The 1996 World Series champion New York Yankees are so fondly remembered because they snapped the second-longest title drought in franchise history while weaving a captivating story of their journey to the top. One of the most curious chapters of the tale of the '96 Yankees occurred 16 years ago today, when the Yankees began the American League Championship Series against the division rival Baltimore Orioles.
The Yankees and Orioles found themselves in their tightest battle for the AL East crown in more than a decade. New York snapped a 14-year playoff drought with an appearance as the AL Wild Card team in the '95 playoffs, but going into the '96 season, the Orioles were on a 13-year schneid of their own. The Birds had squandered most of franchise legend Cal Ripken, Jr.'s career missing October baseball since their World Series championship in '83. They were armed and ready for a fight in '96 though, and their high-flying offense led by leadoff hitter Brady Anderson's surprising 50-homer campaign set a major league record for homers in a season with 257. Although they led the division for most of April, the Yankees took over first place on April 30th and never looked back. The Orioles trimmed the lead from 12 games on July 28th to 2.5 games in a little over a month, but the Yankees stood their ground. Undeterred, the Orioles broke their playoff drought anyway by capturing the Wild Card, besting the Seattle Mariners by 2.5 games.
In predetermined seedings, the Yankees played the AL West champion Texas Rangers, and the Orioles faced the AL Central champion Cleveland Indians. It would be tough road if fans wanted the division rivals to match up for the ALCS since Texas had a powerful offense of its own with AL MVP Juan Gonzalez and the Indians won 99 games in an attempt to repeat as AL champions.
The predetermined seeding hurt the Yankees, who did not have home-field advantage despite finishing two games better than the Rangers. They would play two games at home, then up to three at the Ballpark in Arlington, and the situation became worse when the Yankees dropped the first game 6-2 thanks to Gonzalez's three-run homer. The Yankees trailed 4-1 in the second game, but rallied to tie it at four in the eighth, then won it in the 12th when third baseman Dean Palmer wild throw on a bunt enabled AL Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter to score the winning run. In Texas, the Yankees needed a two-run rally in the ninth inning to beat the Texas bullpen 3-2, and they improbably won a second straight game to clinch the series in Texas, 6-4, thanks to Bernie Williams's two homers. The Yankees moved on to the ALCS. Their opponent was decided later that afternoon.
The Indians were heavy favorites to take out the Orioles, who won 11 fewer games than them in '96. They had home-field advantage in the 2-3 five-game series format, but they quickly put themselves in a hole with two losses at Camden Yards. The slugging Orioles clubbed four homers in their park's playoff debut to beat Charles Nagy and the Tribe 10-4, then rode a three-run eighth against the Indian bullpen to win the second game 7-4. The stunned Indians avoided a sweep with 9-4 victory at "the Jake," and they took a 3-2 lead in Game 4 to the ninth inning. An out away from sending the series to a winner-take-all Game 5, future Hall of Famer Roberto Alomar lined a game-tying single to center against closer Jose Mesa to send the game to extra innings. Alomar struck again in the 12th against Mesa in his fourth inning of work with a solo homer to give the Orioles a 4-3 lead that Randy Myers protected in the bottom of the frame. Amazingly, they took out the defending champions without needing a fifth game and they would meet the Yankees for ALCS Game 1 on October 9th at Yankee Stadium.
The first game pitted AL Cy Young candidate Andy Pettite against Scott Erickson, who won a World Series with the Minnesota Twins in '91. Erickson struggled to a 5.02 ERA in '96, but he managed to outpitch Pettitte that night in the Bronx. The Orioles rode homers from Anderson and first baseman Rafael Palmeiro to a 4-3 lead entering the eighth inning. Much of the blame rested on the shoulders of the Yankees' offense, which left 10 men on base up to that point. Young flamethrower Armando Benitez, not yet a playoff choke artist, was on for the Orioles, and they were five outs away from a Game 1 victory when Jeter stepped to the plate. Then, controversy erupted on this play:
The Yankees were the benefactors of a horrible call that would thankfully not likely hold up in today's era of instant replay on homers. Tony Tarasco and the Orioles were incensed at umpire Richie Garcia, but they could do nothing but play on. The Yankees stranded two more runners in the eighth and in the ninth, catcher Joe Girardi experienced the yang to the yin that was the Yankees' luck on the home run call. Reliever Terry Matthews put runners on via a walk and a hit by pitch with one out, and Girardi lined a ball toward the middle against Myers. It was hard-hit and should have gone for a walk-off single, but Ripken had him played perfectly and snared the liner, then tossed to second to double off the runner and end the inning.
Ace reliever Mariano Rivera pitched two scoreless innings and stranded three Oriole baserunners in the 10th and 11th, setting up a showdown between Williams and Myers in the bottom of the 11th. Still hot from a .467, three-homer ALDS, Williams had reached base three times in four plate appearances thus far. He then took Myers's third pitch of the 11th and sent it "mighty high, and mighty far" into the New York night in left field. The Orioles lost a gut-punching Game 1 by a 5-4 score, then went on to lose the ALCS four games to one. The Yankees of course won the '96 World Series in a six-game classic over the defending World Series champion Atlanta Braves. Until 2012, this was the first and only playoff matchup in league history between the Yankees and Orioles, and Baltimore fans have always bemoaned the awful call by Garcia that led to their demise.
A bit of advice to Yankee fans though should they ever meet an Oriole fan blaming Maier for the series loss--the kid had nothing to do with them dropping three straight games in their home park. If a team can't win a single game at home to save their playoff lives, then they do not deserve to be going to the World Series. The call sucked, but there were still four batters left in Game 1, too.
The "Jeffrey Maier game" became the peak of the Yankees/Orioles rivalry 16 years ago today.