Yankee Great Speaks with BSP
It was a cool November morning in 1992 when Paul O’Neill learned his life was about to change forever. He was being traded away from his favorite childhood team, the Cincinnati Reds. Growing up in Ohio, it was O’Neill’s dream to play for the same organization as Pete Rose and Johnny Bench. In 1970, O’Neill had a picture taken of him at old Crosley Field in Cincinnati with a Reds helmet on and a toy bat in his hands. In the background was Pittsburgh Pirate Roberto Clemente warming up in the outfield. Fifteen years later, O’Neill would get his start there in the Cincinnati Reds outfield, wearing jersey number 21, just like Clemente.
“I was a big baseball fan growing up,” said O’Neill. “I grew up in Ohio during the time of The Big Red Machine.”
Paul O’Neill was born in 1963 about 100 miles east of Cincinnati in Columbus, OH. Over the years, O’Neill and his family frequented Cincinnati Reds games at Crosley Field, until its demise in 1972. After that, they continued their allegiance into Riverfront Stadium, the same place where O’Neill earned his start in the Major Leagues.
O’Neill was drafted in the 4th round of the Major League Baseball Draft by the Cincinnati Reds in 1981. After playing a handful of seasons in the minor leagues, which included stops in Indianapolis and Rochester, O’Neill made his Major League debut on September 3, 1985, and singled in his first at bat. O’Neill played for eight seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, and won a World Series Championship in 1990.
During the 1992 season, O’Neill was traded from the Reds to the New York Yankees in exchange for Roberto Kelly. In recent years, the Yankees considered Kelly to be untouchable due to his potential to be the next superstar in New York. Evidently, the Yankees had grown impatient with Kelly. By trading for O'Neill, the Yankees began forming their outfield of the future.
“Looking back now,” says O’Neill, “It was the greatest thing that ever happened. It was unexpected how when you look back at things you’re shocked when you’re traded. I grew up in Ohio and I thought it was a dream to play in Cincinnati, and then you’re traded to New York.”
In 1993, O’Neill settled into New York nicely by hitting a career-best .311, with 20 homeruns and 75 runs batted in, to boot. During O’Neill’s first couple of years in New York, he learned a lot from his friend and mentor, Don Mattingly.
“When I was traded, the face of the Yankees was Don Mattingly,” said O’Neill. “He’s really one of my best friends that I played with, and that’s the guy that I was anxious to meet when I was traded back in 1992.”
The following year, O’Neill had arguably one of his best statistical seasons. Before the lockout commenced in ‘94, O’Neill was hitting .359, with 21 homeruns and 83 runs batted in, in only 103 games. His batting average earned him the American League Batting Championship.
“It was just the year that everything went well,” O’Neill recalled. “I remember jokingly that at the end of May I was hitting well over .400 and told the press, ‘If I’m hitting .400 in June, we’ll talk.’ I thought I was off the hook. Well, in June I was still hitting over .400 and I had to start dealing with the press.”
Unfortunately, the MLB Players Association went on strike on August 12th, which cancelled the remainder of the season, the post-season and the World Series. It was the eighth work stoppage in Major League history, as well as the fourth in-season work stoppage in 22 years. The strike was considered one of the worst work stoppages in sports history.
“I wish I could’ve played that whole year because it was such a fun time going to the ballpark and going to the plate,” said O’Neill. “In my mind, good things were going to happen. You don’t always have the opportunity to play like that.”
Major League Baseball resumed in 1995, and O’Neill continued to be an important piece of a revitalized Yankee lineup. That year, the Yankees made their first playoff appearance in 14 years, but fell to the Seattle Mariners in the American League Divisional Series. The following year, in 1996, O’Neill helped the New York Yankees win their first World Series Championship in 18 years. In the years that followed, O’Neill remained an integral part of the Yankees dynasty during the 90’s, which consisted of four World Series Championships. In 1998, the Yankees finished the regular season with a franchise record best 114 wins. This was also the American League record until the Seattle Mariners won 116 games in 2001. The Yankees swept the San Diego Padres in the World Series that year to win their 24th Championship.
“1998 was the best year that I was fortunate enough to be a part of,” says O’Neill. “It was just a great team with great people. Everybody seemed to have a big year that year, and our final record was 114-48. Looking back, that was as close to a perfect season that any of us ever had a chance to be a part of.”
O’Neill and the Yankees would face off against their crosstown rival New York Mets during the 2000 World Series. It was the first Subway Series since the New York Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. O’Neill would go on to help lead the Yankees to their fourth Championship in five years, hitting .474 with four extra base hits during the series.
“2000, to me, meant a lot because it was the Subway Series and it was in New York,” says O’Neill. “There was so much built up around it in New York. That was a great memory.”
