Saturday, October 9, 2010

October 9, 1996: Fan interference

BRONX, N.Y. - One out, bottom of the eighth. Baltimore is leading the New York 4-3, and a rookie is at the plate for the Yankees. It was only game 1 of the ALCS, but it was a key moment nonetheless, one that would go a long way in determining who would advance to the World Series.

Derek Jeter already had two hits in this game, continuing his great play in his first playoff appearance. The Yankees had expected big things from him - why else would they give a rookie the number 2, the last single-digit number available to Yankee players? It's a lot of pressure, but the 22-year-old Jeter had been up to it so far, winning the Rookie of the Year award and playing admirably in the postseason. Now he was up in his biggest situation yet.

Armando Benitez was just 23 years old in 1996, still a setup man for the Orioles. He only pitched in 14 innings for the Orioles that year, but he had shown flashes of talent that would eventually make him a closer for several teams in the majors. The fact that he was there on the mound trying to protect a one-run, eighth-inning lead in the ALCS showed just how much faith the Orioles had in his talent.

Jeter swung at Benitez's first pitch in their eighth inning meeting and hit a lazy fly ball toward right field. Tony Tarasco, having just entered the game as a defensive replacement in right field, drifted back, tracking it the whole way. Yankee Stadium's right-field fence was famously close to home plate, so it wasn't too surprising when Tarasco ended up on the warning track, his back against the wall. Still, though, he had the ball measured. As the ball came down, he felt for the wall, put up his glove, and ...

Jeffrey Maier was 12 years old in 1996. Growing up in New Jersey, he was a Yankee fan, so getting the opportunity to go to the first game of the ALCS must have been the thrill of a lifetime for him. Not only did he get to go, but he was in the first row of the right field bleachers, absolutely incredible seats. He was in perfect position to catch any short home runs hit to right. As Jeter's eighth-inning hit drifted toward him, he saw his opportunity. As it got closer, he got his glove ready, tracking it the whole way. As the ball came down, he stuck out his glove, getting his hand on the ball before it bounced away into the stands. As he followed where the ball landed, wondering if it would bounce back toward him, he didn't notice the man standing nine feet below him, directly underneath his glove.

Yankee fans went ballistic, celebrating the home run hit by their rookie that had tied the game. Tarasco went ballistic for a different reason, immediately claiming fan interference. Orioles manager Davey Johnson was already on the field before Jeter had crossed home plate, insisting that Maier had reached out over the field of play and robbed Tarasco of a chance to catch the home run. By rule, Jeter should have been out. But umpire Rich Garcia insisted it was a home run. Tie game.

The Orioles lodged an official protest to Major League Baseball, but it didn't stand a chance, as judgement calls can't be protested. Even though television replays clearly showed that Maier had reached out over the wall and deflected the ball with Tarasco right underneath him, there was nothing that could be done. Correct or not, it was a home run.

That home run had a lasting impact on the Yankees franchise. Inspired by their lucky break, the Yankees won the game in the 11th inning on their way to winning the ALCS in five games, advancing to their first World Series in 15 years. They won that series, taking home their first championship since 1978. Since that home run, the Yankees have won five championships and have been to seven World Series total. The beginnings of their recent run of dominance can be traced to one 12-year-old fan getting a little over anxious at the chance to catch a home run ball.

The play changes Jeter's career forever, too. The clutch home run was probably the moment where he transformed from a rookie shortstop with potential into a True Yankee. Eventually, he became known as the man who epitomized the Yankees franchise, the man who simply won, the man who always came through in the clutch. It's a reputation he still holds today, 14 years after Jeffrey Maier gave him a helping hand.

October 9, 2005: HOUSTON - The Astros and Braves played two games on October 9. The first one, the regularly scheduled game 4 of the NLDS, ended tied 6-6, after a furious Houston comeback resulted in four eighth-inning runs and a game-tying home run by Brad Ausmus coming with two outs in the ninth. The second game ended several hours later, after the teams had played nine more innings, trading zeroes before Chris Burke sent the Astros to the NLCS with a game-winning home run ... in the bottom of the 18th. In all, the two teams combined to use 42 players, and 14 pitchers threw a combined 553 pitches. The winning pitcher for Houston was Roger Clemens, who entered in relief in the 16th and even came to bat twice after the Astros ran out of position players. The game was the longest in postseason history in terms of both time of game and innings played, beating the previous record of 16 innings set in game 6 of the 1986 NLCS - which the Astros lost.

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