“He was really my first…you know,’ warrior’ guy.”—George Steinbrenner on Paul O’Neill.
Right field is a sacred position in Yankee history. Reggie Jackson, Roger Maris, and even the immortal Babe Ruth have all played the glorious corner outfield position. It’s one of the most beloved positions ever.
Growing up a Yankee fan during the late 1990s, I was brought up with one right fielder. A man who hated to lose. A man who worked probably harder than 90 percent of the players in the league. A man who defined the word “game.”
I am of course speaking about Paul O’Neill.
There’s no doubt that in my lifetime, O’Neill was the absolute best right fielder the Yankees have had. His love of winning and powerful clubhouse presence helped propel the Yankees to four World Championships and five pennants in the nine years he played in pinstripes.
It’s almost as if O’Neill needed to win.
Buster Olney, beat writer for The New York Times in the ’90s and author of “The Last Night of the Yankee Dynasty,” basically described O’Neill as a “lifetime must-winner;” even when he was a child he hated to lose.
For example, he would play basketball games against his brother Robert as a young man, the first to 25 points wins the game. O’Neill would reach 23 points, victory in his sights. Then Robert would sink bucket after bucket until he reached 25, a tactic used to demoralize O’Neill.
Siblings can be so cruel, can’t they?
O’Neill would call his mother at work and claim that Robert cheated. And after a loss, he wanted more. He would goad his brother to give him a return match. “What’s the matter cheater,” he would antagonize. “You’re not getting lucky again!”
He hated to lose, but even when he won, the past defeats clung to him.
For instance, if he went 4-for-5 in a game, he would sit by his locker and think about the one hit he missed out on. He would not focus on the four hits, but the one he missed and he tried to think about what to do differently the next time up.
I would say O’Neill was a little hard on himself; it’s difficult to get a major league hit, let alone multiple hits in a single game. But really any poor at-bat he saw as a failure, and it affected his psyche.
Another interesting point Olney made in his book about O’Neill (that really struck me) was how his attitude rubbed off on his own children. His kids saw how he behaved while playing baseball and mimicked it in a way when they played organized sports.
His son Andy played in an eight-year old basketball league. During a game, he missed a shot and began to cry as he made his way back down the court. O’Neill and his wife Nevalee were in the bleachers watching the game. Nevalee tapped her husband on the shoulder.
She could only say one thing to her husband as she watched her son cry:”It’s all your fault.”
It’s obvious that although O’Neill had that warrior-like mentality and gamesmanship, it went the other way sometimes and had negative effects on those around him.
He also drew criticism from it; when he was extremely upset with a call from an umpire or a failed at-bat, he would toss his helmet, throw his bat, argue, smash the bat rack and Gatorade coolers, and/or throw his batting gloves.
He used to fume when things didn’t go his way and his teammates drew fascination and amusement from it. His opponents thought he was acting like a child. Basically his antics were amusing to his friends but not his enemies.
Me–I thought he was awesome. It was never something I incorporated into my own routine as a Little Leaguer; I always tried to be as respectful as possible (and still do). But watching O’Neill was great. He just never gave up and never wanted to lose.
My favorite memory of O’Neil came in 1997; I was in fourth grade and at Yankee Stadium on a class field trip and it was the first regular season Subway Series. In the bottom of the ninth with the score tied 2-2 and O’Neill standing on third base, Tino Martinez hit a long fly ball to center, a sac fly that allowed O’Neill to score the winning run.
Yankees beat the Mets, 3-2. It was one of my more special games attended and one of my favorite sports moments ever.
I was also happy to see O’Neill play in the Old Timer’s game in 2007; I went to the game with my family and it felt like the old days, watching O’Neill and all the former players put on their cleats for one more day. That was also a great memory I had of him and the Yankees in general.
After the 2001 season, O’Neill called it a career. It was heartwarming in Game Four of the World Series that year; the Yankee faithful serenaded the beloved Yankee, chanting, “Paul O-Ne-ill” for almost an entire half inning. You could just tell how emotional it was for him by his body language; I think it nearly brought him to tears.
Even though the Yanks lost the World Series in ’01 to the Arizona Diamondbacks, O’Neill finished his career on a high note; Five World Series titles (including the Championship he won in 1990 with the Cincinnati Reds) Five All-Star selections, 281 home runs, a .288 lifetime batting average, 1,269 RBIs.
He certainly left a lifetime of memories for us fans.
Since he retired, I don’t think there has been a right fielder who has made as much of an impact as O’Neill. Even after he retired (in 2002, to be exact) then-Yankee manager Joe Torre reached out to O’Neill asking him to come out of retirement because he was in dire need of a right fielder.
A year after he retired, they wanted him back because nobody was as good as him.
O’Neill maintained his retirement and turned Torre down, which prompted Torre and the Yankees’ front office to make a trade for Raul Mondesi, who played right field for about a year in pinstripes before he was traded away.
They say true heroes live on in those who continue their legacy. And there have been many players who have taken over right field, yet none of them staying as long as O’Neill.
Mondesi lasted until 2003 and after Karim Garcia ruined right field for me, it was Gary Sheffield, who could hit but also ran his mouth too much. Sheffield publicly stated that he should have been the team captain.
Yeah…sure, Sheff. You were in pinstripes for a cup of coffee; Derek Jeter played his whole career in pinstripes with an enormous amount of success. You, not Jeter, should be captain. Dream on, buddy.
Sheffield played 2004, 2005, and was injured for the majority of the 2006 season, which yet again forced the Yankees to make a trade for a right fielder.
In ’06 the Yankees acquired Bobby Abreu, who I think without a shadow of a doubt, was the best right fielder since O’Neill. His calm personality and humble demeanor was a stark contrast to O’Neill’s, but he could hit for average, power, and maintained control of right field the way O’Neill would have wanted.
Abreu was and still is a very special player and even though he is an Angel right now, I still like him, respect him, and wish he was still with the Yankees.
In 2009, the Yankees called on Nick Swisher to play right field, due to the season-ending elbow injury of Xavier Nady. Swisher was not too shabby, what with his goofy personality and funny antics.
But no matter who plays right field in the years to come, O’Neill will always hold a special place in Yankee lore and certainly in my heart.
Now the real question is, will they retire his number 21? I was so happy to see his giant banner in the Great Hall at the New Yankee Stadium this year and when you think about it, no one has really worn the number 21 since he retired. The Yanks have sort of taken it out of circulation.
LaTroy Hawkins tried out the number in 2008, only to get booed by the Yankee fans. Hawkins asked Jeter why the fans were booing him, and Jeter told him that his number was “close to the fans.”
Hawkins then changed his number from 21 to 22.
Whatever happens with his number, O’Neill will forever be immortal. No Yankee fan like me, who grew up with the Yankee Dynasty of the late ’90s, will forget him. He was just an everyday guy who everyday went out and played his guts out.
He was a warrior. And I don’t think we will ever see another Yankee quite like him.
“Paul O’Neill’s daily fight for success became our fight.“–David Cone