Paul O’Neill was not part of the core four. He was not part of the Yankee farm system. He was acquired in a trade before the 1994 season that sent the Yankees sole All-Star in 1993 to the Cincinnati Reds, Roberto Kelly. Today we think of that deal as a mismatched trade in the Yankees favor. However, at the time the trade was made, most baseball people thought the Reds had gotten a steal. After all, the Reds had gotten one of the best players on the Yankees for a struggling .259 career outfielder. History showed that GM Gene Michael knew what he was doing that day.
Paul O’Neill began his Yankee career in left field in 1994 and that career .259 hitter flirted with .400 for most of the season and won the batting title in the strike shortened year. In 1995, he helped break the Yankees return to the playoff for the first time since 1981 by winning the Wild Card. He replaced Don Mattingly in the third spot in the lineup and moved to his more customary right field. He was then a key player on the dynasty teams of 1996-2001, winning four World Series titles and making four All Star teams as a Yankee. Today O’Neill will be immortalized with a plaque in Monument Park in Yankee Stadium.
“You never expect anything like that,” O’Neill said. “I know there were great times in the ’90s with the four world championships. Those are teams that accomplished a lot, but those aren’t the things you are thinking about when you are playing. … It’s the biggest honor I’ve ever been given.” O’Neill stated about receiving a plaque.
As O’Neill joins the Yankee greats in Monument Park, Yankee fans can remember the great moments of his career. He was the only man ever to be on the field for three perfect games (Tom Browning, David Wells and David Cone). He made a key one legged catch in 1996 World Series against the Braves. He hit three home runs in a game in 1995. He hit for high average and was a key run producer and a fan favorite on the dynasty teams. However, he may be most remember for his career long assault on water coolers. A fierce critic of himself, he often took out his frustration after a failed at bat on the unsuspecting water coolers in the Yankee dugout. Since he was a such a solid player for the Yankees and never resulted in injury, these outbursts are fondly remembered by the Yankee faithful, unlike Kevin Brown breaking his pitching hand punching a wall. He was nicknamed the “Warrior” by the late George Steinbrenner for his passion and love of the game.
Ever since O’Neill’s retirement following the 2001 World Series, Yankee fans have yearned for a player who played with the level of passion and intensity of O’Neill. These days, while the dugout equipment lives an easier life, the raw passion and pride that followed O’Neill has been hard to replace. O’Neill was rarely the best player on the team and played alongside several legends of the game from Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs to Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Roger Clemens, but he was always the heart and soul every team he played on. He was not a captain of the Yankees but he was the leader in the lineup and the clubhouse. O’Neill was not afraid of leaving it all out on the field and cared little for the spotlight. He stayed in the organization as a broadcaster for the YES Network after his retirement. He is deserving of his plaque and the opportunity for one more day of adoration from Yankee fans.