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1996 Yankees 20th Anniversary Retrospective: Paul O'Neill

The Warrior claimed his first of four World Series titles with the Yankees as a key contributor to the 1996 squad.

Al Bello/Getty Images

The text on Paul O'Neill's plaque in Monument Park reads: "An intense competitor and team leader, O'Neill was beloved for his relentless pursuit of perfection." That sentence says just about all you need to know regarding "The Warrior" and what he contributed on and off the field to the 1996 Yankees.


O'Neill was born in Columbus, Ohio and grew up rooting for the Cincinnati Reds' "Big Red Machine." His father Charles "Chick" O'Neill was a former minor league pitcher, and took his son to his first major league game at Crosley Field in Cincinnati to watch the Reds play the Pittsburgh Pirates. It was not a Reds player that O'Neill would leave the most lasting impression on O'Neill that day, but Pirates right fielder Roberto Clemente. "There was something special about the number 21 that settled into my psyche, somewhere in the back of my mind.  Some say it was prophetic," O'Neill would later recall.

At Brookhaven High School in Columbus, O'Neill was a three-sport athlete, playing football, basketball, and baseball. On the diamond he impressed as both a pitcher and a hitter, and was drafted by the Reds in the fourth round of the 1981 Major League Baseball draft. He advanced steadily through the minor leagues before making his major league debut with the Reds in 1985 at the age of 22.

O'Neill had another cup of coffee with the Reds in 1986, and played in 84 major league games in 1987 before sticking with the big league club full-time in 1988. Lou Piniella took over as manager of the Reds in 1990, leading the club to the World Series and a four game sweep of the defending champion Oakland A's. O'Neill batted .270 that year, with 16 home runs, 78 runs batted in, a .761 OPS, and batted .277 in the postseason with one home run and five RBI. O'Neill famously clashed with Piniella throughout their time together with the Reds, as Piniella pushed O'Neill to focus more on pulling the ball and hitting more home runs.

The Reds traded O'Neill to the Yankees prior to the start of the 1993 season for outfielder Roberto Kelly. In his first season with the Bronx Bombers, O'Neill replaced Don Mattingly as the team's number three hitter, and played in 141 games batting .311, with 20 home runs, 75 runs batted in, a .871 OPS, and 2.9 WAR. O'Neill's finest statistical campaign occurred during the strike-shortened 1994 season, during which he batted .359, with 21 home runs, 83 runs batted in, a 1.064 OPS, a 4.9 WAR, while being elected to his second All-Star Game.

O'Neill helped to lead the Yankees to their first postseason berth since 1981 the following season. The Yankees clinched the American League Wild Card and faced the AL West champion Seattle Mariners in the Division Series.  O'Neill played incredibly well throughout the series, finishing with three home runs, six runs driven in, and an OPS of 1.292.  After pulling ahead to a 2-0 lead, the Yankees succumbed to the Mariners in three straight games, losing the series. O'Neill called the series loss "devastating," and felt as though "the series had been stolen right out from under us."

1996 Performance

Results: 150 G, .302/.411/.474, 19 HR, 91 RBI, 123 OPS+

Under new manager Joe Torre, O'Neill had a stellar regular season for the Yankees as the team's right fielder and number three hitter in the lineup. He played in 150 games, batting .302, with 19 home runs, 91 RBI, an .885 OPS, and 3.8 WAR. O'Neill also hit 35 doubles and walked 102 times, the only time in his career that he would surpass 100 walks in a season.

The 1996 postseason would prove to be a bit of a mixed bag for O'Neill, with one solid series sandwiched between two where he performed less well. Against the Texas Rangers in the ALDS the Yankees won three games to one, but O'Neill struggled mightily. In 15 plate appearances he managed two base hits (.133) with no walks, no runs scored, and no RBI.

Facing the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS, O'Neill got off to a slow start going 0 for 3 in a Game 1 Yankees victory (the Jeffrey Maier game), but rebounded with a single and a walk in three plate appearances in a Game 2 loss. Torre elected to sit O'Neill in favor of Darryl Strawberry against Orioles ace Mike Mussina in Game 3, which the Yankees won to take a 2-1 series lead. O'Neill would deliver his big blow for the series in Game 4 against Orioles right-hander Rocky Coppinger. O'Neill went deep for a two-run shot against Coppinger in the fourth inning to give the Yankees a 5-2 lead that would ultimately prove insurmountable. In the decisive Game 5 O'Neill went 1 for 3 with a walk against sinkerballer Scott Erickson, which delivered the Yankees' first World Series berth since 1981.

Matching up with the defending world champion Atlanta Braves, O'Neill struggled (along with the rest of the team) against Game 1 & 2 starters John Smoltz and Greg Maddux, managing just a double and a walk in seven plate appearances. With the series turning to Atlanta, Torre benched O'Neill again in favor of Strawberry for Games 3 & 4, but re-inserted him back into the lineup for Game 5. O'Neill went 0 for 2 with two walks in a 1-0 Yankees victory that put them on the brink of a World Series victory. O'Neill saved his biggest moment of the series for this decisive game, hitting a line drive double to right field that led to the Yankees scoring three runs in the bottom of the third. Those three runs would ultimately stand up in a 3-2 win that netted the Yankees their 23rd World Championship, and first since 1978.

What did he do after?

After the 1996 championship O'Neill would go on to play another five seasons for the Bronx Bombers, seasons in which they would win another three championships and fall just short in 2001. His career numbers with the Yankees are outstanding: 1,254 G, 1,426 H, 304 2B, 185 HR, 858 RBI, .303/.377/.492, .869 OPS, .125 OPS+, yet somehow are overshadowed by the leadership and intensity he brought to those great teams of the late 1990s and early 2000s. His contributions to the franchise were honored with a plaque in Monument Park on August 9, 2014, and no player has worn his number 21 since LaTroy Hawkins attempted to for one game at the beginning of the 2008 season.

Most Yankee fans are quite familiar with O'Neill's current on-goings, as they are well documented in his color commentary on the YES Network, where he has worked since 2002. O'Neill lives in Ohio, enjoys playing golf, and dines frequently with Frank and Mary. Listen for him on April 4 when the Yankees open up at the Stadium against the Houston Astros, just 66 days from now.


Baseball Reference, Paul O'Neill

Society for American Baseball Research, Paul O'Neill