Every Friday I’ve been releasing ‘A Brief History’ podcast about the Yankees. It started as a way to stay sane during quarantine, but evolved into something that I look forward to researching each week.
The most recent episode was about how Gene Michael built the 1990s Yankees dynasty — starting with his early tenure with the Yanks in the 1980s all the way to the key moves he made in the early 1990s that set the building-blocks for a dynasty. A key move that goes down as the best trade Michael ever made was acquiring Paul O’Neill.
The best trade Stick ever made
In November 1992 when the Yankees sent Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati for Paul O’Neill and minor-leaguer Joe De Berry, even Michael called the move “a gamble.”
Kelly had been in the organization since the early-80s and for many years thought to be the team’s next superstar, but he never popped. Over 7 seasons Kelly was basically a league average player, posting a 107 OPS+. He also lost the centerfield job to Bernie Williams in August ’92, a controversial decision made by Buck Showalter. What the Reds saw in Kelly, the Yankees saw in O’Neill — a player yet to reach his full potential.
O’Neill, an Ohio native playing for his “hometown” team, was a good but not great player. 1991 was his best season when he hit 28 homers and made the All Star team, but he fell back in ’92 and by that time the Reds, an annual National League contender, had seen enough.
When the deal went down, Stick identified O’Neill’s ability to fight in at-bats, something Kelly lacked, as a key reason they wanted him. They also felt the team was too right-handed heavy and projected his left-handed swing would benefit from Yankee Stadium — and boy were they right. O’Neill went from a 111 OPS+ hitter in Cincy to a 125 OPS+ hitter with the Yanks. His average season in New York was .303 BA, .869 OPS, 21 HR, and 34 2B. He won the batting title in 1994 and had 4 top-15 MVP finishes.
Kelly, meanwhile, batted .313 for the Reds in 125 games from 1993-94, but couldn’t stay healthy and was dealt to the Braves for Deion Sanders during the 1994 season.
Michael took advice from Lou Piniella when discussing the trade. Piniella, a former teammate of Stick, told him O’Neill would thrive in New York.
Reds GM Jim Bowden called it the worst trade he ever made.
When Stick acquired O’Neill, he wasn’t just getting a right fielder. He got an emotional clubhouse leader and fan favorite. I’ve never met a Yankees fan old enough to remember the ’90s Yankees who does not love O’Neill. Whether it’s smashing water coolers, slamming his helmet because he went 3-for-4 instead of 4-for-4, playing hurt, or tumbling over the celebration pile, we all love Paulie for one reason or another. That all culminated on November 1, 2001, when 56,000 people at Yankee Stadium chanted Paul-O-Ne-ill in unison as a final sendoff.