On November 3, 1992, late Yankees GM Gene Michael made a savvy trade that helped change the course of the decade. Out to Cincinnati went 1992 All-Star outfielder Roberto Kelly, one of the few bright spots on a team that finished under .500 for the fourth year in a row. In came Paul O’Neill, a World Series champion in 1990 and an All-Star outfielder in 1991, but also someone entering his age-30 season after an off-year that saw his production dip to league-average at best.
“Stick” knew what he was doing, though. O’Neill tweaked his batting approach and he turned out to be a perfect fit in an ascendant Yankee lineup. From 1993-98, he hit .317/.397/.517 with 206 doubles, 127 homers, a 138 OPS+, and 22.1 rWAR, making four All-Star teams and winning the 1994 AL batting crown with a .359 average in the strike-shortened season. More importantly, his approach at the plate meshed well with the likes of Bernie Williams, Wade Boggs, Don Mattingly, and eventually, Tino Martinez and Derek Jeter.
The Yankees began their dynastic run and went on to win four World Series in five years with O’Neill a pivotal part of their lineup (and outfield). Even as he declined to merely adequate during his last three seasons, the Bombers reigned as kings of the American League, and he could always be counted on to provide a patient, determined at-bat come playoff time, as the Mets learned to their chagrin in the 2000 Subway Series.
Once it became a not-so-subtle secret that O’Neill would retire after the 2001 campaign, Yankees fans gave their due to the man who earned his “Warrior” nickname through a Lou Piniella-like intensity. They loved that he played as hard as anyone out there and that sometimes, water coolers paid the price. So when he walked off the field for the bottom of the ninth in his last home game (World Series Game 5), the fans gave him a thunderous applause.
O’Neill ended his Yankees career with 304 doubles (8th on the team since the end of World War II), 185 homers (15th), and a .303 average (7th). Fans got the chance to cheer the now-YES Network analyst again when he was given a plaque in Monument Park in 2014, and this upcoming August, O’Neill will receive the ultimate honor for any living Yankee.
The Yankees announced this morning that O’Neill’s No. 21 would be retired prior to their August 21st matinee against Toronto.
8.21.22— New York Yankees (@Yankees) February 22, 2022
Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 enters Monument Park. pic.twitter.com/6ewcbEDPKj
O’Neill is the first Yankee to be honored this way since Jeter in 2017 and he’ll join former teammates Williams, Mariano Rivera, Jorge Posada, and Andy Pettitte in the number retirement club. His No. 21 will be the 22nd number enshrined in Monument Park.
I’ve always considered O’Neill more of a “Monument Park plaque” honoree than worthy of a number retirement alongside more long-term Yankees like Jeter and Williams, but the Yankees have made it clear for quite a few years now that no one would wear No. 21 again. Earlier attempts to allow players like LaTroy Hawkins to do so — even to simply honor Roberto Clemente — went array, and, well, if they’re not going to issue it, then they might as well retire it.
None of that is to take away from O’Neill’s career though, and I’m not going to dwell on it. He was a terrific Yankee who helped them win a quartet of championships and return them to glory from a previously dark period. He’s also been one of the voices of Yankees baseball for a generation of up-and-coming fans, as 2022 will remarkably be his 21st season on the mic for YES Network. That has to count for something, too, much like in Phil Rizzuto’s case.
Congratulations to Paulie!
The Ultimate Warrior. pic.twitter.com/wldIkgyjSq— New York Yankees (@Yankees) February 22, 2022