Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS was supposed to be played on Oct. 8, but torrential rains caused it to be postponed to the following afternoon. As luck would have it, this change in schedule left close family friends with an extra ticket to the game. While they were longtime Orioles fans, they were kind enough to offer me the chance to attend the game with them.
Like any 12-year-old attending his or her first Yankees playoff game, I was sure to bring my glove, and I crossed my fingers that two things would happen: first, that the Yankees would win; and of secondary importance, that I might bring home a souvenir, game-used baseball.
Baseball was always my favorite sport, and the Yankees my favorite team. Since the beginning of the season, young Yankees fans like myself were quickly becoming endeared to a young rookie who had taken the league by storm: Derek Jeter.
He was hardworking, respectful and a leading contender for Rookie of the Year. It had been a long time since the Yankees had produced such a compelling prospect from their farm system, and it was pretty hard not to be pulling for Derek.
As the bottom of the eighth inning got underway and Derek came to the plate against Armando Benitez, I was on high alert. Derek had a reputation for hitting the ball to the opposite field, and Benitez was a young reliever with a “plus” fastball. I remember seeing the ball go up into the air. My next memory is being on the bottom of a large pileup in search of the ball, which, despite Orioles right fielder Tony Tarasco’s claims, had been signaled a home run.
Disappointed I did not come away from the play with the ball, I quickly realized that the play—and my involvement in it—was a bit more unique than a typical home run. The next few days and subsequent years were going to be impacted because of that one moment in baseball history and my involvement in it.
Quickly, I was whisked to an area under the seats by security and approached by members of the media—while the family friends with whom I attended the game did their best to get us safely on our way home.
From that day forward, things were always a little different. In the days following the game, I found media members at my school, at my home and talking to classmates, neighbors—anyone even loosely connected to me that they could get their hands on. Mail arrived at our home without even needing a full address.
Not all of the mail was positive. In fact, there were many negative letters and opinions being shared publicly. Tony Kornheiser even wrote that I had reached the “pinnacle of my life” and it was all downhill from that point forward. As a 12-year-old with his entire life in front of him, this was an incredibly difficult thing to hear.
In the days, months and years following the event, I would get offers to appear on a baseball card, travel to Japan, be in a commercial for a major jeans distributor and even make a cameo in a Hollywood film. I credit my parents with helping me maintain a private life and focus on things that mattered, like sports, school, friends and family.
In February 1997, I finally had the opportunity to meet Derek Jeter, at an autograph show in Secaucus, N.J. We spent a few minutes together, and I was so overwhelmed to be in the same room as him that I could barely engage in a conversation! Even four months later, everything about what was happening to me was still layered in the surreal.
As I grew up and played baseball through high school, I found that my name had recognition with opponents and fans. The reaction was often negative. Every now and then, depending on circumstances, the media would request some of my time to catch up or seek my opinion on the season—singling me out from the group because of my name.
Prior to my freshman year at Wesleyan University—where I would fulfill my dream of playing college baseball—I was a staff member at Greg Butler’s Baseball Fever Camp in Demarest, N.J. Each year, Coach Butler had a member of the Mets come and speak to the young ballplayers.
Not realizing the irony, the staff was told about 45 minutes prior to his arrival that Tony Tarasco would be coming by to speak that year. While anxious at first, Tony and I shared a nice conversation, and he was a really nice guy.
It had admittedly been a while since the play in 1996, but he made it clear to me that he did not begrudge a young boy for wanting to catch a ball at a game.
I had a fun and successful baseball career during my time at Wesleyan and always had supportive teammates.
There was, however, a time when I was playing center field at a competing school—that may or may not have been George Steinbrenner’s alma mater—when rowdy fans were hurling rocks and snowballs at me from beyond the outfield wall.
For the most part, thankfully, those occurrences were pretty few and far between.
Toward my senior year, when I approached a longstanding school hits record, media attended my games. Certainly, this was not the norm for a Division III ballplayer who did not project to make the big leagues. It would have been easy to let this get to my head, but while I had always dreamed of playing ball professionally, I knew my skill set only served to get me so far.
For the most part, I have been able to blend anonymously into the public. While sports enthusiasts will remember my name, it is pretty easy to pay with a credit card when I go out to eat or submit a license to prove identity without having to stroll down memory lane and back to 1996.
Of course, there was the one time I was boarding a plane for a work conference in Florida, when the American Airlines staff member checking boarding passes at the gate asked me if I was “the Jeffrey Maier." While I quickly got red, my coworker was quicker to point out that I was indeed that Jeffrey Maier.
The staff member quickly grabbed several coworkers who were Yankees fans to come over to meet me, but thankfully the plane still boarded and took off on time and without disruption. It is hard enough to draw the ire of ardent Orioles fans, let alone a 757 filled with New Yorkers en route to Florida after a long, cold winter!
I am married now, with two kids of my own, and live deep in the heart of Red Sox nation. My wife is a Red Sox fan, as is her entire family.
Despite all my best efforts, they find ways to infiltrate their dressers and drawers with Red Sox contraband like Dustin Pedroia jerseys. MLB.TV will be responsible for keeping me up to date on my team for the fifth year in a row—as for some reason the television networks do not carry the YES Network here.
As I write this, Derek Jeter is about to embark on his 18th season in the big leagues. He has won five world championships, amassed over 3,300 hits and has created a legacy toward which all young players strive. In addition, his attention to raising money and awareness through his Turn 2 Foundation has impacted the lives of thousands of children.
While the shortstop position will be filled and someone new will stand between second and third base next year, there will remain an irreplaceable gap in the locker room, in the fanbase and in the community on a day-to-day basis.
I wish Derek all the best in the pursuit of his passions and interests in his life after playing baseball and thank him for his contributions to the greater baseball community both on and off the field.
The new replay system in baseball makes me stop and think: What if I had the chance to go back in time and apply it to that infamous play? Would I erase this moment from ever happening?
The simple answer is no. I wouldn't change a thing that has happened in my life after going after that home run ball. All life events happen for a reason, and you grow from every experience.
There have been ups and down along the way, but that day in 1996 helped shape who I am today—so I will never look back on it with any regrets.
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