By Sean Hartnett
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Back in the early 1990s, the Yankees were not deserving of their famous pinstripes or their Bronx Bombers nickname. They were the “Bronx Bummers.” Aside from iconic first baseman Don Mattingly, the Yankees were largely a collection of overpaid, underperforming players noted for their apathy toward the game.
Eccentric outfielder Mel Hall brought a tiger into the clubhouse in 1990. During that same season, owner George M. Steinbrenner was banned by Commissioner Fay Vincent for paying gambler Howie Spira $40,000 to dig up dirt on star outfielder Dave Winfield after Steinbrenner reneged on paying Winfield an agreed $300,000 check to his charitable foundation. The Yankees were a mess.
While Steinbrenner was banned from day-to-day management of the ballclub, fiery manager Buck Showalter and forward-thinking general manager Gene Michael picked up the pieces of the faltering franchise.
With the meddling Steinbrenner out of the way, Michael and Showalter began to remodel the clubhouse culture. Out went a number of egocentric, high-maintenance individuals.
Showalter wanted a collection of respectful players who would run through a wall for him. Michael desired selective, high on-base percentage batters — long before such traits became commonplace evaluators among major-league GMs.
The Yankees received all of these characteristics and more when they acquired Paul O’Neill during the 1992 offseason. On November 3, 1992, Michael pulled the trigger on a trade that changed the direction of a spiritless team that played inside a half-empty stadium in the Bronx.
Michael sent outfielder Roberto Kelly to the Cincinnati Reds for O’Neill and minor-league first baseman Joe De Berry.
Prior to O’Neill’s arrival ahead of the 1993 season, the Yankees were a dreadful bunch. The Bombers hadn’t posted a winning record any of their four previous seasons and failed to make the playoffs since 1981. Mattingly and slugging right fielder Danny Tartabull were the lone bright spots in a lackluster lineup.
Everything changed for the Yankees in 1993. O’Neill and fellow key offseason acquisitions Wade Boggs and Jimmy Key paid off handsomely for the Bombers. Boggs raised his average by 43 points, batting .302 in 1993. After being run out of Boston, Boggs was named an All-Star, won a Silver Slugger Award and provided steady defense in his first season in pinstripes. Key established himself as staff ace and finished fourth in American Cy Young voting.
Backup catcher Mike Stanley was thrust into an everyday role, where he excelled. Stanley finished the 1993 season with a .305 average and .389 on-base percentage with 26 home runs and 84 RBIs. A promising switch-hitting outfielder named Bernie Williams won the everyday center-fielder job and excited fans with his athleticism and high-ceiling potential. No longer were the Yankees the whipping boys of the then seven-team AL East.
Mattingly no longer was asked to carry this team on his chronically bad back. The powerful Yankees were depositing home runs beyond the outfield wall with great frequency. As they rounded the bases, Tag Team’s “Whoomp! (There It Is)” blasted from the Yankee Stadium sound system. The thrill was back inside “The House That Ruth Built.”
At the center of it all was O’Neill, who was ripping the cover off the ball to a .311 clip, smashing 20 homers and driving in 75 runs. Fans in the right-field bleachers began showing up to the stadium with signs bearing O’Neill’s name, with the “O” modified to look like a target.
The second-place Yankees finished a respectable seven games behind the dominant Toronto Blue Jays. Had the Wild Card been introduced one season earlier, the 1993 Yankees’ 88-74 record would have earned them playoff entry.
It was a taste of things to come. In 1994, O’Neill became a man on fire. He led the AL with a .359 average, slugged 21 home runs and had 83 RBIs in the strike-shortened season that robbed fans of a 1994 World Series. O’Neill logged an outstanding .460 on-base percentage. He finished fifth in the AL MVP voting. Boggs batted .342 with a .433 OBP. The first-place Yankees had overtaken the Blue Jays as the dominant team in the AL East.
This team would have done damage had there been a 1994 playoffs. Seven out of nine everyday Yankees recorded an OBP over .360: O’Neill (.460), Boggs (.433), Mattingly (.397), Williams (.384), Stanley (.384), Luis Polonia (.383.) and Tartabull (.360).
