Hometown Abuzz Over Yankee ‘Hero’
OLD TAPPAN, N.J. (AP) _ A few days ago, Jeffrey Maier was just an above average Little League pitcher, a kid who loved the Yankees so much he cut school to see them play the Baltimore Orioles in the American League Championship Series.
But Jeffrey quickly became a New York media darling and a hero in his hometown when his attempt to catch a ``home run″ ball helped propel his beloved team to a playoff victory.
Only a ticker-tape parade was missing from Jeffrey’s whirlwind day Thursday, when he was idolized on national television, feted by a local newspaper _ and reviled in Baltimore.
``I’m not as famous as the Yankees,″ he told a horde of reporters during a media availability at The All-Star Cafe in New York City. ``The players go out there every day. The Yankees deserve the credit.″
At the Maier home, his grandmother, Lorraine Briemer of Alexandria, Va., met another pack of reporters desperate for details to add to the lore of Jeffrey’s fast-growing legend. She obliged, saying Jeffrey’s dream is to be a pro baseball player.
``He’s such a nice kid. I am sure he is very excited about what is happening. But he has got his feet on the ground,″ she said.
Briemer remained in town after Jeffrey’s bar mitzvah Saturday. At the reception, each table was assigned a team name _ Jeff’s was the Yankee table _ and a banner proclaimed, ``Welcome to Jeff’s World Series.″
Students at Charles DeWolf Middle School here, all of whom seemed to have watched the game, chased after reporters, fighting over who was better friends with Maier and who was happier for him.
``It’s a one-in-a-million chance to do that kind of stuff. You wish it could happen to you,″ said Daniel Lysogorsky, 14.
The Old Tappan Deli, which delivers lunch daily to the school, offered ``the Jeff Maier Special:″ Turkey sandwich, cherry Coke, small pretzels, $4.75.
Baltimore fans had no plans of their own to lionize the boy, who they felt stole their victory. Officials jokingly suggested Maier should be arrested.
``That’s grand theft and it’s bookable in Baltimore,″ Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier said.
Other Orioles fans found little humor in the controversy.
``I’m insulted by the whole thing,″ said Mark Espenshade, 31, of Columbia, Md. ``For New York to label that kid a hero, it’s just a joke.″
But Maier was unfazed by critics who said his attempt to grab a Derek Jeter hit, that seemed more likely an out than a home run, unfairly gave the Yankees a run, pushing the game into extra innings. The Yankees won 5-4 in the 11th inning.
``They don’t understand,″ Jeffrey said. ``If they were me, a 12-year-old kid at a New York Yankees playoff game, they would try and catch the ball, too.″
After lunch, Jeffrey took advantage of eight tickets he received from the Daily News and went to Yankee Stadium to watch Game 2 of the series, to pose for pictures with other fans, and to sign some autographs.
Security guards were stationed near the right field seats where the boy caught the ball.
Earlier in the day, Jeffrey made appearances on ``Good Morning America″ and talked with ``Hard Copy.″ He turned down ``Geraldo.″
Back in Old Tappan, Jeffrey’s newfound fame was the talk of the northeastern New Jersey borough.
``I guess in the true sense no fan should ultimately determine the outcome of a baseball game,″ said his Little League coach, Gregory MacLean. ``But being a little kid in the position he was put in, the excitement he was involved in _ I couldn’t help do it myself if I was in the same position.″
Jeffrey was a starting pitcher, and when not pitching he played various positions, usually center field, MacLean said. He batted cleanup with an average over .600.
Some Old Tappan residents called the attention ridiculous.
``To think that this kid is a hero and to idolize him is absurd,″ said Greg Nalbandian, 25, a real estate appraiser. ``He interfered with a play and it’s a playoff game.″
``The kid should be embarrassed, not proud, to go on TV,″ said Dave Bernroth, 28, a house painter from Ringwood.
With a $500 bet riding on the Orioles, Jeff Walrath, 34, of Waldwick was unhappy: ``The Yankees should have lost. The kid affected the World Series.″
But he doesn’t blame Maier. ``The kid did nothing wrong, and it should end (umpire Rich Garcia’s career). ... It was a disgrace to baseball.″
Fellow students strongly defended Maier.
``I don’t think he meant to cause any controversy,″ said Adam Konopolsky, 14. ``It was a 12-year-old kid trying to catch a ball.″