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Legends | Paul O’Neill

October 15, 2012

O’Neill salutes the crowd during game 5 of the 2001 World Series (AP)

Paul O’Neill | #21 | RF | 1993-2001

1,254 G | 720 R | 1,426 H | 304 2B | 14 3B | 185 HR | 858 RBI | 80 SB | 586 BB | .303 BA

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Paul O’Neill was the backbone of the modern Yankee dynasty, bringing grit and toughness coupled with an insatiable desire to succeed each and every time for his team.  However, when he was traded to the Yankees on November 3, 1992 for Roberto Kelly, in what Brian Cashman called “one of the greatest trades all-time in Yankee history,” he was heartbroken.  Born in Ohio, O’Neill’s boyhood dream came true when he was drafted by the hometown Cincinnati Reds right out of high school.  He spent 8 years in Cincy, winning the World Series with them in 1990.  When O’Neill arrived in the Big Apple the Yankees were far from their later Championship form and before he had even settled in his car had been stolen.  Twice.

But New York quickly fell in love with “the Warrior” and it did not take long for Paulie to embrace the fans.  In his Bronx debut he went 4-4 with a triple and for 9 seasons he never stopped producing.  When we needed a big hit or a big catch, he somehow found a way to come through every time.  For those of us that watched #21 on a daily basis we appreciated his fire that stemmed from his endless pursuit of perfection.  My favorite memories of Paul O’Neill are rooted in his near obsession to come through every single time.  I loved watching him practice his swing in the dugout or in right field, envisioning slapping a single.  I loved watching him crash into the right field wall, leg out doubles on a perpetually bad hamstring, and celebrate with pure joy after each Championship season.  Everything Paulie did he did with passion.  Every time he stepped onto the field we knew he was going to do whatever he had to do to get a win for us.  We cared about him because we knew he cared about giving us his best, and for that he will forever be remembered by the pinstripe faithful.  No Yankee will ever wear #21 again.

Here are my 10 favorite Paul O’Neill moments, instances that I think epitomized the Yankee Warrior.

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10.  Catching the final out of David Wells’ perfect game | 5/17/1998

I’m not sure why this play sticks out in my mind because it was a routine fly ball off the bat of Minnesota’s Pat Meares, but the expression on O’Neill’s face was one of pure elation for his teammate’s moment.  He caught the ball near the line and as soon as it was secured in his webbing he thrust his left hand in the air and let out a roar.  That was who Paul O’Neill was: the consummate teammate.

9.  Single vs. John Rocker in Game 1 of the 1999 World Series | 10/23/1999

In the top of the 8th inning the Yankees were finally able to break through vs. Greg Maddox.  Scott Brosius led off the inning with a single.  Darryl Strawberry followed with a walk and Chuck Knoblauch reached on an error, loading the bases for Derek Jeter who singled in Brosius to tie the game at 1-1.  Having seen enough, Bobby Cox went to his bullpen and John Rocker, the tempestuous left-hander, charged toward the mound.  During the season O’Neill had a .190 average against left-handed pitchers, but once again #21 proved you could never count him out.  After working the count to 3-1 he came through with a clutch 2-run single that bounced through the 1st and 2nd base hole, giving the Yankees a 3-1 lead en route to a 4-1 victory.  “For Paul to go up there lefty vs. lefty and get that hit was just huge,” remembered Brosius.

8.  The catch to end Game 5 of the 1996 World Series | 10/24/1996

There were some that questioned whether or not O’Neill should have been playing in the 1996 playoffs.  Hampered by a bad left hamstring he managed just 7 hits in 38 at bats throughout the playoffs, but the Yankee’s skipper, Joe Torre, stayed with his veteran.  O’Neill repaid his manager’s loyalty and proved to his doubters why he was in the lineup during the 9th inning of Game 5 vs. Atlanta.  With the series tied 2-2 the Bombers clung to a 1-0 when Chipper Jones led off with a double.  He moved to third after a groundout by Fred McGriff, Andy Pettite’s last batter of the game.  John Wetteland relieved Pettitte and attempted to save his teammate’s masterpiece.  Wetteland got Javy Lopez to groundout and then intentionally walked Ryan Klesko.  Up stepped Luis Polonia who, after fouling off the first 6 pitches of the at bat, served one to deep right-center, a hit that was destined to tie the game.  Yet somehow, O’Neill, the injured warrior, ran it down, stretched and snagged it, securing the Yankees third straight win in Fulton-County Stadium.  After the crucial play O’Neill slapped the blue padding of the outfield wall in jubilation while living rooms across New York celebrated with him.

7.  Catch against the wall in Game 2 of the 1998 World Series | 10/18/1998

With El Duque Hernandez pitching, the Padres had something going in the top of the first inning.  With one out, Tony Gwynn singled and Greg Vaughn walked, bringing Wally Joyner to the plate with 2 outs.  Joyner hit a pitch to deep right field, but O’Neill tracked it from the crack of the bat.  O’Neill jumped, planted his left foot against the wall, extended his right arm and secured a ball that may very well have bounced off the top of the wall and over. He later recalled the play: “When I got back in the dugout Duque came up to me and, I don’t really know what he said, but he was happy.”  After O’Neill’s momentum-grabbing catch, the Yankees went on to score 3 runs in their half of the first, going on to win the game 9-3.

