Hudson Belinsky wrote an article today on ballplayer makeup. He questions the makeup of Yankee prospect Slade Heathcott because of Heathcott's fiery temper and describes him as a "lunatic." Of course, we heard this all before about another left-handed outfielder, Paul O'Neill. If Heathcott, the Yankees' first-round pick in 2009, turns out to be anywhere as good as O'Neill, the Yankees will be in good shape. (http://battingleadoff.com/2013/09/18/the-importance-and-difficulty-of-scouting-makeup/)
O'Neill's intensity and temper were legendary. In Cincinnati, he was labeled a selfish headcase, mostly because of his clashes with manager Lou Piniella, another legendary red ass. Those clashes made him available for a trade and the Yankees got him for outfielder Roberto Kelly in 1992. With the Yankees, O'Neill showed what he really was: an intense competitor and a money player. In his nine years with the club, he hit .300 six times and led the league with a .359 average in 1994. He became one of the most beloved Yankees of his era (at least to Yankee fans) and an integral part of the dynasty of the late ‘90s.
He was intense. He had his share of clashes with dugout water coolers and was known to slam his bat to the ground when he hit a routine grounder or pop-up and throw chairs in the locker room after a bad day. He never met a called strike that he liked and usually let the umpire know it.
O'Neill wouldn't accept failure and demanded perfection of himself. As coach Don Zimmer told writer Bill Madden, "O'Neill is one of the most professional people I've ever known in baseball. I just feel sorry for him because he never had the fun in baseball he should have had. It hurt me to watch him put himself through what he did. He's just about the only guy I know who could never understand that the best of the best in this game fail two thirds of the time. He could never accept making an out."
It was bad enough when established major-league pitchers got O'Neill out but Tampa's Jim Morris was another story. The first time O'Neill faced Morris, the high-school science teacher whose improbable trip to the majors at the age of 35 was memorialized in the movie "The Rookie," Morris got him out. Predictably, O'Neill flipped. As trainer Steve Donahue tells it, O'Neill started screaming, "Who are they going to bring in next to get me out? A gym teacher? A plumber?"
When O'Neill had a bad day, he would start shouting, "That's it. I'm done. I can't hit." Zimmer would apply the needle: "Hey, I got a buddy in Cincinnati who can get you a bricklayer's job..."
O'Neill would make no concessions to injury and avoided the trainer's room at all cost. "The trainer's room is for pitchers," he said. O'Neill played hurt. Fans will never forget him hobbling on a bad hamstring to catch the last out of the 1996 World Series.
David Cone loved to torque O'Neill up. Before a World Series game against the Mets in 2000, O'Neill was lost in his own intense world as he prepared for the game. When George Steinbrenner walked by, Cone saw his chance. "Time for a pep talk, George. O'Neill needs something. He doesn't look like he's ready to play to me." O'Neill gave Cone an icy stare, but that just encouraged Cone. "C'mon, George. Tell him. C'mon. We need O'Neill today, George. He doesn't look ready to go to me. Does he look ready to you?" O'Neill finally had enough. "You," he yelled at Cone, "get the f-k out of the clubhouse. Right now." Cone later told writer Bill Madden that he thought O'Neill would kill him. "That's the first time I saw Paulie look at me like that. And he wasn't kidding," Cone said. By the way, O'Neill was ready. He hit .474 in the 2000 World Series and his 10-pitch walk against Met closer Armando Benitez is the stuff of legend.