On Infield Flies and Jeffrey Maier (OR: Why the Cardinals could win the World Series but would not be known for the infield fly play)

In baseball, little things can mean a lot. And those little things sometimes are forgotten by all but those who felt themselves wronged.

Some have had problems with how the St. Louis Cardinals benefited from the infield fly call in the NL Wild Card game. While it seems, after reflection and hearing from various experts on TV and online, that the call was technically correct, it struck me as not exactly fitting the spirit of the rules for the infield fly: the infield fly is meant to protect the runners from a possible double play, something I do not believe the Cardinals had any chance of pulling.

The game was protested, of course, and, just like (almost) every other protested game in history, the protest was denied. No matter what your opinion on that infield fly play, you cannot deny, however, that the Cardinals probably dodged a bullet: had there been no call, it is entirely possible they would have lost that game, and would not be headed into a series with Washington. Why, you almost have this sinking feeling that maybe, just maybe, the Cardinals are now going to go on a run to a championship. And you probably think that, for better or worse, they are going to be known as the team that won because of a possibly-incorrect infield fly call. Fans of the Braves and baseball in general may be in horror at the idea that such a thing could happen, and even some Cardinals fans probably are a bit worried that their team, if they go on a run, will probably go on to be remembered the “infield fly team.”

They probably are wrong. In general, only the losing teams are remembered in places where massive mistakes are made, and even then usually only if they themselves are the ones screwing up: the 1986 Red Sox may have lost the World Series because Billy Buckner couldn’t field a routine grounder (there had already been several things that had gone wrong, but it’s that image everyone remembers), the 2003 Cubs may have lost the NLCS because devoted Cubs’ fan Steve Bartman sort-of got in Moises Alou’s way (there is no guarantee he would have caught it, but you never know) and the 1919 Chicago White Sox lost the series because seven or eight players (depending on whether you count Buck Weaver) threw games. Nobody ever seems to associate the 1986 Mets, 2003 Marlins or 1919 Reds with those events, other than as background.

Given that the Orioles (!) and Yankees are about to meet up in the ALDS, a look at their shared history perhaps best illustrates this fact. I speak of the tale of Jeffrey Maier, a then-12-year-old who, in the bottom of the eighth inning in Game 1 of the 1996 ALCS, reached into the field of play and snagged a Derek Jeter fly ball that seemed destined for the glove of Orioles outfielder Tony Tarasco (or, at the very least, the warning track- but not over the fence). Right-field umpire Rich Garcia said that it was a home run, tying the game at four and paving the way for an extra-innings Yankees win. The Orioles’ protest was denied. The Yankees went on to win the series, and the World Series. I was only six at the time, but even I remember thinking that it was some kind of cheating, as if the Yankees had hired that kid to be out there to rob Tony Tarasco, or something. I seem to recall grabbing a newspaper that had a photo of the play on it, grabbing a large red crayon, and drawing a big giant X through it, to show my disgust.

Hey, I was six. I’m not even sure if I had a clue what was going on, but I remember having that big crossed-out picture for awhile, so I must have known something.

Maier, meanwhile, became a pint-sized celebrity, appearing on late night talk shows, being given the Key to the City by Rudy Giuliani, and being generally hailed as a hero by the city, county and state of New York. This despite the fact that, by any measure whatsoever, Maier had done something illegal and helped, intended or not, the Yankees win (or, as six-year-old me would say, cheat) their way to victory. There must have been lots of interesting conversations in New York after that:
“Dad, can I reach out and grab the ball?”
“No, son, it’s against the rules. They’ll kick us out of the stadium.”
“But Jeff Maier did it, and he got to be on TV, and he got that giant key from the mayor!”
“Yes, son, but…”

However, as the years have gone on, Maier has become a footnote, remembered only by grateful Yankee fans, angry Oriole fans and completist baseball historians. He’s now grown-up, a married man and former college player who is involved with baseball off the field. When the 1996 Yankees are discussed, they aren’t called the team that possibly won the ALCS only because of the actions of a 12-year-old, they are known more for being the first title-winning club of the Derek Jeter era.

And this, likely, is what the future may hold for the 2012 St. Louis Cardinals. If they go on a run, as they did in 2006 and 2011, they will be known as a team that won the World Series despite having lost their future Hall-Of-Fame manager, their esteemed hitting coach, and their most famous and talented player in the previous off-season. They may also be known as the first franchise to win three World Series in the 21st century. But it is highly unlikely that anyone other than relieved Cardinal fans, angry Braves fans and completist baseball historians will think much of the infield fly call and whether the Cardinals had gotten lucky.

Because, the thing is, sometimes the lucky teams and the cheaters prosper. And when that happens, the little details that caused them to be lucky or caused them to be cheaters end up becoming footnotes, for better or worse.

So don’t sweat the infield fly, sports fans. Well, except for Braves fans. You’ve already done way more than sweat over it… but that’s another story.