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On This Day In History | 1992

November 3, 2012

On this day 20 years ago Paul O’Neill became a New York Yankee, leaving his home town of Cincinnati for the bright lights and high expectations of the Big Apple.  O’Neill was unsure of the move at the time, but his father assured him it would be the best career decision he ever made.  After 9 years in the Bronx he would heartily agree.

While any Yankee fan two decades removed from this transaction can see nothing but a no-brainer, it was far from a sure thing in the eyes of many New Yorkers.  In exchange for O’Neill the Yanks gave up Roberto Kelly, the sleek outfielder who appeared to be the Bombers’ next superstar.  Kelly was previously labeled “untouchable” by the Yankee brass, as indicated in a New York Times article from November 4, 1992:

The Yankees scrapped their glorious plans involving Roberto Kelly yesterday and traded their once-untouchable outfielder to the Cincinnati Reds for power-hitting right fielder Paul O’Neill.

Kelly had a seamless blend of speed and power and, as a career .280 hitter, his star appeared to be only rising.  O’Neill, on the other hand, was known more for his erratic temper than for his bat.  In 5 full years with the Reds he was a career .259 hitter and had never been closer than 24 points to a .300 season.  No doubt O’Neill had the edge in power numbers with 147 doubles and 96 homers compared to Kelly’s 111 and 57, but skepticism remained regarding the mercurial lefty.

20 years later it is simply one of the greatest trades in Yankee history.

In 9 seasons in New York, O’Neill was the backbone of the modern Yankee dynasty.  While he lorded over right field, the Yanks won 5 pennants and 4 World Championships.  O’Neill’s batting only improved once he put on the pinstripes.  He strung together 6 consecutive seasons of .300 hitting from 1993 to 1998, including a .359 average in ’94 that gave him the Yanks’ first batting title since Mattingly’s in ’84.  He finished with a .303 average as a Yankee.

Additionally, he was known to the New York faithful as “The Warrior” for his willingness to do whatever it took to help his club win.  Playing with a bad hamstring, earning a timely walk, stroking a clutch hit–Paulie simply came through.  Joe Girardi said he was the “heart and soul of the team.”  Steinbrenner fantasized: “I wish I had 25 like him.”  Only 1 player has worn #21 since O’Neill last took it off in 2001, and no Yankee will ever wear it again.

The fate of Roberto Kelly was decidedly different.  After leaving the Yankees, he spent his final 7 seasons in the Majors with 7 different clubs–Minnesota, Texas, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Seattle–before returning to the Yanks in 2000 for just 10 games.  He never again played more than 136 games in any season and batted no higher than .293 in any season in which he had more than 100 plates appearances.  For the Yanks, it was the epitome of selling high.

With the trade 20 years in the rearview, the initial skeptics long silenced, O’Neill remains a beloved Yankee and a modern legend that embodied the desire and drive of the team he so passionately represented.

O’Neill’s Yankee Statistics 1993-2001

1,254 G | 720 R | 1,426 H | 304 2B | 14 3B | 185 HR | 858 RBI | 586 BB | .303 BA | .377 OBP | .492 SLG

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