February 25 – Happy Birthday Paul O’Neill
I absolutely loved watching Paul O’Neill play baseball for the Yankees. I do admit, however, I had my doubts about the deal New York made with Cincinnati to bring him to the Bronx. To get O’Neill in the November 1992 transaction, the Yankees had to give up their starting center fielder at the time, Roberto Kelly. I’m sure there are some of you who have just read the previous line and are asking yourself one of two questions: ”Roberto who?” or “Is this guy kidding?” Not so fast.
If you can remember the Yankee team that was on the field in the very late eighties and very early-nineties than you know how really bad that team was. In 1990, for example, New York finished dead last in the Major Leagues with a .241 batting average. Their lineup cards back then could have been mistaken for a list of players who had just cleared waivers. The only bonafide superstar they had was Don Mattingly and by then his crippled back had forever changed his once classic swing. The only player in their starting lineup who could run, hit, hit with power, field, and throw was Kelly. Perhaps his five tools may not have been of the Craftsman variety, but the guy was the very best all-around player on that Yankee team and I admit I cringed when I read they had just traded him away for Paul O’Neill.
Of course I knew little about O’Neill. I remembered him a bit from the 1990 playoffs. I was rooting for the Reds in that postseason because Sweet Lou Piniella was their manager at the time. O’Neill had a very good NLCS against the Pirates that October but then disappeared and was hardly a factor in Cincinnati’s surprising four-game sweep of the A’s in the World Series. A review of his stats during his time playing with the Reds also underwhelmed you. He hit just .259 during his eight years there and I clearly remember thinking that Piniella was pulling a “get-even” fast one on his old employer by helping to convince the Yankees to trade O’Neill for Kelly.
Simply put, if I were the Yankee GM in November of 1992, I would not have made that deal. (I was so bad at judging the talent of baseball players that my brother-in-law, who co-managed a Little League baseball team with me when both our sons played, would tell me the annual player draft began at 8:30 PM when it actually started two hours earlier.)
In any event, Paul O’Neill went onto become not just a great Yankee but one of my all-time favorite Yankees. He and Bernie Williams took over their starting outfield positions together on that 1993 team and within a year, helped transform New York into perennial postseason participants who would go on to capture four World Series flags. Getting the opportunity to watch O’Neill play regularly, I was amazed at how good he was defensively out in right. I also quickly realized how perfect his swing was for Yankee Stadium. The .259 career hitter as a Red became a .303 hitter during his nine seasons in pinstripes. We could count on him to provide 20 homers and right around 100 RBIs every season.
Though he was so instrumental in turning the Yankees into winners, ironically it was during a Yankee defeat that I feel O’Neill gave us his greatest moment in pinstripes. It was the dramatic five-game 1997 ALDS between New York and Cleveland. In the opener, O’Neill’s homer contributed to an 8-6 Yankee victory. He then hit a grand slam and drove in five runs in Game 3 to once again give New York a one-game edge. Then in Game 5, with New York down by a run and just a single out from elimination, O’Neill came to the plate and faced Cleveland’s ace closer, Jose Mesa. Every Yankee fan watching that day can still picture O’Neill’s bullet-like drive hitting Jacobs Field’s center field wall, just inches from becoming a game-tying home run. But it was O’Neill’s harrowing slide into second base on that play, just ahead of Marquis Grissom’s outstanding throw, that I will always remember. I thought he had knocked himself out during the slide but he stood himself up and when he saw a pinch-runner heading toward second, he angrily tried to wave him back to the dugout. That pinch-runner did not score and Cleveland won that game and the Series, but with that one play, O’Neill proved he was indeed a “Warrior” in pinstripes.
One of the things I’ve truly missed since O’Neill retired is watching him go nuts on himself in the Yankee dugout after a bad at bat and seeing his Yankee teammates try to keep from laughing at his antics. Hearing New York fans serenade him with their “Paul O’Neill” chant during the final Yankee home game in the 2001 World Series was also an absolute great moment in Yankee franchise history.