Sunday, September 9, 2012

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Jeffrey Maier (Or Rich Garcia) for the Baltimore Orioles Losing the 1996 Pennant

In the wake of the atrocious call last night, many references were made to the Jeffrey Maier incident.

Refresher: It was Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series, at the old Yankee Stadium. It was the bottom of the 8th inning, with one out, and the Orioles were leading 4-3.  Derek Jeter was batting against Oriole reliever Armando Benitez.

Today, we recognize Jeter as "Captain Clutch," and Benitez as a choke artist. But this was October 9, 1996: Jeter was a rookie, and Benitez hadn't been in a big situation before, and hadn't had the chance to blow it. There was, as yet, no reason to believe that Benitez would throw an awful pitch and give a rookie a chance at turning the game around; nor to believe that Jeter would come through with a big hit in this situation.

Benitez through a gut-high fastball, and Jeter sent it toward the right-center-field wall. Tony Tarasco was playing right field for the Orioles. He had his back to the wall. He reached up, and...

And the ball went into the stands. Home run.

Tarasco was furious.  He ran over to Rich Garcia, the crew chief of that series' umpires, who was working right field. (Postseason, 6 umpires, one at each base, one on each foul line in the outfield.) He argued. Garcia insisted that it was a legitimate home run.

The instant replay showed that a kid in a short-sleeved black shirt stuck a glove out over the fence, and... even he didn't catch the ball. He did pull it into the stands, but he couldn't hang onto it.

By the next morning, we found out his name was Jeffrey Maier, he was 12 years old, he was from Old Tappan in Bergen County, New Jersey, near the New York State Line, and he was a Little League player.

That morning, he was hailed as an ANGEL IN THE OUTFIELD on the front page of the New York Daily News, was a guest on Live with Regis and Kathie Lee, and got to sit next to then-Mayor Rudy Giuliani at Game 2 of the series.

He went on to play high school and college ball, and worked for minor-league teams, although he never played pro ball. Today, he is about to turn 28, and is employed by LeagueApps, which helps sports teams (pro and amateur) work out their websites.

Back to the game in question: Garcia's ruling stood. The game was tied, and Bernie Williams hit a home run to win the game in the bottom of the 11th, 5-4.

After the game, Yankee manager Joe Torre was asked about the controversial call. His response was a deadpan classic: "Did anybody see Bernie's home run? That wasn't all bad."

The Yankees went on to win the series, 4 games to 1, and win the World Series over the Atlanta Braves.

For nearly 16 years, Oriole fans have complained about that call, claiming that the kid and the ump stole a win, and maybe a Pennant, from the Orioles.

It is understandable. The O's did win Game 2. Had the correct call (or what they think would have been the correct call) been made, the O's would have gone home up 2 games to 0.

On the other hand, it seems petty to blame a kid for losing the Pennant. Better to blame Garcia than Maier, right? After all, there's a big difference between a 12-year-old boy exercising boyish enthusiasm and screwing up -- if, in fact, you believe he screwed up -- and a 54-year-old umpire with 22 seasons' worth of experience. Who was also a Marine combat engineer in Vietnam.

“You’ll hunt me, you’ll condemn me, set the dogs on me. Because it’s what needs to happen.  Because, sometimes, the truth isn’t good enough. Sometimes, people deserve more. Sometimes, people deserve to have their faith rewarded.”

That’s what Batman (played by Christian Bale) said to Gotham City Police Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) at the end of the film The Dark Knight.

Am I saying that Richie Garcia is the scapegoat that Baltimore deserves, but not the one it needs? After all, unlike the 12-year-old kid that Maier then was, Garcia, now 70 and retired from umpiring since 1999, can take it.

But should he have to?

Top 5 Reasons You Can't Blame Jeffrey Maier (Or Rich Garcia) for the Baltimore Orioles Losing the 1996 Pennant

5. Tony Tarasco.  He was never going to make that catch.  Look at the video, and freeze it at the nine-second mark. Not only does Tarasco not jump -- at all -- but he didn't properly line up his glove with the ball.

If Jeffrey Maier had been sick that day, or his dad's car had broken down on the way to The Stadium, or if he'd tripped on his way to that spot, or for whatever other reason wasn't in that spot at that moment, the ball would have hit the wall, above Tarasco's glove and to his right -- to the viewer's left. This is "the Zapruder Film of baseball": The ball was back and to the left, back and to the left, back and to the left.

The ball would have gone off the wall, Tarasco would have had to chase it, and, with his speed, Jeter probably would have ended up on 3rd with 1 out.  The next batter was Tim Raines: In reality, he hit a ground ball to 1st base, and Rafael Palmeiro was unable to get to 1st or to toss the ball to Benitez in time to get Raines out. Certainly, that would have scored Jeter, and the game would have been tied 4-4 anyway, and we'd have been exactly where we were in the history that we know.

And Tarasco would have looked like a tremendous fool. He would have been Baltimore's very own Bill Buckner. No, he would have been worse than Buckner: When Buckner made his error, the Red Sox had already blown their lead. Tarasco caused the O's to blow theirs.

