This time of year I count my blessings for being able to have witnessed a number of remarkable moments in postseason baseball, both on and off the field. I’ve covered nine World Series and a host of League Championship Series and Division Series games for the Washington Times. Every time I do, I think back to being a kid growing up in Brooklyn and watching World Series games and thinking, “Other people go to those games. Not me.”
My first was 1993 – I covered the ALCS between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Chicago White Sox. The Blue Jays would win that series in six games and go to defend their World Championship against the Philadelphia Phillies in the World Series.
What I remember from that ALCS is what happened that had nothing to do with baseball. A buzz went through the new Comiskey Park press box during game one of the series on October 5 – Michael Jordan – at the age of 30 in his prime – was retiring from baseball.
The next day I was at the Rosemont Center – the Bulls practice facility – covering this bizarre press conference, an event with questions that remain unanswered today.
The announcement cast a pall over the city, and the White Sox would go down to Toronto in six games. I remain convinced that if there had been a full 1994 season – no baseball strike – the 1994 White Sox would have won the American League pennant. It was a very talented team, led by Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura offensively, and Jack McDowell, Wilson Alvarez and Alex Fernandez on the mound.
I went on to cover the World Series that year, and yes, I was in Skydome – the name of the Toronto ballpark which had been opened for just four years (it’s called the Rogers Centre now) and was still a remarkable sight at the time, with its retractable roof – when Joe Carter hit his famous three-run game winning home run in the bottom of the ninth inning off Phillies reliever Mitch Williams, with Philadelphia leading 6-5, to win the World Series. The place went crazy, with fireworks and celebrations, and the press box was frenzied with people killing their stories that had the Phillies winning and extending the series to seven games to writing about Carter’s historic home run.
That’s not my favorite game in that series, though. My favorite was game four in Philadelphia – a wild 15-14, four hour-plus nine inning game. The Vet was as loud as I’ve ever seen a ballpark, and this was the year the one-hit wonder, “Whoomp, there it is,” by Tag Team came out, and it was the theme song for that crazy – and steroid racked – Phillies team, with Darren Daulton, Lenny Dykstra, Dave Hollins, John Kruk, Curt Schilling and others. Every time a Phillies batter got a hit, the entire ballpark would chant, “Whoomp, there it is.”
Whoomp, there it is was there early and often. Philly had a 6-0 lead after two innings, and Blue Jays starter Todd Stottlemyre was out of the game after two innings. But on the other side, Phillies starter Tommy Greene surrendered seven runs in three innings, and he was gone as well.
The run fest continued as Philadelphia took a 12-7 lead after two-run home runs by Dykstra and Daulton in the fifth inning. Philly led 14-9 in the eighth inning when Toronto scored six runs to take a 15-14 lead. The Blue Jays scored three of those runs off Mitch Williams, who received death threats called into Veterans Stadium before the game ended – and that was before he gave up the Joe Carter home run in game six.
Some of those death threats might have come from the press box, as writers on deadline had to change what seemed to be an easy Phillies win game story in the eighth inning into a Toronto comeback – negating much of what they had written up to that point. And, given it was the longest nine inning game in World Series history, deadlines were already strangling everybody covering the game.
There was no postseason in 1994 because of the baseball strike. What I remember about 1995 was covering the World Series between the Braves and Indians – Chief Wahoo vs. the Tomahawk Chop – was that I was covering two or three stories before I ever got to the park to start writing about the series. While this World Series was going on, Bill Collins made a deal to buy the Houston Astros and move them to Washington-Northern Virginia, and Orioles owner Peter Angelos was firing his general manager Roland Hemond and manager Phil Regan. So I was working those stories before Tom Glavine ever threw a pitch.
Then came 1996 – the bizarre scene at Camden Yards the morning of the first division series game between the Orioles and the Indians. The series came on the heels of Roberto Alomar spitting in John Hirschbeck’s face on the last weekend of the season in Toronto. Umpires were threatening to boycott the postseason unless Alomar was banned from playing.
American league president (yes, there were still American League and National League presidents back then) Gene Budig gave Alomar a five-game suspension, which would not start until the following season. That really didn’t address the level of anger towards the Orioles second baseman.
Alomar became a national villain. It became front page news and was threatening the very American League Division Series about to start between the Orioles and the Indians. The umpires threatened not to work the game. Major League Baseball went to court that morning to get an injunction to force the umpires back to work. They also hired a crew replacement umpires which was hidden away in the auxiliary clubhouse deep in Camden Yards waiting to be called on if needed.
