On this day 25 years ago, one of the craziest and most controversial plays in Yankees postseason history occurred, and I was there to experience it in person. In Game 1 of the ALCS against the Orioles, then-rookie Derek Jeter hit an eighth-inning home to the score, enraging the Baltimore players who saw interference on the play. As most fans surely know, the Yankees went on to win the game, the ALCS, and the 1996 World Series.
The ‘96 team was the first of four World Series winners that represented one of the greatest Yankee dynasties. With hindsight, it’s easy to see the signs of a good young core joining a group of veterans who still had plenty of gas left in the tank having the potential to translate into World Series success, but trust me: It wasn’t easy to see at the time. That’s what made the 1996 season one of the most fun to watch for Yankee fans, and that’s what made a crazy play by Jeffrey Maier in right field one of the more memorable plays in Yankee history.
The Yankees and their fans went into the 1995-96 offseason with understandably high hopes. General manager Gene Michael and skipper Buck Showalter had turned one of the worst teams in baseball into one of the best in a relatively short period of time. They near made it to the ALCS before a fierce 0-2 ALDS comeback by Seattle stopped them in their tracks and broke hearts across the Bronx.
That winter though, both Michael and Showalter were unceremoniously replaced with a new GM (Bob Watson) and manager (Joe Torre) who both came with rather unimpressive track records. Mike Stanley (a catcher with a 134 OPS+ in four seasons as a Yankee) was replaced by a player who had the worst OPS+ in MLB over the previous three seasons (Joe Girardi). The team chose not to re-sign starting pitcher Jack McDowell, who although wasn’t a fan favorite, played a big part in the team’s success in 1995. Captain Don Mattingly wasn’t coming back and to top it all off, a 21-year-old who was best known for making a ton of errors in the minor leagues was going to be the everyday starting shortstop.
I’d like to say that high hopes had turned into skepticism for Yankee fans but the general reaction, as you can imagine, was a bit harsher and less polite than “we’re a little skeptical.” Outlooks gradually changed as the season progressed, however, as the players on the field exceeded expectations, but also because of a general sense that everything seemed to work out for that team. Bad umpire calls and odd managerial moves rarely came back to haunt them. Heck, there was only one serious health issue the entire season (David Cone’s aneurysm) and Dwight Gooden – who hadn’t been on a big-league mound in 22 months – stepped in to make 29 starts, and tossed a no-hitter for good measure.
As a result, the team with the 88-74 Pythagorean record finished 92-72 and won the AL East. Yes. if you noticed, it was also fortunate to play in a middling league that year in which even the Wild Card-winning Orioles only captured 88 games. Then, after taking three of four from Texas in the ALDS, the Yankees would face the O’s in the ALCS. That was another bullet dodged, as the O’s got past a juggernaut 99-win Cleveland team that would have been a prohibitive favorite over New York.
Game 1 was on October 9, 1996, and as I mentioned, some friends and I were among the 56,495 in attendance. Any questions about how intense the environment might be were erased immediately upon arrival when we passed one gentleman on Jerome Avenue with “Duck Alomar!” spray-painted on the side of his Honda Accord. (No, it didn’t say “duck” - Pinstripe Alley is a family show, so that’s an edit.) Let that serve as a reminder that just when you think you’re a hardcore Yankee fan, I’d bet a large sum of money you’ve never spray-painted an obscenity on your car because of your feelings for an opposing player – even if that player had just spit on an umpire the week before.
After two innings, the Yankees held a 2-1 lead with all three runs scored on groundball outs. Then in the top of the third, Baltimore’s surprise home run hero Brady Anderson dispensed with the subtle tactics and lined a ball over the right-field wall to tie the game. One inning later, Rafael Palmeiro did the same and the Yankees were behind, 3-2. A little later, a B.J. Surhoff sacrifice fly created even more tension and the Yankees entered the seventh-inning stretch, trailing 4-2.
In the home half, Darryl Strawberry drew a two-out bases-loaded walk to cut the lead to 4-3, though the rally was stopped there on a Mariano Duncan strikeout. After Jeff Nelson held Baltimore scoreless in their half of the eighth, Derek Jeter stepped to the plate with one out in the bottom of the eighth with the Yankees trailing 4-3.
If you’ve read this far, you probably know what happened next, but just for fun, let’s review:
If you remember watching that live, dear reader, then you saw more than I did. You may have noticed that I wrote I was there to “experience” it, because I – along with virtually everybody else in section U17 down the right-field line — didn’t see anything. Not Jeffrey Maier, O’s right fielder Tony Tarasco, or umpire Richie Garcia.
The upper level in Yankee Stadium II was much closer to the field than the current Yankee Stadium’s top tier, so part of the field was as much under you as in front of you. If you happened to be in the upper level down the right-field line close to the foul pole, your view of the right-field corner was obstructed by the upper deck in front of you when you looked down. When Jeter’s ball was lofted toward the right-field corner, every fan rose in anticipation and as it started to descend, everyone in my section went silent as Tarasco and the ball disappeared from our sightlines.
It may have been only a second or two of awkward silence in our section, but it felt like 30 as we all looked at each other with our palms up to see if anyone saw what the heck just happened. After a pause of confused silence, everyone in section U17 realized that everyone else in the stadium was screaming, and we saw Jeter jogging around the bases, so we only assumed something good happened. Of course, this was pre-live streams, and the Yankees certainly weren’t going to show the replay on the big scoreboard, so none of us knew what happened until word of mouth came to us later (and even then, it seemed implausible).
When Bernie Williams ended the game with a walk-off home run off of lefty reliever Randy Myers, it seemed like a fait accompli to everyone. Given the way that the season was going and given the way that night was going, it just didn’t seem plausible that Bernie* would do anything but something special. (Part of the optimism was due to the fact that in 1996, he was a good hitter batting left-handed and he was – well, he was Mike Trout batting right-handed.)
This one I did see clearly, and along with the other folks in my section, celebrated accordingly this time.
Twenty-five years later and it’s still an incredible Yankee memory for all Yankee fans, if not a rather unusual one for me. It’s also a reminder that sometimes, the Baseball Gods of Randomness need to be on your team’s side if they’re going to win, and that’s nothing that requires an apology.
*I was fortunate enough to meet Bernie through a mutual friend the following season and got him to autograph the ticket from that night.