Their 14-year playoff drought would finally end in 1995. The image of Mattingly pounding the turf at SkyDome following the Yankees’ Wild Card-clinching victory remains a powerful image in Yankees history, given the 1,785 games it took him to reach his first career playoffs.
“Donnie Baseball” made up for lost time by batting .417 with one home run and six RBIs during the 1995 ALDS. It would be the only playoff series of his career as the Bombers were defeated in five games by the Seattle Mariners. Mattingly stepped aside after the 1995 season.
Michael’s replacement, Bob Watson, pulled off a one-sided trade of his own during the 1995 offseason. Watson sent starting pitcher Sterling Hitchcock and third baseman Russ Davis to the Seattle Mariners for first baseman Tino Martinez and relievers Jeff Nelson and Jim Mecir. Crucially, Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada were left out of the final package.
Martinez would add to a growing core of dependable, intensely passionate Yankees. You could see the fire in the eyes of Martinez, the intimidating glares of lefty starter Andy Pettitte and rookie shortstop Derek Jeter. These Yankees burned to win.
None more so than O’Neill. During the 1996 season, O’Neill’s rage was fully unleashed. The perfectionist outfielder would famously beat up on water coolers after tough at-bats and slam down his helmet after getting beat hustling down the first-base line.
The Yankees were swept by the Mariners at the the Kingdome in late August. Seattle had roughed up New York in the final game of the series, 10-2. Dwight Gooden surrendered three home runs. Mariners reliever Tim Davis brushed back O’Neill with an inside pitch. O’Neill then exchanged words with catcher John Marzano, before the pair threw punches and O’Neill dragged Marzano to the ground. The benches cleared and Darryl Strawberry wanted to take on the entire Mariners team. This ugly defeat turned out to be the turning point in the Bombers’ season.
Throughout the regular season and playoffs, the Yankees showed resiliency whenever adversity came their way. David Cone’s season was stopped in its tracks due to an aneurysm in his throwing arm. He would make a sensational late-season comeback and go on to deliver a collection of gutsy postseason performances. Manager Joe Torre would capture his first World Series title two days after his brother, Frank, received a heart transplant. Frank had waited four months to find an appropriate donor.
One of the more memorable images of the 1996 World Series was O’Neill stretching his bad hamstring to record the game-ending catch in Game 5 at Turner Field. Luis Polonia drove a ball into right-center field and it appeared that O’Neill had to run for days to make the catch. Had the ball dropped, Chipper Jones would have scored from third base to tie the game.
Hours before Game 4 of the 1999 World Series, O’Neill learned that his father, Charles, had died of a heart ailment. The Yankees and their fans rallied around O’Neill as the Bombers captured the 1999 World Series title in a four-game sweep. O’Neill would later write a memoir about how his father inspired his determination and love for the game, titled “Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir.”
O’Neill’s career was one of many on and off-field moments that struck a chord with Yankees fans. Some of those moments include the catch against the “Nobody Beats The Wiz” sign at old Yankee Stadium; the stretch catch in the 1996 World Series; catching the final out of David Wells’ 1999 perfect game; his 20-20 season at the age of 38; him jamming on drums while Williams and reliever John Wettleland strummed on guitar in Monument Park; the “Seinfeld” episode where Cosmo Kramer approaches O’Neill in the locker room and asks him to hit two home runs.
But the moment that no Yankees fan will ever forget is the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. An emotional O’Neill tipped his cap to the fans, who chanted his name throughout the entirety of the top of the inning. It would be his final game at Yankee Stadium.
Before Saturday’s 1 p.m. game against the Cleveland Indians, the Yankees will honor O’Neill with a Monument Park plaque. There will be plenty of “Paul-ie” and “Paul O’Neill, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap…” chants from all corners of the stadium.
One-time AL batting champ, five-time All-Star, five-time World Series champion.
Paul O’Neill was the ultimate warrior.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.
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