Classic Yankees: Paul O’Neill

George Steinbrenner gave him the nickname “The Warrior.” His last game at Yankee Stadium, Game 5 of the 2001 WS, was marked by fans chanting his name, reducing Paul O’Neill to tears. His arrival, along with that of Jimmy Key and Wade Boggs in 1993, helped end a streak of four consecutive losing seasons.

By bringing in O’Neill (acquired in a trade for Roberto Kelly), the Yanks added championship pedigree to the team. Key had won a WS while in Toronto in 1992. Boggs had gone to a WS in 1986. O’Neill was a World Champion with the Reds in 1990. O’Neill would go on to win four more World Championships—and nearly a fifth—with the Yankees during his 1993-2001 tenure with the team.  His fiery nature added an intensity and a spark to a team that dominated the late 1990’s.

O’Neill, born in Columbus, OH, came up with the Reds in 1985. He was 4 for 12 in 1985 and 0 for 2 in 1986 before getting platoon work in 1987. In 1987 he hit .256-7-28, OPS+ 111 in just 160 AB. He played all three outfield positions as well as first base, and even pitched in a game (2 IP, 3 R, 2 H, 4 walks, 2 K and 1 HR given up). For his career, he was primarily a right fielder.

In 1988, O’Neill became a regular, hitting .252-16-73, OPS+ 102. In 1989 he hit .276-15-74 and stole 20 bases in 25 attempts. His OPS+ was a solid 122.

The Reds got off to a hot start in 1990 under new manager Lou Piniella, and eventually shocked the Bash-Brother A’s in the WS in four straight. O’Neill hit .270-16-78, OPS+ 105, 13 SB and finished 19th in the MVP voting. He went 8 for 17 with a HR and 4 RBI in the NLCS, but went 1 for 12 in the WS.

O’Neill hit 28 HR (a career high) in 1991 for the Reds, and drove in 91 runs while hitting .256. He was named an All-Star and had an OPS+ of 127.

In 1992, O’Neill got on Piniella’s bad side. Lou wanted more pop from O’Neill, who slumped to 14 HR. After Piniella went to manage Seattle, and O’Neill settled in with the Yanks, there seemed to be a lot of times in which O’Neill seemed to get thrown at. At least one brawl ensued as a result.

O’Neill’s numbers fell to .246-14-66 in 1992, OPS+ 102. After the season, the Yanks traded Roberto Kelly for O’Neill and minor leaguer Joe DeBerry. (Kudos if you remember DeBerry.) O’Neill, an Ohio native, was devastated by the trade. His father was proven correct when he advised his son that it would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to him.

It was a great move for the Yanks, as O’Neill rebounded to hit .311-20-75 in 1993. The Yanks went from 76-86 in 1992 to 88-74 in 1993. That offseason of 1992-1993 was huge for the Yanks, as they added O’Neill, Key and Boggs, and set the foundation for the championships to come. With those three, and Don Mattingly there, the Core Four had experienced professionals to show them the way when they came up, one by one, in 1995 (Key did miss most of 1995…).

O’Neill’s OPS+ jumped to a 136 in 1993, and set the stage for a wondrous 1994 season. If only the strike hadn’t wiped things out. We’ll never know how wondrous it may have turned out. As it was, O’Neill’s .359 led the AL in batting average, and he had an OPS+ of 176 with 21 HR and 83 RBI in what amounted to little over 2/3 of a season. For this, he finished 5th in the MVP voting and was an All-Star.

In 1995, the Yanks made the postseason for the first time in fourteen years, and O’Neill was a major reason why, hitting .300-22-96, OPS+ 137, and an All-Star again. He did lead the majors in GIDP, but it was obvious by now that NY and O’Neill were a match. After being a .259 hitter in Cincinnati, it was the third consecutive season in which O’Neill hit .300 or better. For his career as a Yankee, O’Neill hit .303 from 1993-2001.

O’Neill was once again an All-Star in 1995, and this time he finished 15th in MVP voting. He starred in the Division Series against Seattle, going 6 for 18 with 3 HR in the five-game Series that the Yanks heartbreakingly lost.

O’Neill hit .302-19-91 in 1996, OPS+ 123 but was hampered by a strained hamstring down the stretch. He was only 2 for 15 in the ALDS, 3 for 11 in the ALCS (1 HR) and 2 for 12 in the WS, but his catch of Luis Polonia’s liner to end Game 5 of the WS (a 1-0 Yankees win) remains imprinted in many Yankee fans’  memories. O’Neill, chugging along on a bad hammy, reached out his glove and seemed to stretch out every inch of his 6’4” frame to catch that ball. Had he missed it, the Braves surely would have tied the game and possibly might have won it. The catch (six more inches and he’d have missed it) helped to turn the Series in the Yankees favor. A famous picture has a jubilant O’Neill hurling himself onto the victory pile after the Series’ last out in Game Six.

