Wednesday, January 27, 2010

21 Days Until Spring Training: Paul O'Neill

According to George Steinbrenner, #21 is a Warrior. Given his respect for the immortal General Douglas MacArthur, I’m entirely sure that there can be no higher praise from the Boss.

O’Neill is my 2nd favorite Yankee ever after the chronically under appreciated Bernie Williams. His intensity for the game was unmatched matched. He truly cared about the team and his success. He was the antithesis of the increasingly common type of athlete who just wants to make sure his salary is being paid. His desire is best summed up by the number of water coolers that have slammed the concrete of the old Yankee Stadium dugout and the number of his bats that have been furiously tossed on the famed Kentucky Bluegrass of the diamond.

When Paul finished his Yankee career, which began in 1993, he hadn't complied the most impressive numbers. Prior to his tenure with the Yankees, O'Neill's numbers were even worse. He was sported a line of .259/.336/.431 in Cincinatti and only hit more than 20 homers once (in 1991) before was traded to the Reds for Roberto Kelly. Yankees fans were LIVID. Stick Michael, being the genius that he is, thought he could become something much better with the help of the short porch in Yankee Stadium. During the dynastic run of the late 90's, Paulie was the heart and soul of the team.

O'Neill had his share of postseason drama at Yankee Stadium, but none more poignant than the clinching Game 4 of the 1999 World Series against Atlanta. That morning, Charles "Chick" O'Neill, Paul's father, had died of lung and kidney failure at age 79. Paul had visited his father daily at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital where the senior O'Neill had undergone heart surgery. Paul openly wept in the clubhouse before the game, but told Torre he felt he could play. Said first-base coach Jose Cardenal, "Paulie wanted to see if he could get through batting practice first. He thought being in the game would take his mind off things."

O'Neill also had what was perhaps the best plate appearance in Yankees history. In Game 1 of the 2000 World Series, down 2-1 in the top of the 9th against the Mets, O'Neill worked a 10 pitch one-out walk against Mets closer Armando Benitez. Subsequent singles by Luis Polonia and Jose Vizcaino loaded the bases before the Yankees tied the score on a sacrifice fly by Chuck Knoblauch. The Yanks won it in the 12th on a bases-loaded single by Vizcaino and went on to win the Fall Classic in 5 Games.

In 2001, his last year with the Yankees, at age 38, he became the oldest player ever to have a 20/20 season.

Since his retirement, his number 21 had not been worn by any Yankee player, leading to speculation that it will be officially retired. Yankees relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins briefly wore the number in the 2008 season but, on April 16, 2008, Hawkins switched to number 22 in response to the criticism and boos he received from many Yankee fans.

O'Neill was a Cincinnati native, but like fellow Ohio native Thurman Munson, embraced New York fully. "Playing in New York really worked out for me," O'Neill said. "It was the best time of my life."

Paulie has also provided great Seinfeld memories. In the episode entitled "The Wink," O'Neill is accosted by Cosmo Kramer in the Yankees' locker room and is told by Kramer that he must hit two home runs in the same game so that Kramer can retrieve a birthday card signed by all the Yankees from a little boy who wasn't supposed to get it in the first place. O'Neill angrily replies that this is very difficult and that he is not usually a home run hitter; he then asks Kramer, "How'd you get in here anyway?" In the ensuing game, O'Neill does hit two home runs, but one of them is an in-the-park home run and scored a triple due to the other team's error, so the little boy Kramer is trying to appease is not totally satisfied. Kramer manages to get the Yankee-signed birthday card back from the boy, but he has now promised the boy that O'Neill will catch a fly ball in his hat during the next game.

His playing career ended on a sour note when Luis Gonzalez's blooper fell onto the turf in Arizona but he received a poignant send off during his last game in the Bronx. In Game 5 of the 2001 World Series when the Yankees were losing to the Diamondbacks 2-0 in the top of the 9th Inning, Yankees fans, anticipating the fact that it would be O’Neill’s last game ever at The House That Ruth Built, cheered for him by chanting his name endlessly. Paulie responded with tears in his eyes and by tipping his hat.

O'Neill was one of the few Yankees that fans have embraced completely despite coming up with a different organization. Part of it was that he expressed the frustrations that fans sometimes feel by he slammed his bat or destroyed a water cooler. It has even more to do with the fact that Paulie came on-board in 1993 when the Yanks were still finding their way out of the dark period of the late 80's and stayed with them until they were on top of the baseball world.

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