O'Neill always felt at home at Cathedral
Yankee right fielder a fan favorite during best years of career
NEW YORK -- One tradition at Yankee Stadium that began relatively recently -- in the mid-1990s -- is the chanting from fans in the right-field bleachers of the names of the Yankees' players on the field in the first inning. It begins with the right fielder and works around the diamond to the infielders, with each player acknowledging the support by a tip of the cap or a wave of the glove.
When this gesture took shape, the right fielder was usually Paul O'Neill, the player for whom the chant may have had the most resonance. That was particularly evident the night of Nov. 1, 2001, when the entire Stadium crowd of 56,018 chanted in cadence, "Paul O-Neill!" in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the World Series.
With O'Neill having announced that 2001 would be his last season, and with the Series moving back to Phoenix for what would turn out to be Games 6 and 7, Yankee fans realized that with their team trailing, 2-0, in the game, this might be their last opportunity to salute a player they had so warmly embraced during his nine seasons in the Bronx.
Visibly touched by the moment, O'Neill removed his cap and waved to the crowd, then placed it back on his head with the brim just above the eyebrows to conceal the formation of tears.
"I didn't know what to do," he said after the game. "I didn't know whether to run and hide or tell them to can it, or whatever. But as quick I could, I told these people, 'Thank you.'"
It was more like, "You're welcome," because it was the Stadium throng, and millions more watching on television, who were expressing gratitude for someone who will always be identified as a core ingredient of a Yankees team that had a special run of success under then-manager Joe Torre.
"You know what was good about that?" Torre said. "We were losing the game, and they still thought enough of him to show their appreciation. Paulie's a blue-collar guy, and they appreciate that."
The Yankees would win that game eventually, staging a ninth-inning rally for the second consecutive night against Arizona's beleaguered reliever Byung-Hung Kim, and triumphing in extras. But there would be no more games at the Stadium as a player for O'Neill, now a TV analyst for the Yankees, who, when captured in the booth and shown on the scoreboard video monitor, still gets the faithful to chanting.
Such is the fans' passion for O'Neill that they lustily booed pitcher LaTroy Hawkins earlier this season for wearing O'Neill's former No. 21, compelling the since-released reliever to change to another number.
"It was a great experience for me here," O'Neill said. "The sense of history at Yankee Stadium, you don't get in other parks. I played at Fenway Park and Wrigley Field, but they're not Yankee Stadium. I got to meet Mickey Mantle and shake hands with Joe DiMaggio. I played with Don Mattingly and Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter. I went to the postseason seven years in a row, and I always felt the fans here were behind me all the way."
That O'Neill and Yankees fans would develop such a relationship seemed remote when he arrived from Cincinnati in 1993 after being traded in the previous offseason for outfielder Roberto Kelly. New Yorkers knew him from his Reds days as a moody .259 hitter who just might melt under the pressure that comes with playing in the Big Apple. O'Neill had an early ally in the city in his sister, Molly, the food critic for the New York Times, but he gradually won over Yankees fans with his intensity. He was sort of an Irish version of Lou Piniella, his former Reds manager, another temperamental outfielder who was adored by Yankee crowds.
O'Neill is the only player in history to have played on the winning side of three perfect games, and two of them were at Yankee Stadium, by David Wells on May 17, 1998, and by David Cone on July 18, 1999. The other was by the Reds' Tom Browning Sept. 16, 1988, at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium.
"I know it's going to sound weird, but it was easier for me to play in New York than Cincinnati," O'Neill said. "I grew up in Columbus, but my wife [Nevalee] is from Cincinnati, and we made our home there. It's tough to play in your hometown. My manager my first five years with the Reds was Pete Rose, my idol growing up. Everybody in town knows all about you and looks over your shoulder every day. In New York, I could just come to the Stadium, play, and go home."
Fans didn't care about O'Neill's bat-flinging or cooler-kicking behavior. If anything, they liked it. They also liked the numbers he put up. After hitting under .260 in the National League, O'Neill batted .303 with the Yankees, and found the Stadium to his liking. In his 631 games there, O'Neill hit .310 with 89 home runs and 423 RBIs.
And showing his overall comfort in New York, as a visiting player at Shea Stadium, O'Neill hit .321 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs in 140 at-bats.
It was against the Mets at Yankee Stadium that O'Neill had one of his most famous at-bats, a 10-pitch duel with Armando Benitez in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series. Coming back from a 1-2 count, O'Neill worked a one-out walk. Subsequent singles by Luis Polonia and Jose Vizcaino loaded the bases before the Yankees tied the score on a sacrifice fly by Chuck Knoblauch. The Yankees won it in the 12th on a bases-loaded single by Vizcaino.
O'Neill had his share of postseason drama at Yankee Stadium, but none more poignant than the clinching Game 4 of the 1999 World Series against Atlanta. That morning, Charles "Chick" O'Neill, Paul's father, had died of lung and kidney failure at age 79. Paul had visited his father daily at Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital where the senior O'Neill had undergone heart surgery.
Paul openly wept in the clubhouse before the game, but he told Torre he felt he could play. Said first-base coach Jose Cardenal, "Paulie wanted to see if he could get through batting practice first. He thought being in the game would take his mind off things."
"You hope that when you go out there that you'll be able to concentrate and maybe escape for those two or three hours," O'Neill said.
So he played, to the amazement of not only his teammates but also those in the stands, who were always appreciative of his efforts.
"Playing in New York really worked out for me," O'Neill said. "It was the best time of my life."
Jack O'Connell is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.