Friday, November 02, 2001

O'Neill makes retirement official

Former Red helped revive Yankees dynasty

The Associated Press

Paul O'Neill tips his cap to Yankee fans.
(AP photos)
| ZOOM |
        NEW YORK — The backbone of the Yankees said good-bye to his fans Thursday night.

        For nine years, Paul O'Neill showed his teammates how to win, how not to give up. Also, how to throw helmets and bats, kick benches and punch walls.

        And finally, after the Yankees' 3-2, 12-inning win over Arizona in World Series Game 5 Thursday night, O'Neill finally admitted what everybody knew: He will retire after this weekend.

        “I can't think of a better way to go out in my last game at Yankee Stadium,” said O'Neill, who won his first World Series ring with the Reds in 1990 and may finish his Yankee career with five more.

        Given his choice, he would rather watch attention directed elsewhere. Go out, do your job. Succeed and credit your teammates or lose and blame it on your own failure to come through.

        He got a standing ovation on the very first play of the game, when he gloved Tony Womack's fly ball to right.

Fan's sign salutes O'Neill.
(AP photos)
| ZOOM |
        In the bottom half, fans cheered loudly when he walked up to the plate and drew a four-pitch walk. When he batted in the eighth, with the Yankees trailing 2-0, fans were on their feet and flashbulbs popped with every pitch. He got another ovation when he went to right field to start the ninth.

        “Paul-O'Neill! Paul-O'Neill!” the entire stadium chanted through the entire top of the ninth.

        “Thanks No. 21, Warrior,” read one sign in the seats.

        On the way back to the dugout, he finally acknowledged the cheers with a tip of his cap.

        “It was strange. There was nothing on my mind but winning the game,” O'Neill said. “I got goose bumps out there. I won't lie. My next at-bat, I had to step out. I would have tried to do too much.”

        He was 0-for-3 with two walks, two groundouts and a double-play grounder. For a change, it didn't seem to eat at him.

        “I'd have loved nothing better than to hit a home run and win the game and wave to the crowd,” he said.

        He is much more than his stats. A five-time All-Star, he was acquired by the Yankees from Cincinnati after the 1992 season for Roberto Kelly.

        O'Neill hit .300 or higher in his first six seasons in New York, drove in 100 or more runs four times. And he brought electricity to the ballpark with intensity that matched New York.

        “It's pretty emotional,” Yankees manager Joe Torre said before the game. “I think what they are saying to him is "thank you.' I think they are thanking him for what he has brought to this ballclub. It's really been a lot of humanity, and you've got so many people sitting in the stands, and if they are fans, they bang their pencil if somebody strikes out. And Paul O'Neill, he wears it on his sleeve.

        “He's going to kick a water cooler or do something — never aims it at anybody but himself. There's a lot of passion there, and I think that the fans really appreciated the blue-collar nature of Paul O'Neill.”

        Before the game, O'Neill tried not to think about playing in baseball's most famous ballpark for the final time.

        “If you're out 20 games in September, you might,” he said.

        Not now, not in the World Series.

        “You've prepared your whole lifetime to play in games like these,” he said.

        When he walks up to the plate to The Who's “Baba O'Reilly” in the late innings, the joint jumps, the way it did when his opposite-field single started New York's ninth-inning rally Wednesday night.

        “He's a special guy, he really is,” Torre said. “He's really only interested in winning. I had a meeting, I think it was in '98 and we were down 2-1 to Cleveland, and I talk to him, and I said, "You are not having any fun' and everybody sat there and listened to my spiel.

        “And he got me in the corner and said, "Skip, it's not fun unless you win.' That's what drives him all the time.”

        After Thursday's win, he finally dropped his guard a little bit and, in a rarity, talked about his feelings.

        “I'm blown away by what's happened here in New York,” he said. “The fans are great. It's a great feeling to be out there.”


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