O'Neill leaves Reds red-faced

Saturday, October 10, 1998

The Cincinnati Enquirer

CLEVELAND -- Paul O'Neill has stopped keeping score. Truth be told, he never started. He never imagined himself in direct competition with Roberto Kelly. The New York Yankees' right fielder is so tightly focused on the task at hand that even his hindsight has tunnel vision.

O'Neill has every right to gloat about the trade that sent him from Cincinnati to the Yankees six years ago, but none of the rancor. Things have worked out so well for him that he feels no need to point out how poorly they have worked out for the Reds.

"When you're traded for somebody, it wasn't me against Roberto Kelly," O'Neill said between games of the American League Championship Series. "I was fortunate that I was coming to the Yankees when the Yankees were building a good team. I had a chance to play with some good players and some people who helped me a lot."

Paul O'Neill is a different player than the fellow who prowled right field at Riverfront Stadium from 1987 through 1992, and so far superior to his former self that it is baffling that both versions could have sprung from the same body.

Read it and weep

When the Reds traded him -- in the first and worst of Jim Bowden's many big deals -- O'Neill was a pull hitter with declining power. When he hit a career-low .246 in 1992, Lou Piniella wanted him gone, and Bowden obliged his impulsive manager during his third week on the job.

At the time, it seemed a reasonable move. Kelly could play center field, and figured to enhance both the Reds' outfield speed and base-stealing output.

In retrospect, however, O'Neill-for-Kelly ranks with Frank Robinson-for-Milt Pappas among the most regrettable deals the Reds have ever made.

Those fans who read the next three paragraphs do so at their own risk:

O'Neill has won a batting title for the Yankees, and hit at least .300 six years in succession. Kelly has played for seven teams in six seasons.

O'Neill has hit at least 19 home runs every year since the trade. Kelly has hit no more than 16 homers in any season during the same span.

O'Neill has totaled 578 runs batted in for the Yankees -- exactly twice the total of 289 Kelly has produced for his assorted employers since 1992.

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Some of us wondered how well the tightly wound O'Neill would cope with the unique pressures of playing in New York, and whether the proud tradition of the Yankees would prove a ponderous burden.

A perfect fit?

"Obviously, when I was traded, I'd heard all the horror stories about New York," O'Neill said. "A lot of people questioned, "How are you going to do?' But I have a wife and a family and a faith that things happen for a reason. I fit in real well with the people here."

Because the Yankees had other sources of power, O'Neill was encouraged to hit to all fields instead of obsessing on the right-field seats. Once he stopped trying to drive every ball for distance, he became a disciplined, dangerous hitter.

"When you're 6-4 and you hit some balls out, everybody's thinking you're a home run hitter," O'Neill said. "And you try to do more. But for me to try to pull an outside pitch -- that's not me. I see people do that and wonder how they're able to do that. I can't go up there thinking hit the ball to right field."

What the Reds sometimes interpreted as immaturity -- the tendency to throw batting helmets and brood about each at-bat -- the Yankees have come to see as an ideal competitive intensity.

"At the writers dinner this past winter, George Steinbrenner described him as a warrior, and I think that is a perfect fit for him," Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "He is just a guy that people look to for leadership. (He's) not someone who is going to be out there in the forefront to talk about it, but basically just to go out there and play the way he knows how to play, which is pretty damn good."

The same might be said of Roberto Kelly, but not often.

Enquirer columnist Tim Sullivan welcomes your E-mail. Message him at tsullivan@enquirer.com.