By Jim Caple
Page 2

I hate it when I meet a Yankees fan and discover that I actually like him.

I mean, I wanted to dislike Jeffrey Maier. In fact, I had disliked him -- or at least resented him -- for almost a decade, ever since he became the poster child for all that is wrong and unfair about the Yankees by interfering with that fly ball in the 1996 ALCS. When other teams' fans interfere with a play, the clubs suffer horrible, generation-scarring losses and the fan has to change his phone number and wear disguises and undergo facial reconstruction surgery and finally move to Thailand. But not the Yankees. Oh, no, not the precious @#&% Yankees. Maier interfered with a play and he received the keys to the city while the Yankees went on to win the game, the series and four World Series.

Like every other decent, God-fearing, Yankee-hating American, I blamed that 12-year-old truant for New York's great run. Had he not reached over the fence and turned Derek Jeter's eighth-inning fly out into a game-tying home run, the Yankees probably lose the opening game of that series with the Orioles. Couple that with the Orioles' actual victory in Game 2 and there's a good chance Baltimore advances to the World Series that October, not the Yankees. Then George Steinbrenner overreacts and fires Joe Torre and trades Jeter for Walt Weiss ("We need a veteran, a proven winner'"), the Yankees dynasty never materializes, the tech market bubble never bursts, the Mariners win the 2001 World Series and "St. Elsewhere" gets released on DVD.

True, I can't prove that's how life would have turned out had Maier not interfered with that fly ball. But I do know what happened after he did interfere.

Jeffrey Maier
Associated Press
In the 1996 ALCS, 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier reached over the fence to steal a fly ball from Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco.

So, I held the Yankees' success against Maier. And then I had lunch with him at the Cask 'n Flagon across from Fenway Park last week, and wouldn't you know it? He's a very smart, engaging and funny young man who is able to laugh at himself and at what happened 10 years ago. Meeting him was enough to make me reconsider my knee-jerk stereotyping and gross generalizations about Yankees fans. (Well, almost.) We hit it off so well that by the end of the day, I was getting his dad to take our photo and offering Jeff a place to stay if he ever visits Seattle.

Hell, next thing I know, I'll be voting for Rudy Giuliani.

No longer the little kid you remember, Maier is 22, 5-foot-10, wears a goatee (Steinbrenner would have to be put down with a tranquilizer dart if he saw it) and his curly hair is normally covered with a baseball cap. He just finished off a record-setting college baseball career at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and is so passionate about the game that he wrote a 45-page paper on franchise relocation in the 1950s for his senior governmental studies class. He wants to work in a big league front office and his long-term goal is to become a general manager. I think he will be a good one. The guy is sharp and loves baseball so much I swear I could see seams on his scalp.

"It's sort of given me some predisposed opinions and obstacles to work around," Maier says of fallout from the infamous play, adding that he'd like people to see him simply as "a guy who is passionate about baseball, a guy who wants to be in the game, a guy who wants to show that there is more to him than what I did at age 12."

Both Maier and I were in Boston to play in The Old-Time Baseball Classic, an annual charity game organized by Boston Herald columnist Steve Buckley. Steve is an old friend of mine, and he's been trying to get me to play in the game for years. There's always been a schedule conflict, but he finally got me this year by once again offering to let me wear the vintage Seattle Pilots uniform and then slipping in the clincher, "It's a 38 waist and time is running out. It'll always be that size but I can't guarantee that you will be."

Playing my first baseball game in at least a decade and facing top college pitchers from the New England area, I struck out four times and never so much as fouled off a pitch. When I e-mailed "Ball Four" author Jim Bouton about this 0-for-4 performance he replied back, "Congratulations for upholding the tradition of the Seattle Pilots. If they didn't reimburse you for your travel expenses, the story is complete."

Maier, on the other hand, played much, much better.

Wearing a replica of Mickey Mantle's 1951 Yankees uniform, the third baseman lined a pitch into left field for a single in his first at-bat. He stole two bases and scored a run. Which wasn't surprising. He was a good college player. He set the Wesleyan record for career hits this spring, finishing the season with a team-best .403 average. The game is so much a part of his life that when one of many knee injuries sidelined him last year, he threw batting practice while sitting on a chair and rearranged his furniture so he could play catch with a roommate while on the couch.

And, naturally, the Boston area fans booed him during the pregame introductions.

Jeffrey Maier
Christopher Kontoes for ESPN.com
Caple discovered that even young Yankees fans can grow up to be likable people.

