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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #39 Paul O’Neill

“The Warrior” was more than just an intense competition for the ‘90s dynasty; he was a helluva hitter, too.

New York Yankees fans display a sign of thanks to Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

Full Name: Paul Andrew O’Neill
Position: Right field
Born: February 25, 1963 (Columbus, OH)
Yankee Years: 1993-2001
Primary number: 21
Yankee statistics: 1,254 G, .303/.377/.492, 304 2B, 14 3B, 185 HR, 125 wRC+, 26.7 rWAR, 26.7 fWAR

Biography

Acquired in a 1992 trade, former Red and Ohio native Paul O’Neill made an irreplaceable impact in his near decade in pinstripes. He was a fiery, hard-nosed right fielder with a knack for reaching base and performing under the sport’s brightest spotlights. O’Neill was a staple in the heart of the lineup throughout one of baseball’s most dominant stretches in the form of the late 90s Bombers, and duly earned a spot in our Top 100 Yankees of all time.

Early Years

Paul O’Neill was born to Virginia and Charles “Chick” O’Neill in Columbus, Ohio in February of 1963. Chick was a former minor league pitcher, while his father also had roots in professional baseball. Paul, the youngest of six O’Neill children, was blessed in a baseball sense, given his family’s past in the game, as well as their move to a home with a sizeable yard when Paul was young, big enough to hold a makeshift baseball diamond. This field had a tree out in right field, which seemed to help O’Neill master the art of hitting the ball the other way as a lefty, something quite evident in his 17-year big league career. He even remarked that “that back yard was the best training ground for any future professional [ballplayer], and those home run derby games were especially ferocious.”

O’Neill learned the game on that field in Ohio, while rooting on the Cincinnati Reds. His father took him to his first big league game in 1970, where the Reds took on the Pirates. There, a young Paul took a liking to Pittsburgh’s right fielder, who wore number 21, Roberto Clemente. He clearly was impacted by Clemente’s abilities and presence on the field, as O’Neill wore that same number in the same position for his entire eventual Major League career.

O’Neill attended Brookhaven High School in Columbus, where he played football, basketball, and baseball, excelling particularly on the diamond. The big left-hander received college scholarship offers for both baseball and basketball but also drew the eyes of professional baseball scouts, including those of his beloved Reds. He elected to go the way of pro baseball, a decision that would prove wise, and the Reds selected him in the fourth round of the 1981 draft.

Slow Rise to Big League Stardom

Cincinnati Reds v San Francisco Giants Photo by Otto Greule Jr./Getty Images

As a teenager, O’Neill had a pair of fine-enough seasons between Rookie and A-ball in ‘81 and ‘82. He worked his way up to Double-A in the following two seasons, then began the 1985 season with the triple-A Denver Zephyrs. After hitting .305 in Denver, O’Neill got his first call-up to the major leagues, making his debut on September 3, 1985. As a pinch-hitter, he lined a single into right field for his first major league hit. He would appear in just five games that year, and only in three the next year, but things would get rolling in ‘87. Across 160 plate appearances, O’Neill had a 111 wRC+ and cemented himself in the starting lineup going forward.

Between 1988 and 1990, O’Neill averaged 16 homers and slashed .266/.330/.757 with a 108 wRC+. In 1989, his best season to that point, he had one of his more memorable moments as a player. With the winning run rounding third in a July game against the Phillies, O’Neill thought he had bobbled the game away on a single that rolled his way. In somewhat typical fashion, he wore his emotions on his sleeve and kicked the ball away in disgust, a move that improbably ended up saving the game.

For the World Series-winning 1990 Reds, Paulie showed off his ability to shine in October, as he OPS’d .946 in 36 plate appearances that postseason. He earned his first All-Star nod in 1991, one of the best seasons of he enjoyed, where he belted a career-high 28 homers for Cincy.

