When he was six years old, little Paul O’Neill and his father attended a Reds/Pirates game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. The boy posed for a photo holding a toy bat, and luck would have it that Pittsburgh star Roberto Clemente was captured in the background. When O’Neill grew up and played in the major leagues he not only played Clemente’s position – right field – he also wore the Hall of Famer’s uniform #21.
O’Neill wasn’t a player the caliber of Clemente, but he had enough in common with him that he became a legend in his own right, especially with fans in New York. “The Warrior”, as he was dubbed by owner George Steinbrenner, starred on four World Series championship teams in New York and infused the Yanks with an unrelenting competitive fire. In nine seasons in the Bronx, O’Neill helped the Yankees to the playoffs seven times, filling a key spot in the middle of Joe Torre’s lineup.
You had to see Paul O’Neill on a regular basis, day-after-day, 162 games a year, to appreciate his intensity. If you saw him for a game or for a series here or there, you may have thought it was an act. The bat-throwing, dramatic gesticulations, the scowl, the stare, the screaming and yelling, the all-out, no-holds-barred attitude seemed too emphatic to be genuine. But it was genuine, and O’Neill was able to sustain it for his entire 17-year career. The truth is, O’Neill knew no other way to compete, and it must have worked for him and for his teams – he won a World Series with the Reds before his tenure with the Yankees.
The Big Yanks hadn’t seen a Little Jerk like their right fielder since the days of Lou Piniella, who made a name for himself breaking bats, throwing helmets, kicking dirt, and getting spitting mad two decades earlier when other feisty fellas like Billy Martin were in pinstripes. But O’Neill took it to a new level, ingratiating himself to followers of the Yanks, and annoying those who rooted against them.
“I can just watch [O’Neill] the whole time and get enough enjoyment from the game,” teammate Luis Sojo said.
O’Neill’s hustle in the field and on the base paths wasn’t lost on his younger teammates. Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, and Bernie Williams credited the veteran with teaching them how to play in the big leagues. For O’Neill he was just passing along what he’d been taught by old-timers Pete Rose, Buddy Bell, and Dave Parker in his days with Cincy.
But the animated right fielder couldn’t have gotten away with his fiery personality if he wasn’t also a great baseball player. He hit over .300 in each of his first six seasons as a Yankee, and in 1994 he hit .359 and won the batting title. From 1995-2000, when the Yanks won four World Series titles in six seasons, O’Neill averaged .302 with 35 doubles, 20 homers, and 105 RBI.
Out in right field at old Yankee Stadium is where O’Neill transformed from star to legend. He had a special relationship with the fans who sat behind and to the left of him, a sort of mutual admiration society. They loved Paul, and Paul played the game as hard as anyone possibly could. If there was any way he could get his glove on the baseball in right field, O’Neill would try it – diving, sliding, jumping, whatever it took. He also had a great throwing arm. In the late innings of Game Five of the 2001 World Series, in what would be the final game of the season at Yankee Stadium, the fans gave O’Neill the ultimate sign of respect. Knowing that O’Neill had already announced this would be his final season, they chanted his name for two full innings. With tears in his eyes, O’Neill tipped his cap and saluted.
During his career, O’Neill’s focus was narrowed to one thing: winning. Because of that, he was as well-suited for Steinbrenner’s Yankees as any player ever has been.
“You play the game to win the game,” O’Neill said, “and not to worry about what’s on the back of the baseball card at the end of the year.”