Against anyone else, it would have seemed preposterous when the 12-year-old boy's hand reached into the field of play to change the course of the Orioles' 1996 playoff run.
Against the New York Yankees? Jeffrey Maier was just another chapter in a long story.
The Yankees have almost always been the measuring stick for their divisional rivals 200 miles down Interstate 95. And pardon Orioles fans if they've always felt the game was a little bit rigged, whether by baseball economics or by the dark magic of an adolescent fan.
The Bronx Bombers of Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris were still the big boys on the block when the Orioles first got good in the early 1960s. And after decades of the teams sparring as something more like equals, the Yankees resumed their place atop the sport in the late 1990s, becoming an unreachable target for the bottom-dwellers from Baltimore over the last 15 years.
It seems right then, that if the Orioles are to author a truly remarkable 2012, they must go through their white — make that pinstriped — whale in the American League Divisional Series, scheduled to begin Sunday evening at Camden Yards.
"Every base hit I ever had in Yankee Stadium, every game we won there was special," said Boog Powell, a star of the first Orioles teams to challenge the Yankees' dominance of the American League. "If you beat them, you really felt you had accomplished something, because you beat the big, bad boys."
This year's Orioles are less straightforward about any extra desire to beat the Yankees.
"I don't care who we've got to go through," center fielder Adam Jones said. "If my mom is on the other team, we gotta go through her. At this point in time, I don't care who's in another jersey. I'm like a bull. I see red at this point."
View from both sides
It's an incestuous rivalry in many ways. The greatest Yankee of all, Babe Ruth, is also the greatest athlete ever to hail from Baltimore. In 1976, the Orioles helped set up their last championship season by pillaging Rick Dempsey, Tippy Martinez and Scott McGregor from the Yankees in a 10-player deal. After the 2000 season, the Yankees helped put a nail in the Orioles' franchise coffin by giving ace pitcher Mike Mussina $88.5 million to switch teams.
Then there's Buck Showalter, the manager who has guided the Orioles' miraculous return to respectability, and also the one who steered the Yankees out of their last franchise downturn in the early 1990s.
But calling it a rivalry at all probably rings false for New Yorkers, who haven't had to regard the Orioles as a serious threat since Bill Clinton was president.
Pail Blair, who played on both teams, said the rivalry always flowed more from the Baltimore side than the New York side. "Everybody measured themselves against the Yanks," he said. "If you wanted to be the best, you had to beat the best."
Even when the Orioles were great, Blair said, the Boston Red Sox were the Yankees' mortal rival.
"This year is the first time in a long time the Yankees felt threatened by the O's," said Rishi Kadiwar, an Orioles fan from Rockville who now works in Manhattan. "Up to now, the Yankees fans thought of the O's as a non-entity. The only rivalry in the Bronx up till now was from the Red Sox."
Kadiwar's Yankees-loving colleagues expected the Orioles to collapse all season, he said, but now they don't sound quite so sure.
"If the O's sweep in Baltimore, New York fans know they may be in trouble," he said.
Underdogs from the start
The Orioles didn't scare anyone when the franchise moved from St. Louis in 1954, certainly not the Yankees, who were in the heart of one of the greatest runs in American team sports history.
It wasn't until 1960 that the O's made Mantle and Co. sweat a bit. Those Orioles, with a young Brooks Robinson at third, Jim Gentile thumping the ball and Hoyt Wilhelm floating knucklers from the bullpen, held a portion of first place as late as Sept. 14. The Yankees then showed their pedigree and won the American League by eight games.
The story remained the same in 1961, when the Orioles won 95 games, and 1964, when they won 97. They were good, but there was no wild card in those days, so they could only stare up at the Yankees, who were better.
"It was a hate-envy kind of thing," said Powell, who grew up in a family of fans who wanted to see the Yankees toppled.
The worm turned in 1965, when the Orioles began an 11-season streak of finishing ahead of New York. Suddenly, they were the game's model franchise, and the Yankees were a faded mess.
In the late 1970s, the Yankees came roaring back with a star-laden team, bought with owner George Steinbrenner's war chest and whipped along by tempestuous manager Billy Martin. Those teams waged great divisional battles, with the Orioles and their understated efficiency offering a stylistic counterpoint.
The rivalry flickered in the late 1980s and early 1990s, with both teams enduring humiliating seasons and neither able to crack the postseason. But that all changed in 1996 and 1997, when the Orioles — backed by sellout crowds in an acclaimed new ballpark and stocked deep by free-spending owner Peter Angelos — joined the Yankees in the playoffs each season.
The Maier game — when the 12-year-old reached over the fence to block Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco from catching a fly ball by Derek Jeter, which was ruled a home run — gave the Yankees an advantage they'd never relinquish in the 1996 American League Championship Series.
The Orioles seized the edge in 1997, when they became the only team to break up an 11-year run of Yankees division titles. It was hard to imagine at the time that Baltimore wouldn't see another playoff game for 15 years.
"They were fierce. We had some crazy games here," said Yankees manager Joe Girardi of the 1996 and 1997 series he played against the Orioles as a Yankees catcher. "They were great, and you think about the caliber of players they had here, you know. You obviously had Cal Ripken [Jr.], and they had [Rafael] Palmeiro, and they had [Roberto Alomar], and they had a number of great players here. They've played extremely well again, and I think it's good for baseball."
End of the arms race
Angelos seemed to take seriously the idea of going toe-to-toe with Steinbrenner. For a time, in the late 1990s, the Orioles had the highest payroll in the history of the game. They went after big-name stars such as Albert Belle in part to keep them away from New York.
But this arms race turned out to be folly. The Orioles collapsed on a foundation of wasted draft picks and ill-advised signings. The Yankees, meanwhile, combined financial muscle with sound player development, home-growing a generation of stars that included Jeter, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte.
Sure, they also kicked Baltimore in the teeth by dropping tens of millions of dollars to buy the Orioles' best pitcher, Mussina, and later, a cherished free agent from Severna Park, Mark Teixeira. But money was only part of it. Orioles fans knew deep down that the Yankees were simply better at every aspect of running a baseball franchise.
To make matters worse, every time the Yankees came to town in those grim years, the stands at Camden Yards filled with dudes in pinstripes, shouting for "Jeetah" in their trademark New York accents.
There were fleeting moments for the Orioles, like Opening Day 2002, when they smacked Roger Clemens around in a 10-3 win. But it never seemed a real fight — at least not until this year.
Perhaps Showalter foreshadowed the change last season with his feisty comments in "Men's Journal," saying that Jeter ticked him off by manipulating umpires.
Whatever it was, the Orioles have won every series in Yankee Stadium this year. They wiped out the Yankees' 10-game lead and allowed them little separation throughout the final month. On Sept. 6, they authored one of the season's signature moments, pounding the New Yorkers for six home runs as a raucous home crowd celebrated the win and the unveiling of Cal Ripken Jr.'s sculpture at Camden Yards.
"The fact they played the Yankees even up this year, you better believe there's a mutual respect now," Powell said. "They do not take the Orioles lightly."