He's been dealing with that sort of stuff for the past decade. While New York fans celebrated Maier -- just the other day a fan requested not one, not two, not three, but 45 autographs from him -- the rest of us resented the attention lavished on him. I accused him of being a dwarf planted in the seat by Steinbrenner. Tony Kornheiser was tougher.

"He is already past the high point in his life and coming down the other side," Kornheiser wrote in the Washington Post a couple days after the game. "By next week, he'll be nostalgia. He's 12 years old and it's over for him. Where does he go from here? Hollywood Squares? ... I'm looking 30 years down the line and seeing this kid in an Atlantic City lounge wearing a bad toupee and nursing a martini. By then he'll have been divorced three times and have gone bankrupt ..." It was a funny column but Maier, understandably, wasn't real excited about being called a punk and told he would never amount to anything in life. "When you're 12 years old, you're thinking about what you'll do in high school and college," he says. "You still have aspirations to play in the major leagues. It was upsetting to read something like that."

As he grew older, so did the jokes. When he played at Wesleyan, fans occasionally heckled, "All Baltimore hates you!" Other fans occasionally threw rocks and snowballs at him. A Wesleyan student even made a film, "I Hate Jeffrey Maier" (which Maier appeared in), about a fan who tries to get back at Jeff for ruining his love of baseball.

On the other hand, it could have been much worse. After all, he could have been Bartman.

"I feel bad for Bartman," Maier says. "At least in my case it was clearly fan interference, but his thing was as innocent as can be. He might as well have been seat-belted into his chair."

Despite Maier's success at Wesleyan, no team drafted him this June, and he realizes his future is in the front office, not on the field. He wants to stay in the game so much that despite an opportunity to earn big money on Wall Street, he chose instead to spend this summer working for the New Haven County Cutters of the independent Can-Am League.

In between scouting players in the Northeast, he's polishing the résumé and looking for any big league job he can get, though preferably not with the Yankees. "In terms of developing my own career and stepping away from where I was when I was 12, I think it's advantageous for me to work in a different front office," he says.

Hell, he's even talked with the Red Sox. And people doubt whether a soul can be redeemed?

Maier acknowledges that his 15 minutes of fame might help him get a job interview if he's up against a couple of equally qualified candidates. And it helped him grow up, as well.

"You can't dwell on the past," he says. "That's the big thing I've learned. You can't expect someone to give you a job because you caught a baseball when you were 12."

(Well, to be accurate, he didn't catch it. He dropped it. But you know how Yankees fans are.)

By the way, despite Maier's hits and my strikeouts, his team lost to mine. It doesn't make up for the home run thing in 1996, but it will have to do.

Box score line of the week
Sometimes you pitch all day and have nothing to show for it, and sometimes you need to throw only one pitch. That was the case for Cincinnati's Ryan Franklin on Tuesday. After 14 previous pitchers threw a combined 460 pitches over 16 innings and nearly five hours, Ryan threw one pitch and the Dodgers' Ramon Martinez hit it over the fence to give Los Angeles a 6-5 victory. Franklin's line:

0 IP, 1 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 0 K, 1 pitch

It was the fifth time the Dodgers have played at least 14 innings this season and the first time they've won.

Tell your statistics to shut up
This is the way life goes when you manage the Red Sox. Twenty-two months ago, Terry Francona was celebrating the Red Sox's first World Series championship in 86 years. This weekend he was sitting in the clubhouse spitting up blood. And he wasn't one of the three Boston personnel sent back home for medical observation while the Sox were getting swept in Seattle and Oakland. How bad is it for the Red Sox? They're 10 games under .500 since the All-Star break, and in addition to getting swept in five games by the Yankees, they have also been swept by the last-place Royals and the last-place Mariners and lost two of three to the last-place Devil Rays. ... Dilemma. With the Marlins roaring back into the wild-card picture, do you cheer for the low-budget team with a chance to reach the World Series despite a $15 million payroll? Or do you root against a miserable owner who screwed over the city of Montreal, drastically cut his payroll, demands the taxpayers build him a new stadium despite taking in far more money in revenue-sharing than he shells out in payroll and is so petty he might fire manager Joe Girardi despite the team's success? The answer: We'll root for the Giants, Reds, Padres, Phillies and Astros ... A-Rod has almost as many strikeouts since Aug. 20 (16) as Mike Mussina, Randy Johnson and Mariano Rivera combined (10).

Infield chatter

"I got some good news earlier today before the show. Thanks to Alex Rodriguez, I am no longer the most overpaid disappointment in New York City."
-- David Letterman

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com. You can reach Jim at jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.


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