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Paul O’Neill’s number retirement is more about the era he represents

Just as a player, O’Neill’s numbers don’t seem to meet the threshold for his honor

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

First things first — I like Paul O’Neill. He was a linchpin of a dynasty that seems like it won’t be matched for decades, if ever. His nine seasons as a Yankee are impressive, as he exceeded all expectations and hit .303/.377/.492 in New York, with 185 home runs to boot. He’s also stuck around the franchise as an in-game analyst for the YES Network. In my mind, that’s absolutely deserving of the plaque he received in Monument Park in 2014.

However, I think that the Yankees’ announcement yesterday that they will be retiring No. 21 in his honor this upcoming August (assuming there’s a season!) is going a bit far. The team’s infatuation with retiring numbers has become a bit of a running joke — the Yankees will now have only seven of the numbers between Nos. 1-23 available for players to wear. None of that is O’Neill’s fault or problem, of course. Still, I think his ceremony might be credited a bit too much to the love of the era of the Yankees he represents, and less about the performance of the player himself.

For instance, Aaron Judge currently sits at 158 career home runs. With a healthy, full season, he should be easily able to hit the 28 needed to pass O’Neill’s career total in New York. Judge has accumulated 24.5 fWAR so far as a Yankee; O’Neill had 26.6 over his nine seasons. Again, Judge should pass him with even a mediocre season by his standards.

If Judge leaves for another team after 2022 and never comes back, will the Yankees retire his number once he retires? Obviously not. And the answer why would be pretty clear — because he wasn’t a champion, and because he wasn’t “devoted” enough to the franchise and to the fans to stay. He’s been injured, so he’s not a “warrior” either, I suppose.

I’m not saying that the number of total championships won and seasons spent with the team shouldn’t been factors considered when deciding whose numbers to enshrine in Monument Park. But the success of those late-‘90s teams seems to have added a sheen onto some of the players from that era that the franchise is still clinging to, now over 20 years later. When there are increasingly fewer fans who have active memories of that time that they look back on so fondly, will his number hanging still carry the same weight, or will it feel like the Yankees just honored the ‘90s edition of Hank Bauer?* O’Neill’s number and those of some of the others from that era stand out compared to the likes of Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, and Lou Gehrig, whose feats will always stand the test of time.

*This is not to demean Bauer, who was a fine outfielder and produced 26.1 fWAR for Casey Stengel’s fifties era champions. But that figure is nearly identical to O’Neill’s, and while he was also a respected clubhouse leader, no one led the charge to retire his number.

O’Neill joins Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, and Mariano Rivera as key players from the late 1990s to get their numbers retired (not to mention manager Joe Torre). Obviously, Jeter and Rivera are Hall of Fame players in a different category, whose numbers would have been retired by any other club. Pettitte is first in franchise history in strikeouts and tied for first in games started, accolades that would also reasonably get anyone’s number retired, especially for an old club like the Yankees. Williams and Posada are iffier cases, but considering their offensive output for and how long they spent with the team, I think they’re reasonable enough.

But for me, it’s hard not to feel like O’Neill’s desire to be a broadcaster, unlike many other players who retire, keeping him fresh in the minds of fans who watch every day — and the executives who manage the team — may be a factor in this decision finally coming. And to be fair, if you want to honor the ‘90s dynasty as a whole, the picture isn’t complete without him. But as those years get farther and farther away, I think the honor will appear more head-scratching to young fans. The franchise will, if all goes the way they plan, have other passionate, good hitters who win championships and and earn chants in the playoffs, then give way to yet another.