The Yankees have 15 numbers retired (the number 8 was retired twice for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey), the most by any team in Major League Baseball. Add to the fact that Derek Jeter’s number 2 and Joe Torre’s number 6 most likely will be retired one day and you will never see another Yankee wear a single digit jersey again. There are a few Yankees who can make a case for having their number retired and Paul O’Neill is one of them.
Paul O’Neill was traded from the Reds to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly before the 1993 season. O’Neill, at the age of 30, became an even better player with the Yankees. He would play 9 years with the Yankees and win 4 championships, be a part of 5 World Series appearances, was a 4x All Star, and won the battling title in the strike shorten season of 94. His average as a Yankee was 303 and provided excellent defensive with a canon for an arm.
Although his numbers were very good, O’Neill also provided intangibles that didn’t always show up in the box score. He was also a leader and one of the main contributors during the Yankee dynasty years. He was considered the captain without having the official title. A hard nose throw back player that cared about winning. He was steady, reliable, fought every at bat, and passionate about winning. He was a fan favorite and given the name “Warrior” which was the perfect word to describe him.
He was also a big reason for the Yankees success during the 90’s and winning those 4 championships.
One of his many memorable at bats wasn’t a home run or a hit but a walk in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series against the New York Mets. O’Neill battled Armando Benitez in an epic 10 pitch walk. O’Neill would spark a 9th inning rally and his one out walk would end up being the game tying run on Knoblauch’s sacrifice fly. The Yankees would go on to win that game and the series, with many fans remembering that at bat as the series changer.
Another great moment, Game 5 of the 1996 World Series, the Yankees trying to hold on to the 1-0 lead and take a 3-2 series lead back home to New York. With two outs in the bottom of ninth and runners on 1st and 3rd Luis Polonia rips a shot off John Wetteland toward the gap in right center, in what looks like a sure hit, O’Neill with a bad leg and all, fully extends his glove and catches what could have been a walk off hit to save the game and series.
If there was even a moment to sum up O’Neill’s career as a Yankee it was in Game 5 of the 1997 Division Series against the Cleveland Indians. Down to their last out O’Neill took the first pitch he saw from Jose Mesa and drove it into right center (missing a home run by a yard), stretching what should have been a single into a double. The throw came in before O’Neill got to the base but he slid to avoid the tag cutting his chin up in the process. Bleeding out of his face O’Neill refused a pinch runner and Bernie proceeded to pop out to end the series. After the game the notoriously difficult to please George Steinbrenner said the following about O’Neill, “He showed you do not give up. Ever. Ever. A heart of a lion—that’s what you think of when you think of Paul O’Neill. I wish I had 25 like him.
Paul O’Neill retired a Yankee after losing to the Arizona Diamondbacks in the 2001 World Series. His last game in Yankee Stadium may be one of the most amazing tributes that fans could give to a player. In the top of the 9th inning, in what looked like a loss for the Yankees, the entire crowd started chanting PAUL O’NEILL followed by quick series of claps during the ENTIRE inning. When walking into the dugout O’Neill, visibly moved by the outburst of appreciation, acknowledged the fans by tipping his cap and the crowd gave him one last send off cheer.
No one has worn the number 21 since O’Neill retired after the 2001 season with the exception of LaTroy Hawkins. Hawkins (who choose the number out of respect for Roberto Clemente) would wear the number for a few weeks before changing it due to the backlash from Yankee fans. Still associated with the Yankees as as YES network announcer, O’Neill may eventually see his number retired, it took Guidry 15 years to see it happen, but I doubt to see any player wear that number again out of respect to what Paul O’Neill accomplished.