When I met Jeffrey Maier, he was Coach Maier and I had no idea who he was. Of course I remembered the boy who stole an out from two feet above Tony Tarasco's glove and turned it into an eight inning, game-tying home run in the '96 ALDS. The Yankees would win the game, and the series, and the championship. Twelve-year-old Jeffrey's grab was the type of thing that made you more or less positive George Steinbrenner had entered into a Faustian arrangement with the devil. My dad was at that game, and he gave me the ticket stub. I stuck it in a drawer in my nightstand, and there it sat for six years, until I handed it to Maier. But we're getting ahead of ourselves.
"Which one of you pussies uses a 19-ounce bat?" was the first thing I ever heard him say. He had been sent to our troop to help one of the more senior members of the staff conduct running drills and pitch BP for the last two days of camp. It was the summer of 2002, and I was a camper at Baseball Fever, in Demarest, N.J. Maier was only 17, but to a bunch of 12-year-olds, he was an adult. Someone whose authority we were under. Someone who had just called us pussies.
Bad language at baseball camp was by no means uncommon. At least five times a day we were told to "cut out the bullshit." Any injury, no matter how minor, gave you license to let out a "fuck." But never was the swearing directed from a coach to camper, or vice versa. Compounded by the fact that "pussy" is one of those words that arbitrarily falls just outside the boundaries of good taste, the question was extra jarring.
"You can't swear at us," someone objected from the far end of the bench.
"Pussy isn't a curse," he responded, holding the bat like a rifle, staring down the barrel at the objector. "It's a vagina." I'm not saying he used to burn ants with a magnifying glass as a child, but that was the impression that I got. He seemed joyless, a miserable sack of self-pity. Maybe I feel that way only in hindsight, knowing what I know, but at the time I knew I didn't like him.
"What's your name again?" another camper asked.
I couldn't help myself. "You're the kid!"
"You're the kid" he mimicked in a whiny voice, his wrists going limp for good measure.
We had known that Jeffrey Maier had joined the staff, but my troop hadn't actually seen him. What's more, we knew that Tony Tarasco would be coming to speak to the camp on the last day, and it would be the first time the two had met since that night in 1996. Naturally, it was all we wanted to ask about.
"What'd you do with the ball?" I asked.
"They kicked the shit out of me and stole it," he said, staring sullenly out at the baseball diamond. I didn't know who "they" were, and I didn't ask. When the other coach responsible for our troop popped into the dugout for a cup of water, Maier threw on a smile and made small talk. But when that coach left, he returned to swearing, mocking the way people laughed, telling kids they were fat, and generally being unpleasant.
The next day we reported to a field without dugouts. We sat out in a hot sun, lazily waiting for Tarasco to arrive. I had the ticket in my bat bag. I tried and failed, and tried and failed again to muster up the courage to ask Maier to sign it before Tarasco arrived. The fact that he had been less than eager to talk about the incident didn't help. My friend Tom took a Diet Coke out of his own personal cooler and popped the tab. Maier heard it and turned to him.
"I hope you get a fucking charley horse."
"I could hope a lot worse happens to you when Tony Tarasco gets here in about an hour," Tom fired back. It wasn't the sort of thing you said to a counselor, but it was the last day.
"I'm not scared of that piece of shit," Maier said. "I could take him." There wasn't a shred of irony in his voice. He meant it, and presumably he believed it too. Tom finished his soda in silence.
By the time we finished up the morning drills, Tarasco had arrived. It felt like Christmas morning, just seeing him there. You could tell right away that, in the event of a fight, Tony Tarasco would beat the life out of Maier. He wasn't big for a ballplayer—he went 6'0", 185 pounds—but he appeared to tower over Maier when they shook hands. They spoke for a few minutes. I have no idea what they talked about.
Tarasco gave a quick speech to the camp, then question-and-answer time began. Somehow, out of the 200-odd kids assembled in the grass, Tarasco's eyes settled on Tom. Tom! Tom was a Roman emperor at the Colosseum with a man's life hanging on a gesture of his thumb. Hi Mr. Tarasco, Jeff says you're a piece of shit and that he would like to fight you. Does that make you angry? That's all it would have taken.
As Tom rose to his feet to ask his question, Maier's heart must have sunk into his lower intestine. He had hung the curveball earlier, and now Tom could knock it to the fucking moon.
"Which counselor would you wrestle?" A shot across the bow. Everyone had a good laugh. Tarasco didn't engage. Maier exhaled. (Afterward, Tarasco told a reporter that Maier "probably thought I was going to chase him around the field or something.")
I got my ticket autographed right away. Tarasco looked up and smiled when he saw what he was signing. Then I went to find Jeff. (By this time in his life, he was "Jeff." Never Jeffrey.) If I could get him in front of the other coaches, I figured, he'd be stuck doing his aw-shucks routine and he'd have to sign it. But he had ducked out somewhere. While most of the adults present mugged for photos with Tarasco, I snuck off into the school building. When I got to the gym Jeff was sitting on a desk by the physical trainer's office, his legs dangling above the floor. A few of my fellow campers buzzed around him, getting him to sign batting gloves, t-shirts, and scuffed up baseballs. I approached and handed him my ticket. I half-expected him to tear it in half and call me a homo. Instead he looked up.
"You were at the game?" He looked so tired. He wasn't the mirthless bully or the grinning actor—he was an overwhelmed young man. He would go on to play college ball and attend some pro tryouts and work toward a career in a front office somewhere. He'd never escape being anything other than 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier.
I didn't have time to answer him. A coach popped out of the trainer's office and asked us to "give Coach Maier some breathing room."
"I'll get you later," he told me, handing back the ticket. I never got the autograph, and I never spoke to him again. Back then I was frustrated Tom didn't go further. Back then I thought Tom was a pussy and Jeff was a dick, but back then we were all just kids.
Benjamin Contillo lives in New Jersey and still holds on to petty grudges from his childhood.