Saturday, November 03, 2001

Fans' tribute touches O'Neill

Yankee veteran announces retirement

By John Fay
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        NEW YORK — It was an hour after the end of the game, Paul O'Neill's last at Yankee Stadium. It might have been the best night of his long career, if the night before hadn't been better.

Paul O'Neill tips his cap to Yankee fans.
(AP photos)
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        The wave of media was gone. O'Neill was still in uniform. He looked at his locker. O'Neill thought about cleaning it out, then he waved it off.

        He was too happy, too tired.

        Until Scott Brosius hit the two-run homer with two outs in the bottom of the ninth to send the New York Yankees to a 3-2, 12-inning win, the moment of Game 5 came when O'Neill returned to right field in the top of the ninth.

        The 55,820 fans at Yankee Stadium had figured O'Neill's at-bat in the bottom of the eighth was his last. They began chanting, “Paul O'Neill! Paul O'Neill! Paul O'Neill!”

        It was rhythmic. It was loud. It was touching.

        “I was blown away,” O'Neill said. “What are you supposed to say? What are you supposed to do? It was unbelievable.”

        It was a thanks-for-the-memories salute only Yankees fans could provide. They knew the significance of O'Neill's at-bat. He has all but said he'll retire after the season. When he stepped to the plate, camera flashbulbs went off like Barry Bonds was chasing 70 homers.

        “Being on the field and seeing that was amazing,” O'Neill said.

        “The fans showed how much they appreciate Paul,” teammate Chuck Knoblauch said. “He's been such an unselfish player.”

        O'Neill's career is down to one or two games. Whether or not the Yankees win the World Series title, tO'Neill's career will be one of the most successful in the modern era in the one statistical category that counts most: championships.

        The Yankees will try to nail down their fourth straight and fifth in six years tonight in Game6 of the World Series against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix. Add that to the one O'Neill won with the Reds in 1990.

        O'Neill had a role in the first of the Yankees' back-to-back comebacks. He singled before Tino Martinez's two-run, game-tying homer in the bottom of the ninth Wednesday.

        Not being the star suits O'Neill just fine.

        “We've been so good at everybody doing a little part,” he said. “If you go up and down our wins, you see a lot of different names.”

        O'Neill went from the Reds to the Yankees nine years ago today. He was traded for Roberto Kelly and Joe DeBerry. It is the trade Reds general manager Jim Bowden calls the worst of his career.

        O'Neill didn't think too much of it at the time, either. The Yankees hadn't gone to the playoffs in 10 years.

        Then O'Neill talked to his fa ther, Charles.

        “I wasn't happy,” O'Neill said. “But my dad told it me it would be the best thing that happened to me. It was.”

        O'Neill was known as much for his temper as his skills in Cincinnati. Lou Piniella and he clashed. It's fair to say Cincinnati fans thought the Reds were getting the better of the deal in Kelly.

        But O'Neill matured into a solid clutch player in New York. His numbers were never gaudy by today's standards. His career average is .288. But he hit at least 18 home runs in all nine years with the Yankees. He recorded his 2,000th hit this year.

        When New York manager Joe Torre didn't start O'Neill in the first two games of the series, O'Neill didn't like it, but he didn't complain.

        Torre probably felt worse about it than O'Neill.

        “He's a very special person,” Torre said. “When I first came here, I heard he's a selfish player, doesn't do this, doesn't do that ... I noticed the only selfish part about him is he wants to get a hit every time up.”

        And despite being troubled by a stress fracture in his foot, O'Neill hit .267 with 21 homers, 70 RBI and a career-high 22 stolen bases during the regular season. At 38, he became the oldest player to go 20-20.

        But O'Neill will be remembered as a key member of the Yankees dynasty that began in 1996. O'Neill, Derek Jeter, Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera have been the constants on a team of changing characters.

        “When I remember the good things, it's not anything I did,” O'Neill said. “It's hugging someone, the feeling of winning again. Not that I hit some home run.”

        Yankees boss George Steinbrenner calls O'Neill “his warrior.”

        “That's the best description of him,” Torre said. “He just loves the game.”

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