The last time the Baltimore Orioles and New York Yankees met in the playoffs before this week, I spent a few surreal moments schmoozing with George Steinbrenner in his owner’s box in Yankee Stadium, trying very hard not to let on that I was a fervent Orioles fan hoping his team would lose that day — and every day after that until the end of time.
It was Game 2 of the American League Championship Series, back in 1996, better known as the game after “the Jeffrey Maier game.”
By rights, the way I see it, Jeffrey should be getting out of jail any day now for his crime against the Orioles, if not humanity.
If his name doesn’t ring a bell, you’re probably not a baseball fan (and not smiling), so I’ll explain.
And just so you know, this column touches on faith and commitment — themes relevant to the High Holy Day season — but mostly it’s about baseball.
So, briefly, and painfully, I can tell you that Jeffrey Maier, then 12 years old and a nice Jewish boy, leaned over the right field wall from his bleachers seat in Yankee Stadium in the eighth inning of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series and tried to snag a ball hit by Derek Jeter that Baltimore Oriole outfielder Tony Tarasco had a chance of catching.
The youngster deflected the ball into the stands with his glove, and the umpire, in a legendarily controversial call, ruled it a home run, tying the game, which the Yankees won in extra innings. The Yankees went on to eliminate the Orioles and win the World Series.
Talk about bad karma. Since that fateful day, the Yankees have gone on to make the post-season playoffs 13 times and win five World Championships. By contrast, the poor Orioles, after a brief playoff appearance in 1997, went on to compile 14 consecutive losing seasons — a once-proud franchise that often looked like Little Leaguers, especially when they played the Yankees over the last dozen years or so.
I’m hoping all that will change this week, but it’s already been a miraculous year for the last place-to-playoffs Orioles, restoring a sense of hope to their long-suffering fans.
I have nothing against Jeffrey Maier, of course, who went on to be a star player for Wesleyan in his college years and even played a season for the Pittsfield Dukes in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. He’s married now, has two young kids and lives a quiet life in New Hampshire. More power to him.
But he helped break the heart, and spirit, of Oriole fans, and if the scenario had been reversed — say, a young Oriole fan interfering with a key play that beat the Yankees — Yankee fans no doubt would have insisted on a flogging. And carried it out on the field.
Trust me, I know first-hand that rooting for the visiting team in Yankee Stadium is an experience somewhere between uncomfortable and life threatening.
One friend foolish enough to wear an Oriole hat to a game at the Stadium had beer poured on it, and him, by fans who said he was lucky they weren’t setting fire to it, and him.
When I go see the Orioles play the Yankees in the Bronx, I feel like a Jewish Marrano in 15th-century Spain, having to hide my true identity for fear of being discovered and punished for my beliefs.
And so it was that when my two sons and I were invited, through a public relations contact, to sit in the owner’s box at that fateful playoff game 16 years ago, we decided it would be disrespectful to wear our Oriole caps. (We were well aware of the “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine, wearing an Orioles cap to Yankee Stadium, is evicted from the owner’s box.)
Before the game we were ushered into Steinbrenner’s mezzanine-level suite, which included any number of Yankee World Series trophies (enough!) and a large chair shaped like a baseball glove. The owner was not there, but we and about a dozen other guests were invited to partake of soft drinks and snacks and to watch the game through the glass doors of the enclosed suite or venture out into an area of about two dozen seats overlooking the field, which we did.
After a few innings, my then-15-year-old son went back into the suite to get a soda, and after awhile I noticed that he hadn’t come back. I turned around and, to my amazement, saw him sitting about three rows back, laughing and engaged in conversation with George Steinbrenner, just the two of them, having a fine time.
My son saw me looking and first signaled that all was cool, then invited me up to meet his new pal, to whom I was introduced, and who proceeded to tell me what a great kid my son was.
It seemed my son, on the way back from getting a soda, saw Steinbrenner sitting alone and went over to introduce himself and thank him for the great seats. The owner invited him to sit down, and in the course of conversation, learned that we were from Baltimore, and Oriole fans.
My son was deeply relieved that the man with the legendary temper found that bit of revealed information amusing, and told him, “You’re going to be my next shortstop.”
In truth, Steinbrenner could not have been more gracious, and on the way home after the game (which the Orioles won, by the way), my son said in defense of his new friend, “He’s really a nice man, you just have to get to know him.”
Many who did would disagree. But his legend lives on, including his insistence that winning is everything.
The current Yankee team was heavily favored to win this round of the revived rivalry with the Orioles (as of press time the series is tied at one game apiece), but then any Yankees team that doesn’t win the World Series is considered a failure by their fans. What a burden.
The Orioles, though, were happy just to be playing in October, and their fans are grateful for the season of thrills they’ve enjoyed.
Keeping in mind that the Yankee payroll is $196 million and the Orioles’ is under $81 million, I think of the Ethics of the Fathers adage: “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion.”
As teams are eliminated on the way to the World Series, loyal fans each year echo that messianic phrase of faith, “Wait ‘til next year.” And it’s only fitting that this weekend we start the cycle of Torah reading all over again with the words known to all who love baseball: “In the big inning…”