Paul O’Neill’s career celebrated with Monument Park plaque
O’Neill spent his final nine seasons in pinstripes, and as the chants of his name echoed throughout Yankee Stadium, it was impossible not to recall the right fielder’s tearful and memorable final home game in the 2001 World Series.
His place in the new Stadium is now secure; the Yankees unveiled a bronze Monument Park plaque to honor O’Neill in a pregame ceremony on Saturday afternoon.
“I hope it came across how big of an honor it is,” O’Neill said. “It was an unbelievable thing, to look behind yourself and see your kids and see your wife, your mom and your brothers here. You just know that you were part of something big here. That, I’m proud of.”
There are seven monuments and now 29 plaques in Monument Park, with O’Neill scheduled to be the final inductee of the summer. Goose Gossage, Tino Martinez and Joe Torre were recognized with plaques earlier this season, and the Yankees plan to celebrate Bernie Williams’ career in 2015.
O’Neill’s mother, Virginia, and his wife, Nevalee, were among the family members on hand for Saturday’s ceremonies. The tribute also included appearances by David Cone, Gene Monahan, Tino Martinez, Torre, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.
“It was a great day just to remember, sitting there talking to Jorge and Tino and Joe Torre and Mariano,” O’Neill said. “These guys go out of their way to come back and that means a lot. You spend every single day with these guys when you’re playing and then you don’t see them for a while, but as soon as you get back together, it’s like you never left.”
O’Neill started his career with the Reds, where he won the 1990 World Series, and his career took a turn with a Nov. 3, 1992 trade to the Yankees for outfielder Roberto Kelly. Torre said that O’Neill became “part of the glue that kept this thing together.”
“This whole group never admired what they had accomplished,” Torre said. “They always kept wanting to accomplish more, which was great for me. They never got tired of winning. A lot of times you win the World Series and say, ‘Oh, I got mine,’ and then you celebrate the rest of your career. But these guys kept wanting to do more.”
A five-time All-Star, O’Neill helped raise the championship trophy in 1996, but he said it was the loss to the Indians in the 1997 playoffs that galvanized the club’s spirit and rallied them to win the next three titles.
“You couldn’t get it off your mind,” O’Neill said. “I think the fear of going through that again helped us unbelievably and that’s why I think we won in ’98, ’99 and 2000.”
Yankees manager Joe Girardi said that the first thoughts that come to mind about O’Neill are his competitiveness and constant expectation of success.
“The intensity that he brought; I used to love what it brought out to him and the rest of us,” Girardi said.
There were the good times that O’Neill and his teammates would have playing cards in the back of the plane, and also the unforgettable episodes when O’Neill would inevitably make an out and punish his batting helmet or the water cooler. O’Neill’s golf clubs, Girardi noted, also weren’t immune to a tantrum.
“I laughed,” Girardi said. “I really believe that most players wish they felt comfortable doing that. It’s got to be a great release.”
O’Neill said that if he had a second chance, he might have changed a few things.
“If I had to do it all over again, would I get out of the camera’s view? Absolutely,” O’Neill said. “But at that point in time I wasn’t smart enough to wait and do that. That’s the neat thing about retiring: you look up at the video and there’s no strikeouts, there’s no errors. It’s all good stuff.”
As a Yankee, O’Neill batted .303 with 304 doubles, 185 home runs and 858 RBIs, claiming the 1994 American League batting title with a .359 average. In 2001, at age 38, he became the oldest player in history with at least 20 stolen bases and 20 homers in the same season (since surpassed by Gary Sheffield in 2007).
O’Neill said that he recalls disappointment on the cold November day that he learned his career was detouring to New York, feeling as though he hadn’t played well enough to stay with the Reds. He said that was quickly replaced by a sense of the Yankees’ history, a fabric that O’Neill is now permanently part of.
“Let’s face it: we’re all lucky to play for the New York Yankees, especially at that time,” O’Neill said. “It didn’t take long to feel the tradition and this team. You talk about the perfect time to come here; it started turning around and we started winning, and being part of that is something I’ll never forget.”