Wednesday, October 25, 2000

SULLIVAN: Paul O'Neill

Time for ex-Red to come home

        NEW YORK — The years have caught up with Paul O'Neill. He plays more often in pain and less often with power. He moves with the labored stride of a man moving a piano.

        That said, if the New York Yankees have no further use for their creaky outfielder, he might find a place with the Cincinnati Reds.

        Eligible for free agency at season's end, O'Neill has been offered neither a new contract nor a bankable promise. He hears what you hear — that the Yankees are enamored with Cleveland slugger Manny Ramirez — and he knows right field isn't big enough for both of them.

        Odds are, O'Neill will be looking for another place to land shortly after the World Series. The Reds, who never should have traded O'Neill eight years ago, ought to be first in line among potential suitors.

        What the Reds want is a front-line right fielder — a replacement for Dante Bichette, an upgrade over the platoon possibilities of Alex Ochoa and Michael Tucker, and a bridge to the organization's promising outfield prospects.

        What the Reds need is a veteran player with leadership qualities — a gamer, a grinder, a guy who doesn't bail out early on the last day of the season to catch a flight home to Florida.

        Greg Vaughn was that guy in 1999, but he's gone. O'Neill probably fits the profile better than any other player the Reds could plausibly get. Because he continues to live in Cincinnati and has never been obsessed with salary, O'Neill might fit Jim Bowden's budget.

Clubhouse needs him
               Because O'Neill is still under contract and preoccupied with the World Series, neither Reds management nor O'Neill's agent, Joe Bick, can make any meaningful comment about his future. Sources in both camps, however, clearly see a fit.

        “There's an element in Paul O'Neill that is missing in the Reds clubhouse,” one insider said Tuesday.

        That element is a passion for excellence, an approach to the game that has nothing to do with ability and everything to do with will.

        To watch O'Neill in action is to see a man tormented by his own imperfections. Every out he makes is an exercise in exasperation. Troubled by a painful hip pointer and a prolonged slump, O'Neill lately has carried himself like a condemned man, despite driving in 100 runs for the fourth straight year.

        “Obviously, when the team is losing and you're playing lousy, it feels worse; it compounds itself,” O'Neill said. “You get caught up in the emotion of this game and you lose sight of what you have to do.”

Bring back Lou, too
               Yet what Reds fans once regarded as petulance is now perceived as passion. Nothing helps a player's reputation like improved individual numbers and team championships. Even now, dropped to seventh in the batting order, O'Neill is described as the “soul” of the world champions.

        “He's obviously not as comfortable (physically) as he has been,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said. “But Paul O'Neill has been a remarkable player for the five years I've been here.”

        All managers do not prize the same players. Should the Reds hire Lou Piniella, for example, the likelihood of signing O'Neill would seem remote. The two men are so similar in temperament, and were so often at odds during their careers in Cincinnati, that reuniting them could be awkward.

        They did manage to co-exist in 1990. That was the last time the Reds won the World Series.



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