1992 was a modest-but-down season in southwest Ohio for O’Neill, who had been pressed to attempt to hit for even more power by similarly-tempered skipper Lou Piniella. It didn’t take as his homer total was cut in half, and the player/manger relationship really began to fray. Despite the security he felt with the organization as a whole, it spelled the end of his time with the Reds.

A Decade of Success in the Bronx

In November of 1992, the Yankees acquired O’Neill’s services from the Reds in return for an All-Star of their own, Roberto Kelly. Growing up a Reds fan, O’Neill wasn’t thrilled with the move, but he rather quickly adjusted, and he wrote that “Once I’d set foot inside Yankee Stadium and met with Steinbrenner and general manager Gene Michael, I could see that a whole new baseball life was out there.”

Paulie’s play on the field was no worse for the wear either, as he enjoyed perhaps his best big league season at the plate in his first year in the Bronx. He went 4-for-4 in his Bronx debut, got back over 20 homers once again, slugged over .500 for the first time, and reached a then-career-high 134 wRC+.

O’Neill’s second season in the Bronx would be one for the ages, but one ultimately riddled with what-ifs. The 1994 season was famously cut short by the player strike, but in his 103 games, O’Neill played the best baseball of his life. By the end of April, he was average sat at an astonishing .448, and didn’t drop below .400 until mid-June. The Yankees also had a league-best 70-43 record when play stopped.

O’Neill belted 21 homers in two-thirds of a season while leading the league with a .359 average, and he was elected to his second All-Star team and finished fifth in MVP voting. His remarkable year certainly made an impression on the Yankees, as they inked him to a four-year, $19-million deal, locking him into the heart of some excellent Yankee years to come.

With the strike resolved, O’Neill largely picked up where he left off, as 1995 was yet another standout season for the right fielder. He had a 135 wRC+ across 543 plate appearances, topped 20 homers for the third straight year (including three in one game during the intense September stretch run), and earned his second consecutive All-Star selection. In MLB’s first year with Wild Card teams in the mix, the Yankees made it to the dance as just that. They would take on the Mariners in the the first iteration of the Division Series, in what would become a legendary back-and-forth matchup.

In the five-game duel, O’Neill was a force to be reckoned with. We all know how the series ultimately ended, but he homered three times and slashed .333/.458/.833. This included a game-tying blast in Game 2, which came an inning after captain Don Mattingly’s iconic “hang onto the roof” homer.

1996 rolled around, and the Yankees had a chip on their shoulder, and O’Neill kept on rolling in his age-33 campaign. He swatted 19 homers and hit over .300 yet again, and enjoyed his best on-base season to date (outside of the shortened ‘94) in which he walked 15.5 percent of the time, and maintained an elite .411 OBP en route to another solid 127 wRC+ season. The Yanks of course reached the postseason once again, this time going all the way and defeating the reigning champion Braves to capture their first World Series since 1978.

Playing through injury, O’Neill was not as potent this go-around, but as seen at the end of a 1-0 nailbiter World Series Game 5 in Atlanta, he would not be deprived of an unforgettable October moment.

The calendar turned to 1997, and Paul O’Neill stayed the same. 21 homers, .324/.399/.514 slash line, 139 wRC+, and another All-Star nod; Paulie was as consistent as they come. The Yankees would lose in the ALDS, but it had nothing to do with O’Neill, as he was even better this time around. He homered twice and reached base in half of his plate appearances.

1998 was a year, as we covered in great detail, in which just about everything went right for the Yankees, and O’Neill was no exception. He once again put up his near-patented stat line, 24 homers and a 129 wRC+ in 152 games, in what was his most valuable season according to fWAR, with a figure of 5.4. He earned his fifth All-Star selection, and the Yankees won a then-record 114 games in the regular season. They swept the Rangers in the DS, and ultimately defeated Cleveland for the American League pennant. They would take on the Padres in that year’s Fall Classic, and sweep their way to their rightful spot atop the mountain. O’Neill was solid in the championship run, holding up an .806 OPS across 60 plate appearances with a homer in each of the first two series.

