Paul O'Neill was the man--there's no doubt it among Yankees fans. Those who played and rooted against probably found his antics to be aggravating, but O'Neill was a classic case of "that guy you hate but secretly wish your team had." The right fielder gave the Yankees the best years of his career after general manager Gene Michael's masterstroke to bring him over from the Reds that Harlan wrote about a few days ago. He was a tremendous player for the Yankees during his nine years in the Bronx, and the fans' adoration for him is a big reason why he now owns a plaque in Monument Park. In tribute to Paulie, I made 21 GIFs that I feel best represent number 21's career.
1. Hometown Hero
A native of Ohio, it was O'Neill's childhood dream to play for the Cincinnati Reds, and with their fourth round pick in the 1981 draft, Cincinnati made that dream come true. O'Neill worked his way through the minors and played the first eight years of his career with the Reds, hitting .259/.336/.431 with 147 doubles, 96 homers, a 111 OPS+, and notching a respectable 12.2 rWAR. Although his best statistical year came in his All-Star '91 campaign, the highlight for him was no doubt winning the World Series in 1990, the Reds' last championship team. He didn't have a great Fall Classic, but O'Neill burst onto the national stage with a .471/.500/.824 NLCS against the Pirates, a series that included a crucial homer and this laser throw from right to nail Andy Van Slyke at third base.
2. The Kicker
Of course, Paulie's most famous moment as a Red probably came on a blooper reel play in which he bobbled a ball and then in frustration, somehow kicked a perfect relay to first baseman Todd Benzinger. How he aimed it so well, we'll never know.
3. Instant New York success
Frustrated by O'Neill's down year in '92, the Reds dealt him to the Yankees in exchange for All-Star outfielder Roberto Kelly, and few other trades in Yankees history have worked out as amazingly as this one did. He was an instant hit, as after hitting his first homer on the road in Cleveland, he went 4-for-4 in his Yankee Stadium debut, lining a pair of extra-base hits in a 4-1 win over future teammate David Cone and the Royals. It was the start of something great.
4. Three-homer night
The players' strike cut the '94 season short so despite O'Neill winning the AL batting title with a .359 average and the Yankees leading the AL East at the time of the strike, nothing sadly came of their '94 effort. Fortunately, the Yankees stormed down the stretch to win the AL Wild Card in '95, and one of the most memorable games from that 25-6 run was a career-best three-homer game by O'Neill against the California Angels on August 31st.
5. "Goodbye into the night of New York."
An inning after captain Don Mattingly's stadium-shaking go-ahead homer in Game 2 of the ALDS against his old Reds manager Lou Piniella's Mariners, Paul O'Neill smashed one of the most impressive homers of his career, unloading on a Norm Charlton pitch to tie the game again after the Mariners evened it up. Yankee Stadium was a fracas.
Sadly, it was not meant to be in '95, as the Mariners stunned the Yankees by winning three games in a row at the Kingdome to eliminate them. Having played his heart out with three homers and a .333/.458/.833 series, O'Neill was just as devastated as any Yankees fan. Fortunately, Yankees playoff success was just on the horizon.
7. Wild run to World Series victory
The Yankees of course made it back to the playoffs in '96 and after falling two games behind to the defending champion Braves in the World Series, they won the next two in Atlanta to tie it up. In a tense 1-0 game, O'Neill clinched the Game 5 victory with a crazed run on hobbled legs at Luis Polonia's long fly to right-center that would have at least tied the game. O'Neill made several great defensive plays throughout his career, but this one was undoubtedly the most important.
8. Start spreadin' the news
A game later, the Yankees were champions at last and O'Neill celebrated with a roll over the top of the dogpile.
The Yankees didn't repeat as champions in '97, but it was not for a lack of effort by O'Neill. Trailing Cleveland in the ALDS and down to their last out, O'Neill sprinted for a double with a memorably painful-looking hookslide that really symbolized his determination as a player. He stayed in the game, though Bernie Williams unfortunately flew out to end it.
Now, a look at Paulie's equally unforgettable mannerisms on the field...
10. Water cooler smash
A Pinstripe Alley favorite for irritating losses.
In my mind, I'd like to think that O'Neill is also pretending to hit the umpire's head, not just the pitches to his bandmate Bernie.
12. Helmet throw
Probably a useful utility GIF.
14. TV star
-Sure, well I promised you would hit him two home runs.
-You know, Klick!. A couple of dingers.
-You promised a kid in the hospital that I would hit two home runs?
-Yeah, well, no good?
-No, it's no good! It's terrible! You don't hit home runs like that. It's hard to hit home runs. And where the heck did you get two from?
-Two is better than one.
-That, that's ridiculous. I'm not a home run hitter!
-Well, Babe Ruth did it.
-He did not!
-Oh, do you say that Babe Ruth is a liar?
-I'm not calling him a liar but he was not stupid enough to promise two!
-Well, maybe I did overextend myself.
-How the heck did you get in here anyway?
15. THIS MEANS WAR!
"Well all right, Gunny! We're goin' to war!"
16. Perfecto-saving catch
This first inning catch from David Cone's perfect game turned out to be the defensive play of the day, though no one knew it at the time.
17. Plate discipline
A very patient hitter, O'Neill's keen eye at the plate was never better than in the ninth inning of Game 1 of the 2000 World Series. Late in his career and not quite able to catch up to Mets closer/lol-causer Armando Benitez's fastballs, O'Neill took some close pitches and protected the plate with a few fouls. Ten pitches later, O'Neill ended up with a walk and the Yankees rallied to tie the game, then win it a few innings later. We can only wish that all hitters had O'Neill's plate discipline.
18. Paulie 2K
On May 2, 2001, O'Neill reached a career milestone in Minnesota with the 2,000th hit of his MLB career. In his Yankees career, he hit a commendable .303/.377/.492 with 1,426 hits, 304 doubles, 185 homers, a 125 OPS+, and 26.6 rWAR. Going beyond the fans' adoration, those are numbers certainly worthy of Monument Park. Beyond his Yankee career, the five-time All-Star would be a fine "Hall of Very Good" member, as he hit .288/.363/.470 in his career with 2,105 hits, 451 doubles, 281 homers, a 120 OPS+, and 38.8 rWAR. That's a mighty nice 17-year career.
An understandable reaction to Tino Martinez's stunning game-tying homer in the ninth inning of Game 4 of the 2001 World Series, no?
20. "Don't need this anymore, I'm in Monument Park!"
I still get chills thinking about the ovation O'Neill received in the ninth inning of his final home game during the 2001 World Series. Man, what a moment.
Here's to you, Paulie. Thanks for nine amazing years that helped restore the Yankees from their cellar-dwelling days of the early '90s and for your four World Series championship rings.