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Paul O’Neill, a Yankee legend on the field and in the booth

Heading into the 2021 season I was thinking of doing something cliche with the number 21. Well, three-quarters of the way into ranking the 21 best Yankees hitters of all time, I’m changing course.

Now my cliche post with the number 21 is an appreciation post to the man that wore #21 throughout my childhood, and my favorite player growing up, Paul O’Neill.

For any Yankee fan lucky enough to live through the ‘90s dynasty, O’Neill is one player we’ll never forget. He was literally and figuratively in the heart of those lineups, teaming up with Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and Jorge Posada to make opposing pitcher’s lives hell.

O’Neill came to New York for Roberto Kelly in November of 1992 and began his Yankee career at the age of 30. At that time, O’Neill was hovering around just above league average as a hitter and going into his thirties, huge things weren’t expected of him.

That would all change in O’Neill’s first season in pinstripes, however, as he had the best offensive season of his career up to that point. He followed that up in the strike-shortened season of ‘94 with his best season ever; a batting title championship and his first of four all-star seasons with the Yankees—after only one such season with the Reds.

The Yankees were a huge part of my childhood—baseball was really the only love I had at the time. And to me, in the thick of it all was O’Neill. As a feisty, hot-tempered little leaguer, he was my favorite to watch. I wore number 12 on the diamond because our jerseys didn’t go up to 21, so I just flipped it.

Though he never put up the massive stats some hitters had in the era, he had eight seasons above an OPS+ of 100 and six above 123. He didn’t hit 25 home runs in a season with the Yankees, he didn’t score more than 95 runs either. O’Neill did however have four seasons with 100+ RBI and three with at least 110. He only struck out over 100 times once and batted at least .283 in eight of his nine seasons, six times hitting at least .300.

O’Neill was so loved by fans, teammates, media, coaches and owner George Steinbrenner. Nicknamed “The Warrior”, he played the game in a way every fan could appreciate.

Even though I’m a natural right-handed hitter, I learned how to switch hit because I wanted to emulate O’Neill and hit lefty. Just like O’Neill, I’d be in the field going through my hitting mechanics in between pitches. He was who I wanted to be like as a player, one that played every game, every inning, every pitch as if it were his last.

Sometimes he may not have been the best person for a kid in little league to emulate, my temper was taken out on a few coolers just like O’Neill’s, but his passion for the game was infectious.

The love fans have for O’Neill is evident by the fact that, though his number 21 isn’t retired by the Yankees, they can’t imagine seeing anyone else wearing it. LaTroy Hawkins wanted to wear number 21 when he donned the pinstripes, to honor Roberto Clemente, but even that grand gesture didn’t stop the Yankee faithful from booing Hawkins and chanting O’Neill’s name when he pitched.

Todd Frazier asked to wear the number when he was traded from the Chicago White Sox because he too was a huge O’Neill fan growing up on the Jersey Shore. He was ultimately given 29.

Now I’m at an age where O’Neill was helping things come together in the Bronx for a slew of World Series runs and I’m still looking up to him. Whenever he announces a Yankees game for the YES Network, you know it’s going to be fun to watch.

He teams up so well with Michael Kay and former teammate David Cone. In the virus ravaged season of 2020 we got to see another side of “The Warrior.” O’Neill was broadcasting games from his basement for quarantine baseball, and the aptly named Studio 21.

Just like growing up watching O’Neill play, he was one of my favorite parts of the 2020 season. He’s always been entertaining as an announcer, but he took it to a new level this year.

So for the 2021 season, I may still come up with a cliche list with 21 integrated into it, but I don’t think any of them could be better than an appreciation post for #21, “The Warrior”, Paul O’Neill.