The Yankees were losing 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth inning of Game One of the 1996 ALCS against the Orioles. Rookie of the Year shortstop Derek Jeter sprayed a trademark opposite field fly ball to right. Just when it seemed that Baltimore right fielder Tony Tarasco would make the catch at the wall, a young fan reached over and corralled the ball over the fence.
It is one of the more enduring images in the last 25 years of Yankees history: 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reaching beyond the right field short porch of the old Yankee Stadium to steal a home run for Yankees. Tarasco’s hysterics and Bob Costas’ bewilderment as he made the call on the national broadcast were just as memorable as the kid’s catch itself. Little did the Old Tappan native know that his snag would change the course of Yankees and baseball history.
The Yankees would go on to win the game on a Bernie Williams walk-off home run in the eleventh, helping them win the series in five games. The rest is history, with the Bombers winning the World Series against the Braves in six, the first of four in the next five years. A dynasty was born and an evil empire reanimated.
But what if Maier’s father instead had bought tickets to the left field front row? This week is currently SB Nation’s “What If?” Week, where we explore the alternate histories had certain events transpired another way. That got me wondering how the alternate Yankees universe would have unfolded had Maier not made his infamous catch.
When Tarasco catches the ball with his back against the right field wall, you can feel the excitement deflate out the Yankees and the stadium. They go on to be swept by the Orioles, and the sheen comes off their crop of young players. The Braves beat Baltimore in the Fall Classic, winning back-to-back titles and establishing a dynasty that would go on to win an additional two rings by the turn of the millennium. Tom Glavine, Greg Maddux, and John Smoltz cement themselves as the greatest pitching trio in MLB history.
Over the next four years, the Yankees stumble around in the AL East, with the players that would have been known as the Core Four instead shellshocked by their inability to come through in the clutch. They all put up good regular season numbers, but falter in their two playoff appearances in the next six years.
Longtime owner George Steinbrenner is thrown off by the failed promises of his young stars, and uncharacteristically refuses to increase payroll or bring in new players. David Cone, Paul O’Neill, and Bernie Williams all do not re-sign with the Yankees, instead looking to bolster playoff contenders. El Duque ends up signing with the Indians in their attempt to finally push past the Braves in October while Alfonso Soriano signs with the Mariners, forming one of the most formidable offensive forces in memory.
Steinbrenner is eventually forced to sell team following the 2001 season, after more than two consecutive decades without a World Series title. The acquiring party: none other than the recently-elected Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who immediately resigns after 41 days in office in New York to pursue his secret lifelong dream of owning the Yankees.
Bloomberg makes it abundantly clear that he intends to revive the evil empire label when he throws a carte blanche at Brian Cashman. After several years of austerity, the Yankees have the most absurd offseason in history. We’re talking video game level acquisitions.
The Yankees first go all out signing Barry Bonds to massive six-year $150 million contract as well as trade for Alex Rodriguez two years prior to when they actually acquired him, giving them both MVPs from the previous season. The Yankees now have two-fifths of one billion dollars committed to two players.
The Yankees follow this approach on the pitching side, acquiring both reigning Cy Young winners when they trade for Randy Johnson and sign Roger Clemens, who in this universe did not request a trade from the Blue Jays before the 1999 season as they were perennial AL East contenders with the Yankees in purgatory.
The tactic of buying the literal best player pays off. The Yankees win their first World Series since 1978, as well as four out of five between 2002 and 2006 (though they still somehow lose to the Marlins in 2003). Bonds eclipses 800 home runs while A-Rod eventually breaks the 700 mark by the end of his career, and Clemens and Johnson alternate Cy Young wins across five years. Bonds, Clemens, and A-Rod attempt to recruit every Yankee to their steroid regime and even debate opening their own PED dispensary on the Lower East Side.
When it is learned that these World Series wins were so heavily influenced by PEDs, Bud Selig, in an attempt to restore some credibility to his tainted reputation, strips the four titles from the Yankees and issues lifetime bans for Bonds, A-Rod, and Clemens.
In a final twist, Derek Jeter, who never achieves the near-universal respect and acclaim he knows today, fades into a quiet retirement with no real desire to continue to associate with baseball. The Marlins are instead bought by a group headlined by Tiger Woods, who immediately builds a hitter friendly, non-hideous ballpark in downtown Miami. Led by Jose Fernandez, Giancarlo Stanton, Christian Yelich, Marcell Ozuna, and J.T. Realmuto, the Marlins beat the Astros in a thrilling seven-game battle to win the 2017 World Series.