WARRIOR - war·rior noun, often attributive \ˈwȯr-yər, ˈwȯr-ē-ər, ˈwär-ē- also ˈwär-yər\ : a person who fights in battles and is known for having courage and skill
That is how Webster’s Dictionary defines a Warrior. In New York we define it with one name, Paul O’Neill. I like our definition better.
This past Saturday New York Yankee fans got to say thank you to a truly unforgettable player. On a beautiful, summer day in the Bronx, surrounded by former teammates, family and a chanting stadium, O’Neill was presented with a bronze, commemorative plaque. It will now hang in Monument Park along side the names of other Pinstriped Heroes and serve as a reminder of what kind of player Paul was.
As anyone who knows me will tell you Paul O’Neill was my all-time favorite player. Yes, it’s because he is a fiery, ill tempered, Irishman. Yes, it’s because I too share an affinity for the number 21. But that’s not the only reason. For me O’Neill just played the game the right way across the board. He played to win. Many players will say that, O’Neill ALWAYS walked the walk. He never gave away at bats and never wanted to come out of a game. He really was a warrior in ever sense of the word. Paul stayed in the fight until the fight was won. We all remember his iconic catch in the 1996 World Series. On one good leg he chased down a shot to the right center gap. From his first day in a Yankee uniform we knew we could count on Paulie to always be there. He was clutch in big spots. There was no better feeling than to hear the Stadium PA blaring the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” in the late innings of a close game. Paul would walk to the plate with determination chiseled on his face. No matter if it was working a walk, drilling one to the opposite field or sending one deep into the New York night, Paulie pushed himself with a seemingly unquenchable blood lust for victory. There was a reason those Yankee teams were so successful, they were built on a foundation called O’Neill.
Joe Girardi was asked before the game if there were any players on the current Yankee team like Paulie. He never really answered the question, but we all know the answer…it’s a big NO. I am not saying that Jeter isn’t a win at all cost type. The Captain is, and I think he also learned a thing or too about that from playing with O’Neill. The diving head first catch against Boston was a play from Paulie’s playbook for sure. Jeet is like Paul when it comes to the bottom line. Win; there is no glory in second place. No, I think we know that there isn’t and won’t be another Paul O’Neill.
My only hope is that Michael O’Neill, a prospect in the farm system, has some of his Uncle’s “sand” as the Irish would say. This roster of Yankees could use some of Paulie’s fire, and he looks as if he could still play. As the years pass and we get further away from the late 90s’ clubs we see how special they were. What they were able to accomplish was something that just doesn’t happen too often. They were like a comet in a sense…I consider myself lucky to have been able to watch them. They were absolutely teams for the ages.
Baseball really does create heroes. And some of these men actually live up to that moniker. I know the always-humble O’Neill would deflect that type of praise, but he is in my opinion. If you were to tell a young player to model his/her game after someone, you couldn’t go wrong pointing out O’Neill. In 2001 the Yankees meant so much to a city trying to make sense of one of the darkest times in American history. The World Series was an escape, even if just for a few hours, from the sorrow and anger. Paulie and his teammates gave us 3 amazing nights of baseball and during the day they’d visit first responders and grieving families. During Paul’s career he never felt the need to showboat. He remembered every lesson his father taught him and worked everyday to better his game. He put the team first and was the type of competitor and person we could all be proud of.
I wouldn’t have missed Paul O’Neill Day for anything and although the Yankees couldn’t seem to get the bats going, I got to see my favorite player honored… not to mention the Captain, that will soon join Paul among the monuments, secure the 6th all-time place on Baseball’s hits list. It was an amazing day in Yankee history.
The final thing I’ll share is an O’Neill Family legend…and I think it pretty much sums up the Yankee Warrior. I have an article framed on the wall in my office. It was taken from a write-up in the LA Times on Paul from 1998. The first paragraph of the article tells the story of an ancient O’Neill ancestor. He and the head of a rival Irish clan looked to expand their land. They both sought to lay claim to a small island off the coast of Ireland. The two men decided that they’d row to the island and the first to touch land would take it for his family. As they neared the end of the race O’Neill saw that he was in danger of losing. Rather than concede he drew his sword, cut off is own hand and threw it to the shore. He would touch land first. That was how Paul O’Neill played the game of baseball. That’s why he was my favorite.
Congratulations, Paulie. Slainte’!
**3 SONGS and a night I’ll never forget. HERE’S TO THE WARRIOR!!**
Check out Right Field Charities, Paul O'Neill's foundation. Make a donation HERE.
Senior "Features" Writer
MLB Fan Cave Host, Season 1
"Paulie was always my favorite player."
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