Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 18, 2018

Was It The Fan, Or The Man In Blue?

For many fans, the first two names do little more than stir a vague memory, the third not yet even that. But for partisans of the Orioles, the Cubs, and now the Astros, Jeffrey Maier, Steve Bartman, and Troy Caldwell are instantly recognizable. Though none of the three ever wore a big league uniform, each played a key role in the outcome of a League Championship Series, the penultimate round of the Great Game’s postseason tournament. Or did they?

Let’s begin with Jeffrey Maier, who in 1996 was a twelve-year-old sitting in the first row of the right field seats at the old Yankee Stadium. In Game 1 of that year’s ALCS, the Orioles were clinging to a 4-3 lead over the Yankees as New York came to bat in the bottom of the 8th inning. The leadoff batter for the home squad was a young shortstop completing a season for which he would earn the American League Rookie of the Year Award. Derek Jeter lifted a fly ball into deep right, sending Baltimore outfielder Tony Tarasco racing back to the warning track. Right at the wall Tarasco looked to settle under the ball. But even as he reached up with his glove to snare Jeter’s drive for the inning’s first out, another gloved hand reached over the wall and caught the ball.

That hand was Maier’s, who in that moment was living out the dream of every kid who has ever brought his or her glove to a major league park. But as Oriole fans will be quick to remind anyone who will listen, replays of the moment left no doubt that Maier reached over the wall and into the field of play to catch Jeter’s fly ball. Tarasco immediately protested, but umpire Rich Garcia, working the right field foul line as part of the expanded six-man crew used during the postseason, had already signaled, incorrectly, that Jeter had tied the game with a home run. Tarasco was joined by Orioles manager Davey Johnson, who was eventually ejected. While fans at home may have been able to see the clear evidence of fan interference as the play was shown again and again on television, 1996 was long before Major League Baseball instituted the video review and challenge system now in effect.

Seven years later the scene was Wrigley Field, where the long-suffering Cubs were five outs away from advancing to the World Series for the first time in more than half a century. Mark Prior was twirling a three hit shutout and Chicago led the Florida Marlins 3-0. With one out in the 8th and Juan Pierre at second base, Florida second baseman Luis Castillo worked the count from Prior to full. He then lofted a high fly ball down the left field line. Moises Alou, the Cubs left fielder, tracked the ball even as he raced toward the line, with only a few feet of foul ground between it and the stands. Sitting in the front row of those stands, wearing a Cubs cap and headphones so he could listen to the radio play-by-play, was Steve Bartman, a lifelong Chicago fan then in his mid-twenties. As the ball drifted toward the seats, Bartman and those around him stood, and his were but one of several pairs of hands that reached for the baseball as it fell from the sky. Alou braced himself against the wall with his right hand and leaped up, attempting to make the catch. But before the ball could reach his glove it ricocheted off Bartman’s left hand, bouncing away into the swarm of spectators around him.

Alou reacted with fury, clearly believing that had been a victim of fan interference. But umpire Mike Everett ruled that the ball was in the seats, and thus fair game for anyone. Alou’s protests got him nowhere, and Cubs manager Dusty Baker couldn’t join in the argument because the curve of Wrigley Field’s stands and the location of the Chicago bullpen along foul ground blocked a clear view of the play from the home dugout. The Great Game was still five years away from its first experiment with replay review, and more than a decade short of 2014, when the question of fan interference in foul ground was made reviewable.

Now video review by officials at MLB headquarters in New York is fully integrated into the game, and fans are used to having a contest delayed while the umpires gather around the crew chief, who is wearing a headset and communicating with the replay official. That was the scene Wednesday night in the bottom of the 1st inning of Game 4 of this season’s ALCS. The Boston Red Sox, already leading the series two games to one, had plated a pair of runs in the top of the inning, putting pressure on the defending champion Houston Astros to respond quickly. The home team appeared to do just that, with George Springer lining a single to center with one out, and Jose Altuve following with a high fly ball to deep right field. Mookie Betts drifted back to the wall and leaped up, trying to prevent a home run.

Troy Caldwell, an Astros fan living in Georgia who had traveled to Houston to attend the game, was one of five fans in the front row who stood and reached for the ball. Even as Betts made his jump and his glove flashed up and over the wall, someone’s hand appeared to brush Betts’s glove and the ball bounced off Caldwell’s hands and back onto the field. Joe West, who in a 2011 poll of players was cited as the worst umpire in the majors by forty-one percent of respondents, was working the right field line and signaled fan interference, meaning Altuve was out. West’s snap decision was crucial, because a camera that had been placed in position to look directly along the top of the outfield wall was blocked by other fans standing in front of it. That meant that while the replay official had several angles to look at, the one that would have instantly told him if Caldwell had reached onto the field or if instead it was Betts who had reached into the stands was unavailable. MLB’s replay procedures state that if video review can’t definitively overrule or confirm the ruling on the field, then that ruling stands. That’s what happened Wednesday night.

Baltimore lost Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS when Bernie Williams hit a walk-off home run in the 11th inning. New York went on to take the series four games to one. Castillo continued his at-bat in 2003, drawing a walk. He would eventually make the third out of the inning, but only after the Marlins had batted around and plated eight runs. One night later they eliminated the Cubs. Wednesday night’s first inning drama was but prelude to a wild game eventually won by Boston, 8-6, putting the Red Sox on the cusp of a return to the World Series.

Orioles fans blame Jeffrey Maier for their failure to reach the 1996 World Series to this day, and Steve Bartman was vilified in Chicago for years. But perhaps the fairer response was in Houston, where fans directed their ire not at Caldwell but at West, for a call that was questionable at best. Even here in New England, a devoted Red Sox fan said today that after multiple views of the video from Wednesday night’s game, he believed Altuve’s shot was in the seats. In fact, the video evidence of all three incidents suggests three bad calls by three different umpires. Unquestionably so by Rich Garcia, almost certainly so by Joe West, and very possibly so by Mike Everett. They are all human of course, even the execrable West, so mistakes will be made. But Wednesday night proved that video replay can’t fix all such errors, which means there will always be times when fans will deservedly think of the men in blue as a bunch of bums.

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