At 36 years old, Paulie began the 1999 season strong but fell into a deep slump in May. His average fell to .244 at one point, but he persisted through the struggles and turned things around with a strong June and July. The Bombers won another 98 games and returned to the playoffs again. In early October, however, chasing a foul pop-up, O’Neill crashed into the wall and walked away with a cracked rib that would hinder him for the rest of their run.

The Yankees swept the Rangers and beat the Red Sox in the Championship Series to return to the Classic yet again, albeit with a limited O’Neill. The rib injury was not the whole of it either, as his O’Neill’s father’s health was rapidly deteriorating. He suffered a heart attack in June, and appeared to be in decline by the time the World Series rolled around. With much on his mind, O’Neill still did his best to contribute.

Shortly after Game 3, Chick O’Neill passed away. A crushed Paul considered not playing Game 4, but ultimately played through the turmoil, and helped the Yanks win their third championship in four years.

O’Neill considered retirement following that season, but elected to come back after the Yanks picked up his $6.5 million option. He was by no means bad, but his 92 wRC+ marked the first and only below average offensive season of his career. He was no black hole in the lineup though, churning 18 homers and 100 RBI amidst the down year, and the Yankees went on to their third consecutive World Series. O’Neill hit .310 in the postseason en route to a fifth ring in his decorated career, as the Yankees took down the crosstown Mets in the millennium's first Fall Classic. Luis Sojo had the most famous hit of the Subway Series, but O’Neill’s 10-pitch battle with closer Armando Benitez in the ninth inning of Game 1 made the game-tying rally possible as the Bombers won the opener.

His status was up in the air again for 2001, but O’Neill ultimately returned for one more season in the Bronx. His regular season ended with injury trouble, but it was still a productive one. O’Neill oddly set a career high with 22 stole bases at 37-years-old, and became the oldest player to record a 20-homer/20-steal season.

The Yankees returned to the World Series, ultimately losing in heartbreaking fashion to the Diamondbacks, but O’Neill’s final games as a major leaguer were great ones. He homered twice and managed a 123 wRC+ in the postseason, with his health likely less than 100 percent. It’s fitting he would play his last games like this, grinding through pain, but producing just like he had for the last 17 seasons. He officially hung up the cleats after the 2001 season, but not before the Yankee Stadium crowd chanted Paulie’s nickname for the final time.

A Model of Fire, Winning, and Consistency

There is a solid argument for Paul O’Neill being the heart of that incredible Yankees run in the late ‘90s. He spent nine seasons in the Bronx, six of them with 20 homers (never less than 18), boasted a .377 OBP, had a 125 wRC+, and was a staple in the middle of those potent lineups. Even through injuries or personal loss, you knew what you were getting from O’Neil. He was as consistent as they come. You also knew you were getting someone who wouldn’t take failure sitting down:

Now a YES Network announcer, Paul O’Neill’s tremendous impact on the Yankees would not go unrecognized, as he would have his number retired in Monument Park during the 2022 season, forever cementing his place in Yankee history. He could be trusted day in and day out in the lineup, and though he shouldn’t be trusted around a water cooler, he is more than deserving of a spot in our Top 100.

Staff Rank: 37
Community Rank: 27
Stats Rank: 48
2013 Rank: 46

References

The Baseball Cube

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

Donnelly, Chris. Baseball’s Greatest Series: Yankees, Mariners, and the 1995 Matchup That Changed History. New Brunswick, NJ: Rivergate Books, 2010.

FanGraphs

O’Neill, Paul with Burton Rocks. Me and My Dad. Harper Collins: New York, 2003.

Olney, Buster. Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Ray, James Lincoln. SABR bio

Sherman, Joel. Birth of a Dynasty. New York: Rodale, 2006.

Previously on the Top 100

40. Rickey Henderson
Full list to date