In perhaps the most emotional moment in modern Yankee history, O’Neill felt the love of the crowd rain down upon him during the tail end of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, with New York on the verge of going down 3-2 heading to Arizona.
Of course, the World Series was where O’Neill’s emotions often flowed the most publicly, both on and off the field.
He rolled over the top of the pile in 1996, exalted beyond belief to have reached the peak he’d been workin towards since being traded to the Yankees before the 1993 season (his first season in pinstripes was his age-30 campaign, shockingly). He played in 1999, hours after the death of his father. And now, here he was in 2001, his name being sung in unison from all corners of the House That Ruth Built, the crowd chanting him into a happy retirement.
Since that moment in time — the Yankees, of course, rallied to win, then lost the series in heartbreaking fashion, proving no miracle that gold could possibly stay — O’Neill’s No. 21 has been the forbidden fruit.
It wasn’t officially retired, even as O’Neill received a monument in center field back in 2014. LaTroy Hawkins began the 2008 season wearing the number, but switched to 22 swiftly due to fan backlash.
Removing “21” from the lexicon was always the wiser idea than letting it float, unofficially stricken from the record, and the Yankees finally announced on Tuesday that they plan to give O’Neill his day in the sun once again on Aug. 21, 2022.
Yankees legend Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 will be retired on Aug. 21, 2022.
As O’Neill kindly stated in an attempt to defuse the situation during the Hawkins catastrophe:
"“What can I say? The fans have always been unbelievable to me there. I don’t really know how to explain it. It makes you feel good that the fans still think of you as wearing that number.”"
If you’re young enough to know O’Neill only as the affable voice who calls YES Network games from his basement, stomping on Michael Kay’s home run calls with reckless abandon, you haven’t gotten the full picture of his personality over the years.
While always fun-loving enough to kick a live baseball to first or admonish Kramer for promising a sick boy he’d hit two home runs in one game, O’Neill was also a ruthlessly intense competitor, and endeared himself to a title-starved fanbase more and more with every water cooler he destroyed.
He was also, of course, extremely good during the best era of modern Yankees baseball.
O’Neill’s remarkable consistency resulted in four All-Star appearances in New York, including an abbreviated 1994 season in which he hit .359 with a .460 OBP and 1.064 OPS; he also finished 12th in MVP voting in both 1997 and 1998. He hit 10 postseason home runs as a Yankee, starring most prominently in the 2000 World Series (.474 with a 1.335 OPS) and the 2001 Fall Classic, hitting .333 as the only Bomber creating any semblance of offense (at least, before they were down to their final out).
He was also responsible for perhaps the most famous walk of the dynasty, worked against Armando Benitez to help turn that 2000 Subway Series.
If you’re a young Yankee looking to establish yourself, the numbers available to you are more officially slim pickings than they were on Monday. Anthony Volpe had better fall in love with the number “14,” and fast.
Is A-Rod’s No. 13 getting retired someday, too? Slice another one off the list.
For now, we’re here to come together on a more joyous occasion rather than get divisive. What’s long been winked and whispered at is now official, and there’s no more deserving (or relatable) Yankee than O’Neill, who completely and utterly deserves another stadium-wide chant.