If Jeffrey Maier hadn't done what he did, then the series would have progressed exactly as we remember it, Tarasco would have been blamed for blowing a game the Orioles probably should have won, and he would have gone down in history as the biggest goat in the history of Baltimore sports.

I'm not sure who that would actually be. Benitez, for serving up multiple gopher balls for the O's in the '96 and '97 ALCSes? Maybe. Earl Morrall, for throwing mind-boggling interceptions in Super Bowl III? Maybe, but then he stepped in for an injured Johnny Unitas in Super Bowl V and led the Colts to victory, so he shouldn't be on the hook. Nelson Munsey, for letting Dave Casper of the Oakland Raiders score the winning touchdown in the 2nd overtime period of an AFC Divisional Playoff on Christmas Eve 1977? No, because that play is remembered more for the hero than for the player who allowed the heroics to happen. It's "Ghost to the Post," not "Goat to the Post."

The entire Oriole offense, for batting just .146 in the 1969 World Series, ruining a season where they won 109 games? No, give credit to the Mets for sensational pitching. The Orioles as a whole, for blowing 3-games-to-1 leads against the Pittsbugh Pirates in both the 1971 and 1979 World Series? Hard to say any one player stood out in those debacles, even though the O's probably had the better team in all 6 World Series the franchise has ever played (winning 3: 1966, 1970 and 1983).

Lee Evans dropped a pass that probably would have resulted in a touchdown, meaning the Ravens, rather than the New England Patriots, would have played the Giants in the Super Bowl earlier this year. Shortly thereafter, Billy Cundiff missed a game-tying field goal. But that game was played over 15 years after the Maier incident, so while Evans and/or Cundiff might have taken Tarasco (or Benitez) off the hook, no one would have known that in '96.

Then, of course, there's Bob Irsay, who moved the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night on March 28, 1984 -- but there's a big difference between a goat and a villain; between a guy who made an awful mistake in the heat of the moment that cost his team an important game, and a guy who made a conscious decision to screw over 2 million people in the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Ironically, Tarasco was in the game for defensive purposes. He had replaced Bobby Bonilla, who wasn't much of a defensive player at any position at which he was tried. In an additional irony, he's from New York.

In one more irony, 3 years later, Tarasco, having been waived by the Orioles, released by the Cincinnati Reds, and released by the Kansas City Royals, was signed by... the Yankees.  He played 14 games in Pinstripes from May 27 to June 20, before washing out with a .161 batting average. He then went off to play in Japan before returning to the majors for one last cup of coffee, playing 60 games with the Mets in 2002. He was 31, and except for 1995 with the Montreal Expos, he never had more than 193 plate appearances in a season.

Tony Tarasco was good enough to reach the major leagues. Something that, as of this writing, only 17,925 other men could truthfully claim (presuming they were all still alive). But the guy just wasn't that good. He had 241 hits in his entire career. Which was 8 seasons. Ty Cobb, George Sisler, Rogers Hornsby, Al Simmons, Lefty O'Doul, Bill Terry, Chuck Klein had all topped that in one season. (Since then, we can add Ichiro Suzuki to that list.) If not for that play, Tarasco would be remembered as... the cousin of Jimmy Rollins. (Not sure how close the cousins are: First cousin, second cousin, second cousin once removed, etc.)

He now, at age 41, has a shot at a ring: He is the minor league coordinator for the Washington Nationals. But he gets no blame for the O's losing that Pennant.

He should: If he'd lined up his glove right, or even if he'd jumped, then his glove might have made contact with Maier's, and a call of fan interference would have been the easiest call ever, and Jeter would have been called out, and the Orioles almost certainly would have won.

Instead, Tarasco should be remembered as the goat. But he isn't, because of Maier. Face it, Maier saved Tarasco from the kind of ignominy suffered by Buckner, Ralph Branca, Mitch Williams, and the late Johnny Pesky.

Tarasco should properly thank Maier. Buy him dinner. At the very least, buy him a drink. After all, he's over 21 now.

4. It Was Game 1. The Orioles still had 6 chances to win 4 games -- with 3 games to be played at home. They could have settled down, put it in the past, treated it like any other loss, and mentally prepared themselves for the remaining games. Instead, they let it get to them.

Maybe if they'd had better leadership. Instead, they had...

3. Davey Johnson. He managed the Mets from 1984 to 1990, the Reds from 1993 to 1995, the O's in 1996 and 1997, the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1999 and 2000, and has managed the Nats since 2011. He reached the postseason with the '86 and '88 Mets, and the '95 Reds, and the Reds were leading the NL Central when the Strike of '94 hit. So, not counting the incomplete 1994 and the as-yet-incomplete 2012 (in which he has led the Nats to 86 wins thus far, already the most by a Washington team since 1945 and 2 wins away from the best since 1933), 14 seasons, and 3 Playoff berths.

