By Steve Silverman
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The pantheon of great players in New York Yankees history is simply breathtaking. No other franchise can boast the absolute greatness that comes with a roll call of names that includes Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, Yogi Berra, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Reggie Jackson, Ron Guidry and Derek Jeter.
Take a second to breathe them all in.
Paul O’Neill may not warrant a place with the all-time greats who wore the famed pinstripes, but when it comes to toughness, determination and seeing the job through from start to finish, O’Neill is as worthy as any player to put on that uniform.
As far as baseball’s great warriors go, the players who would do anything they could to help their team win every game they played, O’Neill belongs at or near the top of the list.
Quite simply, O’Neill was the guy you wanted in the fox hole next to you. In a baseball sense, O’Neill was the one wanted to see make the play or come up to bat with the tying run in scoring position.
There was a confidence with O’Neill that was born during the early years of his career in Cincinnati and it traveled with him when he was traded to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly after the 1992 season.
O’Neill, a native of Ohio, was not thrilled to be traded, thinking the move was an indication that he had disappointed the Reds. But that feeling was quickly displaced by the pride of playing for a team with the kind of history the Yankees had.
“Let’s face it, we’re all lucky to play for the New York Yankees, especially at that time,” O’Neill once said. “It didn’t take long to feel the tradition and this team. You talk about the perfect time to come here; it started turning around and we started winning, and being part of that is something I’ll never forget.”
O’Neill had no problems adjusting to the American League or playing in the Bronx. He hit .311 with 20 homers and 75 RBI in 1993, and he only got better from there. He followed with an American League-leading .359 average during the strike-ruined ’94 season that included 21 homers and 83 RBI. More consistency followed in ’95 as he posted a .302 average, 22 bombs and 96 RBI.
As well as O’Neill had played in a Yankee uniform, the ’95 season ended in brutal fashion after the Bombers made the playoffs for the first time since 1981. They had a classic matchup with the Seattle Mariners in the first divisional playoff series. After winning the first two games at Yankee Stadium, the Mariners roared back behind Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez to take the series in painful fashion.
Nobody was more upset than O’Neill, who referred to the loss as “devastating.”
By the time the 1996 season started, O’Neill was a Yankee through and through, and he was not going to relax until the team had the World Series championship that everyone in the organization so desperately longed for.
As that season got underway, it had been 18 years since Reggie, Guidry, “Catfish” Hunter, and Thurman Munson had led the Yankees to the second of back-to-back championships. Few could believe that a George Steinbrenner-owned team could go that long between titles.
New manager Joe Torre knew he had a stud that he could depend on in O’Neill, and he batted him in the third spot throughout the season.
O’Neill continued to play with the same kind of consistency he had shown in his first three years with the team, batting .302 with 19 homers and 91 RBI. He had always shown a brilliant eye at the plate, but he took it up a notch in ’96, walking a career-best 102 times. It seemed like O’Neill was always on base, as he scored 89 runs that season.
The numbers were always strong, but they simply underscored what O’Neill brought with him to the field on an every-game basis. He had the mentality of someone who just refused to quit and the stats didn’t matter to him. O’Neill wanted victories, and he would do whatever it took to get them.
With each win the Yankees earned in ’96, it only fueled his desire. He was often referred to as the Bombers’ heart and soul, and while there were many great players on that team, it would be hard to find anyone who took more pride in wearing the Yankee uniform.
He often showed off his talent and ability when playing Boston. He had two four-hit games, and ended up hitting .395 (17-for-43) against them in 1996.
During the postseason, O’Neill hit a huge two-run home run against the Baltimore Orioles in Game 4 of the ALCS. The blow gave the Yankees a 5-2 lead in a game they would ultimately win 8-4.
The Yankees put the Orioles away in Game 5, with O’Neill contributing a hit and a walk.
The World Series, however, was a different matter as O’Neill struggled with the bat against the brilliant Atlanta pitching staff that included Greg Maddux, John Smoltz and Tom Glavine. That Hall of Fame trio helped hold O’Neill to a .167 average, but you knew he’d somehow find a way to make a huge contribution.
His game-ending catch in Game 5 of the series helped preserve a 1-0 victory in Atlanta. With runners at first and third, left-handed pinch-hitter Luis Polonia lashed a John Wetteland pitch to deep right center, and it immediately had the look of a game-winning extra-base hit.
O’Neill simply was not going to allow it. He cut across the Atlanta Fulton County outfield and clinched the win with a spectacular catch as he approached the fence.
When the series returned to Yankee Stadium for Game 6, O’Neill’s double leading off the third inning started a three-run rally, and those were the only runs the Yankees would get — and need — in a 3-2 victory.
A celebration for the ages took place at the end of that game, but it was just the beginning. Spearheaded by O’Neill, the Yankees would go on to win the Fall Classic in 1998, ’99, and 2000, cementing their place as a dynasty.
Torre eventually explained what made the Yankees such consistent winners.
“This whole group never admired what they had accomplished,” Torre said. “They always kept wanting to accomplish more, which was great for me. They never got tired of winning. A lot of times, you win the World Series and say, ‘Oh, I got mine,’ and then you celebrate the rest of your career. But these guys kept wanting to do more.”
And there is little doubt the Yankees took their cues from their “Warrior” in right field. He set the tone each and every day.
For more coverage of the 1996 Yankees celebration, please click here.
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