the year in 1997, but lost again in the ALCS to the Indians. Considering their success that year, it’s hard to say that the Jeffrey Maier incident was the beginning of the end for the O’s. I have no doubt, however, that the memory of that moment surely played over again in the minds of the players as they watched their season come to a close on that October day in ’97. In the offseason between 1997 and 1998, some major changes in management took place in the Orioles organization. The revolving door of Managers and GMs began that year and a tradition of losing has replaced a history of winning. An entire generation of Baltimore youth has not known a winning Orioles team and there are more factors to blame for that than there are words in this article.
But just think for a moment. What if Brian’s parents had chosen to sit in the front row that day? What if the weather had held off on October 8th and they had played the game as originally scheduled? What if they had invited any other friend to that game? But most of all, what if Cal Ripken had never acknowledged a 9-year-old boy in an orange t-shirt three years before? I’m not saying things would be any different today, but it kind of makes you wonder, right?