6.  Tumbling over the celebration pile after winning the 1996 World Series | 10/26/1996

The one thing O’Neill loved more than anything else was winning and that was never more obvious than in the moments after Charlie Hayes secured the final out against the Atlanta Braves.  As the men-turned-boys piled on top of each other, O’Neill came flying in from the outfield with such momentum that he tumbled over his 24 other teammates and onto the other side, all the while grinning from ear to ear.

5.  10 pitch walk vs. Armando Benitez in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series | 10/21/2000

The Yankees entered the bottom of the 9th inning trailing 3-2.  Jorge Posada led off the inning with a fly out and with the Yankees 2 outs from defeat O’Neill prepared for battle against fireballer Armando Benitez.  During the regular season Benitez had set the Mets’ franchise record with 41 saves, and he looked poised to nail down another victory.  O’Neill fell behind in the count 1-2, yet continued to battle Benitez, fouling off pitch after pitch, scraping and clawing and finding a way to extend the at bat as long as he could.  The tenth pitch from the Mets closer was low, putting O’Neill on first.  Luis Polonia and Jose Vizcaino followed with singles, loading the bases for Chuck Knoblauch who hit a sacrifice fly to left field, knotting the game at 3.  O’Neill’s gritty at bat allowed the Yankees to come back and eventually win the game in 12 innings on a Jose Vizcaino single.

That was unbelievable.  You talk about making up his mind that he was going to give him a tough time.  It was a sensational at-bat.  Obviously, we wouldn’t be talking like this if he didn’t do that.

| Joe Torre |

4.  Home run in the 10th inning vs. Red Sox | 4/22/2001

O’Neill stood at the plate with the Yankees down 3-2.  Facing Derek Lowe with 1 out, O’Neill sent a pitch out to right field. Thinking it was a fly out he angrily threw his bat, then continued to watch as the ball carried, and carried, and carried, eventually landing in the first row of seats.  Two batters later David Justice ended the game on another home run off of Lowe.

3.  The 9th inning of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series | 11/1/2001

The emotion of the moment was palpable.  The fans in Yankee Stadium knew that it might be the last time they ever saw Paul O’Neill take his customary position in right field.  Spontaneously, in one of the most memorable outpourings of love from fans to a player, 56,018 began to chant, “Paul O’Ne-ill! Paul O’Ne-ill!” for the entirety of the 9th inning.  Mark Grace, playing for the Diamondbacks at the time, remembered, “It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen.”  Don zimmer had tears rolling down his cheeks.  Tino Martinez said he had the chills.  Yet, the Yankees were trailing 2-1, facing a 3-2 defecit in the World Series.  The fans put aside the possible letdown of the game to honor their team’s leader.  O’Neill remembers it as one of the greatest games he’d ever been a part of: “All of a sudden it got real, real loud and I’m thinking, ‘What are they saying?’ And then I figured out what they were saying, and I’m kinda looking around like, ‘What do I do now?’ And then it kept going, and going, and going. It’s just New York at its finest.”

2.  Game 4 of the 1999 World Series | 10/27/1999

The day after an incredible Game 3 victory the Yankees looked to sweep the World Series from the Atlanta Braves, but on a day that was supposed to be the culmination of a 3rd Yankee Championship in four years O’Neill’s father passed away.  Once again putting his pain aside he played for his father, his teammates, and his fans.  As Chad Curtis secured the final out, O’Neill knelt down, pulled his cap down over his face and wept.  He would later say that the entire day was a blur and that he could not remember anything from the game, but we will remember it for him.  His courage and heart were on full display during the most difficult day of his life.

1.  Double in the 9th inning of 1997 ALDS | 10/6/1997

The Yankees were on the brink of elimination.  Up 4-3 with 2 outs the Cleveland Indians could smell the victory.  O’Neill hit the first pitch he saw from Jose Mesa, ripping a 97 MPH fastball to the right-center field wall.  Marquis Grissom fired the relay throw in-time to Omar Vizquel at second base, but O’Neill, once again hobbled by a hamstring injury, was inexplicably able to slide around the shortstop and snag the bag with his right hand.  “Maximum effort from Paul O’Neill,” was all announcer Tim McCarver needed to say about the play.  O’Neill stayed down for several minutes and when he finally came up dirt clung to his forehead. In the end O’Neill’s selfless play was not enough as the Indians won the game and with it the American League Division Series.  In the dugout O’Neill burried his head in his hands.  When I met Paul O’Neill in August of 2009, I told him that this was my favorite memory of him and he told me it was one of his most disappointing losses.  I said that it was for us fans as well, but we were so appreciative that once again he had done everything in his power to try and get us a win.

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On Paul O’Neill

  • “He was the heart and soul of the team.” — Joe Girardi
  • “He was just relentless.  He epitomized the whole attitude of the club.” — Bernie Williams
  • “He’s a warrior.” — Mariano Rivera
  • “The fans knew they were going to get 100% out of Paul O’Neill each and every time he put the pinstripes on.” — Bobby Murcer
  • “A heart of a lion–that’s what you think of when you think of Paul O’Neill.  I wish I had 25 like him.” — George Steinbrenner

“I hit the jackpot. I came here at the right time. I played with the right people. I was a little part of the right team. You expect to win but not the way we won.”

| Paul O’Neill |

Check out Paul’s Right Field Charities.

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