The Yankees would reach their fourth World Series appearance in as many years in 2001. O'Neill had previously announced that he would retire after the series was completed. During Game 5, while standing in right field in the 9th inning, the entire Yankee Stadium rose to their feet and began chanting O’Neill’s name. This would be the final opportunity for the fans to say goodbye to the heart and soul of the team. On his way back to the dugout in the middle of the inning, with tears in his eyes, he acknowledged the cheers with a tip of his cap. The Yankees eventually pulled off a comeback win in extra innings, but would ultimately lose the series 4 games to 3.
“Actually, the two games that come to my mind were two comeback wins during that 2001 World Series that we didn’t win,” says O’Neill. “At the time, with what had happened with 9/11 in New York, those two comeback wins were probably the two most memorable games that I’ve ever played. Obviously, the fans saying goodbye was unbelievable, too.”
During his 17-year career, O’Neill hit 281 homeruns, with 1,269 runs batted in and a .288 batting average. On top of his AL batting title in 1994, O’Neill played in five All-Star games in 1991, 1994, 1995, 1997 and 1998.
After his retirement, O’Neill began many different ventures off the field. In 2004, O’Neill released a book entitled Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir. In the book, O'Neill describes how his hard work and good sportsmanship were instilled in him by his dad, Chick O’Neill.
“My dad was such a big part of me and baseball,” says O’Neill. “It was just very easy to talk about, and as we wrote this book, a lot of people got the same feelings about their relationships with their parents. Maybe not necessarily with baseball, but it could’ve been any connection. And that’s why it ended up being fun to do.”
Today, Paul O’Neill continues his career with the Yankees as a color commentator on the YES Network, the broadcast network of the Yankees. In addition, he also serves as an analyst on the Yankees pre-game and post-game shows. Pairing up with play-by-play announcer Michael Kay, O’Neill is also joined in the booth by former Yankees David Cone, Al Leiter and John Flaherty to provide commentary. His style has an air of goofiness and his relaxed, unpredictable sense of humor has been compared to that of Keith Hernandez on SNY, the New York Mets broadcast network. O’Neill is in his 11th season as an analyst and in 2011, he received a New York Emmy Award nomination for his work with YES.
“I didn’t have a plan when I retired,” said O’Neill, “but I was approached by YES at the time. They were really good to me in the fact that they let me pick my schedule.”
Although many professional athletes shy away from television, it was not a hard transition for O’Neill. In 1995, O’Neill made a cameo on the hit television series Seinfeld, which garnered positive reception from Seinfeld and Yankees fans alike. During the episode, entitled “The Wink,” O’Neill is approached by Cosmo Kramer in the Yankees’ locker room, and is asked to hit two homeruns during a game that night. O'Neill hits a first home run, and then seems to have hit a second, but the apparent inside-the-park homerun is later scored a triple with an error.
“I still remember to this day that we were playing the Angels that night,” O’Neill recalls. “Chuck Finley was pitching, which is no fun when you’re a left-handed hitter. I remember going to the studio that morning, and I remember sitting in the room getting makeup on for the shoot, and Kramer came in and introduced himself. I was thinking to myself, ‘Is this guy in character?’ He really wasn’t, but that’s just the kind of way he was. We only did it a couple of times, and I still end up seeing that episode once in a while. It’s fun to look back on those kinds of things.”
While O'Neill has been popular among viewers since he started broadcasting, he has declined to make it a full-time career. Nonetheless, O'Neill made a leap forward this season. After years of limiting himself to only broadcasting about 20 games, he has roughly doubled that over the past year.
“I started off doing like 20 games a year,” says O’Neill, “and now I’m up close to 40 games a year. I have increased it a little bit. It still gives me the opportunity to stay involved with the organization, without living there and without giving up my summers or my kids’ lives.”
When he’s not commentating for the Yankees on the YES Network, O’Neill resides with his family in Montgomery, OH. He plays golf during his free time and stays active with his kids.
“I have taken up golf, and I love to play,” says O’Neill. “My kids are into sports and into music. When I get away from the game, it gives them the opportunity to be who they want to be.”
Yankees fans have warmly embraced Paul O'Neill due to the grit and perseverance he exhibited throughout his career. O’Neill was characterized as a "Warrior" by owner George Steinbrenner with the fire and raw determination that he displayed on the field. Since his retirement, a New York Yankee has only worn the number 21 once, when former pitcher LaTroy Hawkins temporarily wore it to start the 2008 season. In response to criticism he received from Yankees fans, Hawkins promptly switched to number 22. As time passes, perhaps the Yankees hierarchy will seek to honor O’Neill’s number 21, who was believed to be by so many as the heart and soul of the late 90’s Yankees dynasty.