O’Neill drove in 100 runs for the first time in 1997. He hit .324-21-117, OPS+ 137, and stole 10 bases. He was an All-Star and finished 12th in the MVP voting. His play in the 1997 ALDS vs. the Indians (8 for 19, 2 doubles, 2 HR and 7 RBI) earned him the nickname “The Warrior” from George Steinbrenner. His two-out drive in the top of the 9th of Game Five just missed being a game-tying HR. He had to make a heck of a slide to get into second. Unfortunately for the Yanks, Bernie Williams then flied out. Earlier in that series, the Yanks became the first team to hit three consecutive postseason HRs. They were by Raines, Jeter and O’Neill.

O’Neill and water coolers weren’t a match, especially after a strikeout or GIDP, but in 1998, O’Neill was one of many stars in a magical year. He hit .317, had 24 HR and drove in 116 runs. He was an All-Star for the fifth and final time. He was 15 of 16 in SB, and once again finished 12th in the MVP voting. His OPS+ was 130. He did lead the AL in GIDP. He went 4 for 14 with a HR in the ALDS, 7 for 25, a HR and 3 RBI in the ALCS, and 4 for 19 in the WS. He had a big catch in Game 2 of the WS.

In 1999, the 36-year-old O’Neill started to slip a bit, but it wasn’t too noticeable. He didn’t hit .300, but it was still a respectable .285, with 19 HR and 110 RBI. He was 11 for 20 in SB, OPS+ dropping to 107. He was 2 for 8 in the ALDS, 6 for 21 in the ALCS and 3 for 15 in the WS. When the Yankees won Game 4 of the WS, sweeping the Braves, O’Neill collapsed sobbing into Joe Torre’s arms. O’Neill’s father had died hours beforehand.

O’Neill had what looks like a good year in 2000, but that steroid-filled era makes it seem like a bad year when you look at his OPS+ number of 92. He hit .283, had 18 HR and drove in 100 runs. He went 14 of 23 in SB. He was 4 for 19 in the ALDS, and 5 for 20 in the ALCS. He saved his best for the 2000 WS, going 9 for 19, with 2 doubles and 2 triples. But it was a walk which he may be most famous for in that WS. In the bottom of the ninth of Game 1, O’Neill kept fouling off pitches until he got the walk with one out. It took him ten pitches. He came around to score and tie the game and the Yanks won in extras, setting a tone for the Subway Series.

In 2001, O’Neill announced that it would be his final year. At 38, he dropped to .267, but had 21 HR and 70 RBI. For a 38-year-old, he was frisky on the base paths, stealing 22 bases in 25 attempts. He became the oldest player to have a 20/20 season. His OPS+ was 104. He was just 1 for 11 in the ALDS, but went 5 for 12 with 2 HR in the ALCS. In the WS, he was 5 for 15. As mentioned above, the fans serenaded O’Neill in Game 5, his last home game—a gesture that brought tears from O’Neill. In his last game, Game 7 of that year’s WS, won by and at Arizona, O’Neill batted 2nd and went 2 for 3. He doubled in the first, but was thrown out trying for three. He struck out in the fourth. He singled in the seventh. When Randy Johnson was brought out of the bullpen to face O’Neill in the 8th, O’Neill was PH for by Chuck Knoblauch, and so ended O’Neill’s career.

O’Neill hit .288 in his career, .303 as Yankee, with 281 HR. His career OPS+ was 120. His 162 g. average was .288-22-100. He played on five WS champions, and six pennant winners.

In postseason play, “The Warrior”, #21, hit .284-11-39 in 84 games. In 2007, he got 2.2% of the HOF vote and was dropped off the ballot.

O’Neill is the only player to play on the winning team in three perfect games (Tom Browning, Reds; David Wells and David Cone, Yankees). He caught the final out of Wells’ perfecto.

O’Neill’s older sister, Molly, is a noted chef and cookbook author who was a food writer for the New York Times in the year 2000. O’Neill was also the subject of a Seinfeld episode, in which Kramer makes tough demands of O’Neill.

After retirement, O’Neill became a broadcaster for the Yanks and he does some games for the YES network.

Except for a brief period in 2008 (LaTroy Hawkins, who was booed for wearing it), the #21 hasn’t been worn by a Yankee since, although it isn’t officially retired. Tino’s #24 is now worn by Robbie Cano. Bernie’s #51 isn’t being worn by anyone.
Harvey Frommer’s A Yankee Century has this quote from O’Neill:

“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.”

He wasn’t a “little part.” He was, in many ways, the heart and soul.

(Besides Frommer’s book, some information from Wikipedia was used for this Classic Yankees biography.)

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