Winner. Water cooler wrecker. Warrior. Paul O’Neill was all of that and more for the New York Yankees, from 1993-2001. When O’Neill was traded from the Cincinnati Reds, along with minor-league first baseman Joe DeBerry, for Roberto Kelly, he initially replaced Mel Hall in left-field and the contrast could not have been clearer.
At the time though, Yankee fans weren’t quite sure of what they were getting. While O’Neill had some punch and a 1990 World Series ring, he’d just come off a 1992 season of batting .246, never having batted above .300 in Cincinnati. Conversely, Kelly was a homegrown All-Star outfielder in 1992 and Bernie Williams and Gerald Williams were still honing their craft.
Those worries were soon put to rest, as O’Neill soon became a staple in right-field, the third spot in the batting order, clubhouse, broadcasting booth and now with a plaque in Monument Park.
There are so many memorable moments of Paulie in Pinstripes, even beyond the numbers (and they were good). The O’Neill bulls-eye targets in right-field, at the old Yankee Stadium, the fire and passion and arguments with umpires. His driving the ball to the opposite field gap in left-center. The leg kick. Taking batting practice hacks… in right-field. Essentially playing on one leg during the 1996 World Series, while preserving a 1-0 Game 5 victory, recording the final out on a deep fly by Luis Polonia. Playing with a broken heart in Game 4 of the 1999 World Series, after his father Charles had passed away. Of course all of it culminating with the chorus of “Paul O’Neill” chants, in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series.
In his first six seasons in the Bronx, O’Neill batted above .300, winning a batting title in 1994, hitting a robust .359. O’Neill hit double digits in home runs, in all nine of his seasons in a Yankee uniform and was a doubles machine as well. Paul also earned four All-Star appearances and four World Series rings with New York.
That 1993 season when Paul arrived, is the first year I vividly remember beginning to watch the Yankees as a kid. It was a year when the culture began changing in the Bronx, a fun team to watch. Even though guys like Barry Bonds and Greg Maddux passed on New York, the team brought in players like O’Neill, with a championship pedigree and the turnaround was underway.
Yes, Paul O’Neill had that fire and passion in Pinstripes. It is something that has been etched into the fabric of the Yankees ever since. When a fan says, “the team needs a player to light a fire under them and a kick in the pants or a tossed Gatorade bucket,” they usually come back to O’Neill. If a big name, big ticket player is dogging it or doesn’t play through pain, a common refrain is, “Paulie would’ve played with a broken foot and cracked ribs.”
Roger Clemens had to wear number 12 and the fans (fairly or not) forced LaTroy Hawkins to take 21 back out of circulation. Could it ultimately be retired down the road? Possibly. For now though, Paul O’Neill gets a well deserved tribute and a permanent place in Monument Park.