Paul O’Neill and The Retirement of #21

When you look back at the Yankees’ dynasty run of the late 90s, everyone always brings up the “Core Four” as they like to term the group of Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte & Mariano Rivera, and rightfully so…two of them are first-ballot Hall of Famers! But to think that those teams relied fully on the amazing play of those four players would be foolish. There are countless other players whose team-first mentality and post season heroics helped build that dynasty as well, such as Bernie Williams, Scott Brosius & especially the man who I’m here to sing the praises of today: Paul O’Neill.

As you can see from a number of my other writings on here, I’ve been a Yankees fan my entire life. Because of the era I grew up in, my favorite player to watch early on was Don Mattingly. However, as we all know…Donnie Baseball never won a World Series in New York. In fact, for many of the years he played on the team, the Yankees weren’t really in contention for much of anything. They weren’t good enough to make the playoffs, yet also weren’t so bad that they’d be in contention for the top draft picks either.

Following the 1992 season, Yankees General Manager, Gene “Stick” Michael made a trade that would send All-Star outfielder, Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds in return for All-Star right fielder, Paul O’Neill. Prior to the trade, O’Neill was a career .262 hitter with 97 home runs and 416 RBI over 6 seasons. He was a versatile right fielder who played a lot of games and began to improve his offense by taking tips from then-Reds manager, Lou Pinella, with whom O’Neill never really clicked.

So O’Neill was off to the Bronx, where he took over in right field and his offensive numbers seemingly almost immediately benefitted from the short porch in right field (since he was a left-handed hitter). In his first season with the Yankees, he batted .311 with 20 home runs and 75 RBI. He fit in well on the team and got along with Yankees manager, Buck Showalter. Clearly, the change of scenery was going to be good for his career.

In fact, his numbers throughout the remainder of his career would reflect the benefits of being a left-handed hitter who played half his games at Yankee Stadium as his career batting average (.288) ended up eclipsing even his best season in Cincinnati. His batting average landed him in the top 10 of the league three times, with him winning the AL Batting Title in 1994, when he batted an amazing .359, beating out household names like Albert Belle, Ken Griffey, Jr, and Frank Thomas. He was a 5-time All Star (4 with the Yankees), 5-time World Series Champion (4 with the Yankees), and though he didn’t make it into Cooperstown, his 29.9 Offensive Wins Above Replacement places him 24th on the all-time list for the Yankees.

I look at Paul O’Neill as being a big part of the bridge between the Don Mattingly Yankees of the 80s and early 90s to the Derek Jeter Yankees of the late 90s and beyond. Though he wasn’t the only reason for the uptick for the franchise, it’s hard to argue that he wasn’t an important cog in the wheel that turned the franchise around. And while I’ve waxed nostalgic on here about Derek Jeter and the effort he always put forth during his career, I think it’s hard not to mention the impact that a player like Paul O’Neill would have on a rookie Derek Jeter in 1995 & 1996. Paul was a workhorse like many of the players of old who played almost every day and would always give it his all every time out. His confrontations with the Yankees’ dugout water cooler after a bad at-bat are examples of the high bar he set for himself.

During the 1999 World Series, Yankees Owner, George Steinbrenner termed O’Neill a “Warrior” for playing game 4 when just 18 hours prior, Paul’s father had passed away. His dedication to the game and the team was never in question. And while one might question why he was even at the Stadium that night and not at home with his family, it’s because his father had also played baseball, and while he was a decent pitcher, he had never reached the major leagues. So playing in the clinching game of that 1999 World Series was a dedication to (as he put it) his hero, his dad…which, in reality, the feeling was quite reciprocal. After the game, Yankees Manager, Joe Torre told Paul that his dad had watched the game from a better place, which caused Paul to break down in tears and retreat to the trainer’s room for some privacy before returning to the celebration.

O’Neill is the only player in history to have ever played for the winning team in 3 perfect games. While in Cincinnati, he was in right field for Tom Browning’s perfect game in 1988. He caught the final out (a fly ball) in the Yankees’ David Wells’ perfect game in 1998, and he made a diving catch in right field and doubled to help the Yankees win David Cone’s perfect game in 1999.

Paul was loved and respected by the Yankees’ fanbase so much so, that in 2001, in the 9th inning, during the World Series Game 5 at Yankee Stadium, knowing that this was likely Paul’s final time to take the field at home (since he had previously announced his retirement following the conclusion of the World Series), fans organically began chanting his name as he left the field and saluted the Yankee Stadium faithful with a tip of the cap.

Following retirement from the game, Paul has put on the headset lent his voice, experience and insights to the YES Network as a part of the Yankees’ broadcast team. He gives great cues on hitting and fielding as a former player and is always up for some shenanigans with his fellow broadcasters. He’s been a welcome addition to the broadcasts as guys like Jim Kaat & Ken Singleton have retired from broadcasting. He’s also never missed a Yankee Stadium Old Timers’ Day, which he typically will participate in while being mic’d for the event. Luckily, his lofty expectations on his hitting have subsided and far more Yankee Stadium dugout water coolers have survived the day since!

But ever since that November night (remember, that was the World Series where Derek Jeter took on the moniker of “Mr. November” for hitting the first home run in the month of November in baseball history), I’ve been waiting for this moment to come, because in my mind, Paul was ultra-deserving of the honor…but nothing came. The number had gone unused for years until LaTroy Hawkins donned the jersey ever so briefly in 2008, which was thankfully met with significant backlash from the Yankee Stadium faithful. While O’Neill was honored back in 2014 with a plaque in Monument Park, as far as I’m concerned, his number belonged out there as well along with the numbers 2, 20, 42, 46 & 51 from that era. It might have taken the team 21 years to realize it, but as the saying goes: better late than never!

Congratulations to Paul O’Neill, the Warrior, the heart and soul of some of the best Yankees teams to ever take the field. I can tell you right now, that when that #21 plaque is unveiled in Monument Park, there will be tears in my eyes. Paul’s always been a favorite of mine & this honor is a testament to the character of one of the finest players I’ve had the fortune of watching play the game.

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