Jeffrey Maier: From Orioles' killer to Orioles' prospect?

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This is a story about fate, a story about a curse -- if you care to believe in such things. It is a story about coming to grips with them, and maybe, just maybe, reversing them. It is a story about a 12-year-old boy in a black T-shirt who is now a polished 22-year-old man with a marketable talent. And it is a story about a beleaguered baseball team that may be preparing to take a wild stab at manipulating fate by confronting it head-on.

   
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Paul Meyer is on vacation. His column and rankings return next week.

   

Jeffrey Maier, a future Baltimore Oriole? Oh, dear heaven. The blood of Orioles fandom boils at the very thought of the name, let alone the thought of such a traitorous alliance.

The story begins on Oct. 9, 1996, when Maier, then 12 years old and a rabid New York Yankees fan, reached over the wall at Yankee Stadium and altered the course of Game 1 of the American League Championship Series, as well as the fates -- if you care to believe in such things -- of two franchises.

And the story ends, at least for now, with a phone call Orioles owner Peter Angelos received a few days ago.

You'll never guess who, the caller said, is a pretty good college baseball player now, the all-time hits leader at Wesleyan (Conn.) University, an outfielder-third baseman with a decent chance of being picked in the Major League Baseball amateur draft Tuesday and Wednesday.

"Who?"

Jeffrey Maier. Yes, that Jeffrey Maier.

"You're kidding," Angelos said.

Nope.

There was a long pause, and one could imagine Angelos considering all that had transpired for -- but mostly, to -- the Orioles since the moment the young boy reached out with his glove.

For nearly 13 years now, Angelos has presided over a once-proud franchise whose fortunes never seemed to recover from that October night in the Bronx. The Orioles lost the game -- thanks to what still stands as one of the worst umpiring calls in history; while the play was ruled a home run, tying the game, replays showed Maier clearly interfered with the ball -- and lost the series. They returned to the playoffs in 1997, lost again, and since then have endured eight consecutive losing seasons, the longest such stretch in franchise history.

The caller expected Angelos to react to the news of Maier's collegiate exploits and professional aspirations with disdain, perhaps with a string of profanities.

Instead, he said this: "To forgive is divine."

It was as if Angelos had suddenly grasped the enormity of what was now in front of him -- an extraordinary opportunity to alter fate and, in doing so, recast it to one's advantage.

The Orioles have the power to select Jeff (as he now calls himself) Maier of Wesleyan University and see what happens.

According to Angelos, they just might.

"I wouldn't be at all opposed to [drafting Maier]. In fact, I'd say it's a very interesting development," Angelos said.

"You can say the Orioles are very seriously considering him. I know this much: I was at that game, and he certainly did seem to be a heck of an outfielder. Sure, we'd take him. In fact, I like the idea more and more, the more I think about it."

Out of the shadow

In the lobby of the Freeman Athletic Center on the campus of Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Jeff Maier appears in a white T-shirt, black workout shorts and sneakers.

He looks disarmingly the same as he did when he was 12 -- only hairier. On this day, he sports a scruffy goatee, longish sideburns and a few days' worth of stubble.

His face was famous back then, as The Play -- the swing of Yankees rookie Derek Jeter (Maier's idol), the retreat of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco to the right-field wall, the glove of Maier reaching over the wall to swat the ball away, the mayhem that followed as the Orioles argued it should have been ruled fan interference -- was shown over and over on television.

His exploits on the baseball diamond at Wesleyan have earned him another round of publicity, especially after he broke the school record for hits, finishing his career with 189, along with a .375 average.

"I guess it's an interesting story that I'm no longer 12, and that I've done something for myself, scholastically and athletically," said Maier, who graduated last month with a degree in government and economics.

"And I'm proud of what I've done. If anything, I've tried to get out of the shadow of what happened when I was 12, and in a way I've been able to use this attention to showcase what I am now and what I've done with my life."

Scouts and draft experts say there is a 50-50 chance Maier, who bats left-handed but throws right-handed, could be selected If not, he also could be signed as an undrafted free agent.

One National League executive whose team has scouted Maier said the knocks against him are his size (he is 5 feet 11, 190 pounds), his speed (he underwent surgery to repair a torn knee ligament last summer), his power (only seven career homers in college) and the level of competition he has faced.

Wesleyan, a Division III school, has not had a player drafted since 1965 and has not produced a major-leaguer since Lester "Red" Lanning made six pitching appearances for the 1916 Philadelphia A's.

The obvious story line would be for Maier to be drafted by the Yankees, the team he grew up rooting for in Old Tappan, N.J., and the franchise that went on to win four World Series titles in five years while Maier was confronting life as a teen-ager.

Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said the team would not waste a pick on Maier just for the novelty of it.

"Only if we saw him as a viable, potential major-leaguer," he said, without divulging whether they do or don't.

Asked about the Yankees' interest in Maier, scouting director Damon Oppenheimer said only, "We've scouted him."

Imagining Maier in the Orioles' organization is another thing entirely, and not something the team's fans would easily embrace.

"Some people are still very bitter towards him," said Tony Pente, who operates the Orioles' fan Web site, Orioleshangout.com. "I hate to say it, but for some people, there's almost a hatred of him -- to this day."

Although the lingering outrage of Orioles fans is more accurately directed at Richie Garcia -- the right-field umpire who blew the call that night -- through the years Maier has become a symbol of the Orioles' futility.

"You can't blame Jeffrey Maier for all the bad [management] decisions that led to eight straight losing seasons," Pente said. "But, if you believe in fate, you could see [the Maier] play as the beginning of it spiraling downwards."

Limited interaction

To this point, Maier's interactions with Orioles fandom, and the Baltimore region as a whole, have been limited, for the most part, to some angry letters with Maryland postmarks that, according to Maier, "basically condemned me to hell."

He was recruited after high school by Johns Hopkins University.

"But I was like, 'I can't do that,'" he said. "It would've been nuts for me to go down there."

If the Orioles draft Maier, there would not be much time for folks to wrap their minds around that staggering notion. The Bluefield Orioles, the organization's rookie league affiliate in Bluefield, W.Va., and a draftee's presumed first assignment, begin their season on June 24.

That would leave everyone less than three weeks to prepare for a sight out of a sick nightmare, or a lovely dream: Jeff Maier, all grown up and hell-bent on making the majors, down from the stands and out on the diamond, a single word visible across his chest: "Orioles."


Paul Meyer is on vacation. His column and rankings return next week.


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