It’s the holiday season. That means we’re all decorating our homes, and celebrating different pieces of our cultures. Whether we’re celebrating the first harvests to come, lighting candles, or waiting for a fictional bearded man to come down a chimney, we’re in the spirit. And part of that holiday spirit is that of giving. So we thought we’d go down a rabbit hole to talk about some of the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) gifts given in the history of sports.
Today, I want to talk about a gift that may have sparked one of the most dominant runs in MLB history – that of the 1990’s Yankees.
The gift was given to the Yankees by umpire Rich Garcia, who was manning right field in Game 1 of the 1996 American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium. With the Yankees trailing Baltimore 4-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Derek Jeter hit a long fly ball to right field, which Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco tracked to the warning track, where he seemed ready to make the catch.
Then, all of a sudden, the ball, which was on a downward trajectory towards Tarasco’s glove, disappeared from above the head of Tarasco and into the right field stands. How could a ball change course (in mid-air, mind you) and move back upward, or even horizontally, over the wall?
The answer was that Jeffrey Maier, a 12-year old Yankees fan sitting in the front row, had reached his glove into the field of play and pulled the ball out of the air and into the stands. Tarasco knew it immediately, pointing up to the stands to signify the obvious fan interference.
But Garcia had made up his mind.
Without a thought, without consultation, and without remorse, he emphatically stuck his finger in the air to signal a home run. He actually got in the face of Tarasco, almost belligerently daring the outfielder to question his call.
Manager Davey Johnson and pitcher Armando Benitez, who gave up the “home run,” charged into the outfield to confront Garcia, to no avail. Meanwhile, Maier was being lifted up on someone’s shoulders, high-fiving everyone around him and grinning like he was the one who hit the home run, which in a way, he was.
The Yankees would go on to win the game in 11 innings, win the series 4-1 and win the World Series against the Atlanta Braves, the first of four championships over the next five seasons.
Could history have been different if Jeter was called out for fan interference in Game 1 of the ’96 ALCS?
I spoke to my father-in-law, a lifelong Yankees fan, to get a perspective from that side of the incident. He was not sure that Tarasco would have made the catch (of course he wasn’t), but admitted that Garcia likely had the correct angle to see the interference. Still, the Yankees and their fans weren’t complaining.
“Sports are inherently inexact,” he said. “Look at how calls were made at the time and still with replay today, it’s up to interpretation and you can never get them all right. And yeah, they messed this one up.”
In the 2018 ALCS, Joe West called Jose Altuve out for fan interference on a much harder call than Maier’s obvious over-reach. Replay was used to confirm the call, but Joe West got it right in real-time with the naked eye.
Obviously, there was no replay in 1996 to help fix Garcia’s mistake. But replay shouldn’t have been necessary with this one. If Joe freaking West could get that one right, what was Garcia’s excuse?
I guess he was just in the gift-giving mood.
My father-in-law had one more thought on the matter before we hung up: “Those who receive gifts rarely regret receiving them. The Yankees aren’t going to complain about this one.”
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