The Pinstriped Warrior
WITH THE END OF
THE WORLD SERIES, Paul O'Neill removed the pinstripes for the final time. O'Neill,
unlike the more famous departures of 2001, won't gain admission to Cooperstown
without a ticket. But he belongs in the pantheon of great Yankees. The right fielder,
as Bill James noted, was a worthy inheritor to the position held by Babe Ruth,
Tommy Henrich, Hank Bauer, Roger Maris, Reggie Jackson, and Dave Winfield. Some
pretty fair company, that list.
Unless you're a
Yankee fan, it's simply impossible to understand how much O'Neill has meant to
this team. The 1992 trade which brought O'Neill over from the Cincinnati Reds
for Roberto Kelly turned out to be one of the best
trades of the decade, and it was every bit as important to the reestablishment
of the Yankee dynasty as the flourishing homegrown talent of Bernie Williams,
Derek Jeter, and Mariano Rivera. O'Neill's perfectionism, intensity, and refusal
to surrender even a single at-bat set the tone for the Yankee championship run.
Fighting for every pitch, taking the extra base, playing through pain, and seemingly
appearing out of nowhere to haul in yet another dangerous fly ball, he was a warrior
who played the game the way it was meant to be played.
I've never been
much for warriors, myself not since New York sportswriters hung that
tag around Patrick Ewing's neck to conflate his ugly, doomed style of play
as valiant and warrior-like. Generally I prefer the cut-ups, the guys who
bring a little levity to what is, after all, a game. But it takes all types
to win a championship, and as warriors go, O'Neill was a good one to have
on your side.
Famous for his
helmet-throwing, water-cooler-maiming temper tantrums, O'Neill was routinely
cited as the most hated Yankee by opposing fans. This was nothing but pure
difference between O'Neill's tantrums and those of a low-class boob like Carl
Everett was that O'Neill's were always directed at his own perceived failures,
not at his teammates or his manager.
Though I admired
O'Neill from the time I began rooting for New York, I never considered him
to be anywhere near my favorite Yankee. Outsized Boomer Wells, candid and
cerebral David Cone, graceful Derek Jeter, and even lumpy Luis Sojo were
more to my tastes. But looking back at this great championship run five
trips to the World Series, and four championships in six years it
strikes me that the signature moments of the run, the vivid snapshots which
fill my memory, invariably feature O'Neill in a starring role. So I present
to you something of a slide show, complete with a bit of multimedia aid:
24, 1996: O'Neill's thrilling
catch of Luis Polonia's fly ball ends Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, preserving
a 1-0 victory and allowing the Yanks to take a 3-2 lead in the series.
26, 1996: O'Neill tumbles atop the celebration
pile after the Yanks won Game 6 to take the series.
6, 1997: O'Neill leads off the top of the ninth inning in Game 5 of the AL
Divisional Series against the Cleveland Indians. Down by a run, O'Neill doubles,
hustling into second with a head-first slide. His pinch-runner doesn't score,
and the Yanks lose the game and the series. The image of O'Neill defiantly clutching
second, unwilling to surrender, was fresh in my mind when I passed a chalkboard
in the window of an East Village bar a couple nights later. The board read: "Only
107 Days Until Pitchers and Catchers. Go Yankees!" Those two images, co-mingled--the
refusal to surrender and the desire to get on with Not Surrendering as soon as
possible--were enough to carry me through the winter in anticipation of a return
to glory. It would appear as if several other Yankees felt that way as well...
10, 1998: The Yanks are down 2-1 in the ALCS against the Cleveland Indians.
In the most important game of the season, O'Neill clubs a first-inning homer off
of Dwight Gooden and scores another run in the fourth, and the Yanks draw even
in the series behind seven shutout innings by Orlando Hernandez, winning 4-0.
18, 1998: O'Neill makes a 2-out,
2-on grab as he crashes into the wall in the first inning of Game 2 of the
1998 World Series against the San Diego Padres--the first World Series game I
ever attended. The Yanks score three in the bottom of the first, three more in
the second, and cruise to a 9-3 victory, a 2-0 series lead, and an eventual sweep.
1, 1999: Two pitches after Derek Jeter is plunked in retaliation for Jason
Grimsley hitting the Indians' Wil (Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife) Cordero,
an emphatic 2-run homer and the Yanks roll to victory.
27, 1999: A tearful
O'Neill is consoled by Joe Torre and his teammates following the final out
in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series. O'Neill's father had passed away that morning,
and the Yanks, out of respect, celebrate their World Championship in subdued fashion.
26, 2000: O'Neill fights Mets closer Armando Benitez through an epic 10-pitch
at bat with one out in the bottom of the ninth and the Yanks trailing by a
run. The gimpy O'Neill, who hasn't swung the bat well in weeks, draws a walk and
scores the game-tying run. The Yanks win in 13 innings. The at-bat rejuvenates
O'Neill, who goes on to hit .474 for the series as the Yanks win.
22, 2001: In the tenth inning of a game against the Boston Red Sox, trailing
by a run O'Neill slams
his bat to the ground in disgust as he hits what he believes is a routine
fly ball to right field. The fly ball clears the wall, tying the game, which the
Yanks win in the next inning on a David Justice homer.
14, 2001: O'Neill grounds out in the fifth inning of Game 4 of the AL Divisional
Series against the A's. The cameras spend the rest of the inning cutting to shots
of him in the dugout, cursing a blue streak at himself. The Yanks are up 7-2 at
the time, and go on to win the game and the series.
1, 2001: Fifty-six thousand fans chant "Paul O'Neill" in unison for
the entire top half of the ninth inning in Game 5 of this year's World
game at Yankee Stadium. O'Neill is visibly moved to tears, and after the
game announces what every Yankees fan has known all along: he will retire at
the end of the series.
4, 2001: Two outs away from their fourth straight World Championship,
the Yanks allow two runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and lose the
series to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Sad but without remorse, O'Neill's
words in the moments after the loss exhibit the true class of the man,
and the pride he and Yankees
fans everywhere feel for the team: "We were world champions with three
outs to go. And we had the best reliever in the history of the postseason on
the mound. When you get beat under those circumstances, sure, you're disappointed
but I'm also just happy to walk into this clubhouse with this group of guys.
All in all, a
set of highlights even the most decorated Hall of Famer would be hard-pressed
to match. As I look back, I'm saddened that I'll never hear in the same context
the signature song snippets which announced O'Neill's at-bats in Yankee Stadiumclassic
rock staples which announced his arrival at the plate, as predictable as a thrown
helmet: "We're An American Band," "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," even (God forbid)
"Crumblin' Down." When Yankee fans heard the percolating synthesizer riffs to
"Baba O'Reilly," which preceded his third at-bat of the game, or the monster fuzzed-out
organ riff from "Spirit in the Sky," which just as surely announced his fourth,
we salivated like Pavlov's dogs because we knew one thing: Paul O'Neill is
at the plate and this rally is officially ON.
With a heavy heart,
I realize that particular sensation is now a thing of the past. To those
opposing fans who never understood, who hated O'Neill for his temper and
his no-quarter-given approach to the game, I wish you as many amazing memories
from your rightfielder, or any other star, for that matter good luck,
Paul O'Neill may
never make the Hall of Fame, not with "only" 2105 hits and 281 homers. But it's
a pretty good bet his number will one day adorn the Yankee Stadium left-field
wall among the likes of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Berra, Ford, Munson, and Jackson.
Future generations of fans will point to the number 21 and ask who it stood for.
"That was Paul O'Neill," we'll someday tell our children, "a warrior who wore
the pinstripes as well as any Yankee."