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By Matt Meyers
KLOSTER, N.J.--In 1996, a 12-year-old Jeff Maier made a name for himself when he reached over the right-field fence at Yankee Stadium to catch a ball hit by Derek Jeter that appeared bound for the glove of Baltimore's Tony Tarasco in Game One of the American League Championship Series. It was ruled a home run, the game was tied and the Yankees would go on to win the game, the series and the World Series. Maier was an instant icon among Yankees fans, an instant villain in Baltimore.
Ten years later, Maier is making a name for himself once again--but this time it is on the field. A senior third baseman at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., Maier is poised to help the Cardinals vie for a New England Small College Athletic Conference title and a spot in the NCAA Division III tournament while putting himself in position to be taken in June's draft.
"My first priority is to the team," Maier said. "I believe we have the tools to compete and win the NESCAC. But as soon as I hang up my spikes at Wesleyan, the first thing I am going to be doing is waiting for a phone call from somebody saying they would like to take a chance with me and see what I can do (in pro ball)."
The 22-year-old emerged as a key player at Wesleyan as a sophomore, when he led the team in hitting with a .409 average and was named first-team all-NESCAC. Realizing he was no longer unknown as a hitter, Maier altered his approach as a junior and slumped.
"He tried to prepare for pitchers being afraid of him and going away from him," Wesleyan coach Mark Woodworth said. "He started focusing on hitting the ball the other way. It took away some of his aggressiveness and took away some of his gap power, particularly to the pull side."
After opening the season 18-for-75 (.240), Maier reverted to the aggressive approach that he used to flourish his first two seasons. He went 30-for-62 (.484) the rest of the way, and his bat helped put Wesleyan on the verge of a berth in the conference tournament. But it was his glove that clinched it.
The Cardinals needed to go undefeated in their final four regular-season games to qualify for the tournament, which features the top four teams in the 10-team conference. After winning their first three, they led Middlebury (Vt.) 7-6 in the bottom half of the final inning, but the Panthers had men on second and third with one out when Middlebury catcher Anthony Pavoni smoked a sharp grounder between third and short. Maier dove to his left, came up with the ball and gunned down the runner at the plate to preserve the lead. The next batter popped out to Maier to end the game.
In the one game Wesleyan won in the tournament, the Cardinals trailed 4-1 in the eighth inning when they rallied for four runs, culminating with Maier singling to center field to drive in the tying and winning runs against Tufts (Mass.).
Maier's performance earned him an invitation to play for the Pittsfield Dukes in the New England Collegiate Baseball League. His summer season ended after just 15 at-bats when he tore his right anterior cruciate ligament while making a diving catch in left field on a line drive off the bat of Southern California's Cyle Hankerd. But Maier's knee surgery was a success, and he is running at full speed and ready for the 2006 season.
Though his best position is outfield and he played center field his first two years of college, Maier moved to third base as a junior and will play there as a senior, due to Wesleyan's surplus of outfielders. The Cardinals co-captain hopes his versatility will help his draft status, but it will likely be his bat that will give him a shot to play pro ball.
"He is a strong kid with some strong hands," a scout with an American League club said. "He makes hard contact and (on defense) he catches what he gets to. He is a bat--he will go as far as his bat takes him."
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Maier is an aggressive lefthanded hitter with a knack for making hard contact on almost any type of pitch. While he has displayed the ability to sharply hit pitches out of the strike zone, he is focused on improving his pitch selection, which he knows is imperative for succeeding at the next level. The biggest obstacle he faces is proving he can hit above-average velocity, as most NESCAC pitchers do not crack 90 mph. Maier is undeterred.
"I want to be able to say that I could do it," Maier said. "I've heard a lot of, 'You're too short,' or 'You play (Division III), no one is going to see you,' and I have always risen up to the challenge, and I don't think this would be any different. Until someone tells me I am not good enough to play, I am going to keep on playing."
Working in Maier's favor is the recent success of his NESCAC brethren in pro ball. Righthander Jonah Bayliss, who was recently traded to the Pirates for Mark Redman, was a seventh-round pick by the Royals out of Trinity (Conn.) in 2002 and reached the big leagues last season. Second baseman Jeff Natale was taken by the Red Sox in the 32nd round out of Trinity in 2005 and hit .338-2-35 in 160 at-bats for low Class A Greenville.
"I think the innovative thinking in scouting is starting to see that there are guys that can play in this league that might have been missed before," Woodworth said.
Moving Away From The Past
Not surprisingly, many opponents and fans still can't get past that fateful October evening in 1996, particularly since Maier plays most of his games in the heart of Red Sox nation. As a sophomore, he had to stop a game when fans at Williams (Mass.) were throwing snow and ice at him from beyond the center-field fence. When he was a freshman, an Amherst (Mass.) fan shouted, "Baltimore hates you" to Maier as he waited on a pitch. Maier responded by depositing the pitch over the right-field fence.
Maier has developed a sense of humor about the incident, though. A Wesleyan senior from Baltimore is making a film entitled, "I Hate Jeffrey Maier," which is a farce about a student from Baltimore who realizes he is classmates with Maier and devotes his college career to making Maier's life miserable. Maier, who plays himself, is one of the film’s stars.
The government major is also preparing for a career that goes beyond the playing field, though he hopes it involves baseball. The New Jersey native is a devoted student of the game and recently did an independent study of the major league franchise shifts in the 1950s. If he does make it into a front office, he would not be the first Wesleyan baseball alum to do so. Red Sox co-general manager Jed Hoyer helped lead the Cardinals to the Division III College World Series final in 1994, where they lost to Jarrod Washburn and Wisconsin-Oshkosh.
Maier has come to grips with the fact that it will always be hard for some to view him as anything other than a part of Yankee playoff lore.
"I've spent 10 years trying to establish myself as a ballplayer and a person that is no longer a 12-year-old in a black t-shirt at a Yankees game," Maier said. "Unfortunately, for some, it will always be that way. Those who have had the chance to know me know that my goal in life has been to achieve bigger and better things than catching a ball when I was 12."
That 12-year-old accidental celebrity has become a 22-year-old face
in the crowd with a big league dream. And that's enough for him.