About 40 minutes before the game, the regular umpires were still in their hotel near Camden Yards, watching ESPN and waiting for a call from their attorney, as everyone wondered if the Alomar incident would cause the fall season to unravel.
Twenty minutes before game time, Marty Springsteen, American League supervisor of umpires, came out of the umpires room and told reporters the regular umpires would work that day. The crew arrived at the ballpark like rock stars, with cameras running in reporters jostling to get a glimpse of them. An agreement had been reached that they would hold off on their threat.
Ironically, Alomar would hit the game-winning home run in game 4 of a 12 inning, 3-3 tie to win the series for Baltimore. I vividly remember during the Orioles clubhouse celebration his brother Sandy, the Indians catcher, coming into the Orioles clubhouse to find his brother, and watching them both burst into tears as they hugged each other.
Little did I know the 1996 postseason was about to get crazier.
The Orioles would go to New York to play the Yankees in the American League Championship Series, and it was over in game one.
In the bottom of the eighth, with one out and the Orioles leading 4-3, New York’s Derek Jeter hit a high drive to right field that Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco — now the Washington Nationals first base coach — took his time getting under on the warning track, standing up and waiting for the ball to come down.
Then, just like that, it disappeared.
“To me, it was a magic trick, because the ball just disappeared out of thin air,” Tarasco said. “Merlin must have been in the house.”
Jeter’s ball turned from an out – or a double, at the very most – into a home run that tied the game at 4-4, allowing the Yankees to hang on until Bernie Williams tagged a solo shot in the bottom of the 11th off reliever Randy Myers for a 5-4 win
The magician in this case was a 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier who reached out over the wall and made the catch of a lifetime, snaring the ball in his glove before it could reach Tarasco. It was clearly fan interference. If it wasn’t, then there is no reason for the rule to exist, unless fan interference applies only when a player is tackled on the field by a fan.
“The way I saw it, I thought the ball was going out of the ballpark,” Garcia said. “The ball was going out of the ballpark, and I called it a home run.”
That was an illusion. The reality, shown time and time again on replays, was that the ball was not a home run, that it would have at the very least hit the wall, and Tarasco certainly believed he was going to catch the ball. Once Garcia realized he had been tricked by young Maier the Magnificent, after seeing a postgame replay, he essentially admitted he blew it.
“Obviously, after looking at the replay, it was not a home run,” Garcia said. “But from what I saw, the fan reached out, not down, which, in my judgment, did not interfere with the guy catching the ball.”
That was still extremely debatable. But even if that were the case, the worst that should have come out of it would have been a double for Jeter, which is what should have happened.
I saw Garcia the next morning eating breakfast at my hotel – the LaGuardia Marriott, otherwise known as the Goodfellas Marriott. He seemed hungry. Later that day for game two at Yankee Stadium, he was signing autographs for Yankee fans.
Baseball had a chance to do something courageous and unique after that. The Orioles – actually Angelos’ law firm – filed a detailed appeal seeking to have the outcome of the game overturned. The league denied the appeal, but years later, general manager Pat Gillick said it was a moment for baseball to do the right thing and they blew it. “Instead, the Yankees won the game, and this kid was a hero in New York, on television, on the back pages of the newspaper,” he told me.
My memory of the following postseason? The 1997 Orioles led the American League East wire-to-wire, only to lose to the Indians in the League Championship Series. But I have a fond memory of that postseason – game one of the Orioles division series against the Seattle Mariners.
With Randy Johnson on the mound for Seattle in the Kingdome, Orioles manager Davey Johnson benched his three best hitters – Alomar, Rafael Palmeiro and B.J. Surhoff, all lefthanded hitters. Johnson started Jerome Walton for Palmeiro at first, Jeff Reboulet for Alomar at second and Jeffrey Hammonds for Surhoff in right field.
It’s the boldest postseason decision I have ever seen – and it worked.
Johnson benched 72 home runs and 258 RBI in favor of three hitters who had a combined 28 home runs and 91 RBI.
Baltimore would beat up on the fearsome Johnson with a 9-3 win to take a 1-0 lead in the Division Series. “I’ll bet no one in history has ever started a playoff series by sitting down their leading home run hitter and RBI guy,” general manager Pat Gillick said.
It may have been disappointing for the Orioles to fall short of a World Series appearance in those two seasons. But it was a heck of a ride, with a lot of great memories.
The Orioles would begin a 14-season losing tailspin the following year. The Times decided to cut back on its postseason baseball commitment, and I didn’t cover another postseason until 2003. That, as we know, turned out to be a memorable one, which I will pick up in part two of my postseason memories.