Keep in mind, the Dodgers were leading the NL West when the '94 Strike hit, they won the Division in '95, and won the NL Wild Card in '96.  By the time Davey got there, they still had quite a bit of talent. So he should have had more than 3 postseason berths, and more than 1 Pennant, in 14 seasons.

The Mets came close in '84, but fell short. This can be excused, as they were a young team that didn't yet know what they could do. They narrowly missed beating out the St. Louis Cardinals for the NL East title in '85 and '87. For the former year, they could be excused for getting beat by a team with more experience. But in the latter year, they were defending World Champions, so the excuses were gone. The Mets were leading the Dodgers 4-2 in the 9th in Game 4 of the '88 NLCS, and thus were 3 outs away from going up 3 games to 1. They blew the game, and lost the series in 7 games. They fell a little short the Division races in in '89 and '90.

Davey's Reds swept the Dodgers in the NLDS in '95, but were then swept themselves by the Braves. No shame there, since there was no collapse, no what-the-hell moment, and no robbery, and the Braves did go on to win the World Series. But moving on to Baltimore the next year, the Orioles blew it in '96, and were even closer in '97 and lost. And Davey did nothing with the Dodgers.

What about the one Pennant he did win, with the '86 Mets? Puh. Lease. The Mets nearly blew both the Pennant and the World Series. They had to win that Game 6, because Mike Scott would have started Game 7, in the Astrodome where he was damn near unbeatable, and they were scared shitless by him. And only John McNamara, an even dumber manager than Davey, throwing Games 6 and 7 away allowed the Mets to beat the Red Sox in the Series. Face it, the Mets won the Series in spite of Davey's "leadership," not because of it.

But let's get back to '96: Like Tommy Lasorda in '78, Whitey Herzog in '85, McNamara in '86, and Dusty Baker in 2002 and '03, a shocking postseason loss left the manager flummoxed, and he didn't know how to handle it. He totally lost his cool, and his team followed his lead. He began to see umpires' calls going against him on every play, and his profanity-laced tirades were picked up by NBC's microphones.

After Game 1, Davey could have told his Orioles, "Look, we got screwed. Well, screw them.  Let's win Game 2 and keep rolling. We're better than the Yankees. We can do this." Would they have won? Maybe: They did win Game 2.

But not Game 3, Game 4, or Game 5.  Why?

2. Home Field Disadvantage. The Yankees won all 3 games at Camden Yards.  If you can't defend your own house, you lose the right to complain about something that happened on the road.

In fact, the Orioles' home record in postseason play isn't very good. Starting from Game 7 of the 1971 World Series, at Memorial Stadium, they are 10-15 in home games in postseason play. That's indicative of how many times they've reached the postseason, but in actual results, it's pathetic.  They lost series-clinching games at home in the 1971 WS, the 1974 ALCS, the 1979 WS, the 1996 ALCS, and the 1997 ALCS. And we can't say it's the Curse of Camden Yards, because the first 3 of those were at old Memorial.

But maybe it all boils down to one opinion, supported by fact, the real reason you can't blame Maier or Garcia for the Orioles losing that Pennant:

1. The Yankees Were Better. They did beat the O's out for the Division, by 4 games, 92 to 88. Included in that was a 10-3 record against the O's in the regular season -- and included in that was 6-0 at Camden Yards. Counting the ALCS, the Yankees were 14-4 against the O's in '96, 9-0 in Baltimore. And, of course, the Yankees did go on to win the World Series. The O's haven't done that, or even won a Pennant, since 1983.

And for that, there are many people you can blame, from the preceding, to owner Peter Angelos, to the players, to the steroids that some of the players were taking (definitely Palmeiro, probably Brady Anderson, possibly Bonilla, maybe others) that made the O's look a lot better than they actually were.

It's time to let Jeffrey Maier and Rich Garcia off the hook. The O's didn't lose the 1996 Pennant because they were screwed. They lost because they deserved to lose -- and that's true even if you don't think they gained an advantage from steroids.

They Orioles lost because the better team won.

2 comments:

Paul said...

Mike,

There's something you're forgetting. In game 1, Mariano Rivera pitched in the 10th and 11th inning. If Jeter were called out earlier in the game, there is no 10th and 11th. Now in game 2, with the score tied in the 7th, Jeff Nelson comes in and loses the game. I bet that if the Yankees were down 1-0 in the series and Mo hadn't pitched in game 1, he comes in the game rather than Nelson. (Remember, Mariano was typically the 7th and 8th inning pitcher that year). Therefore, it is not necessarily the case that the Orioles would win game 2.

Paul

Uncle Mike said...

It never occurred to me to see if the result of Game 2 could be reversed. Then again, the Yankees dropped Game 1 of the Division Series, and then took 3 straight, none of them easy.

It is amazing, and whatever you want to say about Joel Sherman he did write a great book about the 1996 team, "Birth of a Dynasty," but there were about a dozen different times that title could have been prevented, by decisions great and (apparently) small, and the dynasty would never have happened. It truly is one of the great stories in Yankee history, even if you take out the treacly stuff like Gooden's no-hitter and Joe Torre's brothers.