It’s the sweetest of July evenings, summer warmth touched
lightly with fall cool, and Jerome Avenue swarms with 55,000-plus fans filing
into Yankee Stadium for Game 1 of Subway Series Round 3. All the jerseys are
out: 51 for Bernie, 24 for Tino, 2 for Jeter. But even more than the others,
Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 pushes through the crowd.
On this Friday night in the Bronx, the core of the Yankees’
fan base is converging on the stadium, the kind of fan that George Steinbrenner
favors with his plans for a fancy new ballpark, to be built right next door.
Hard-working, driven and caught up in the competition in an intense and
personal way, they are Paul O’Neill fans one and all.
They love Paulie-his purple rages, the thrown bats, the
self-loathing-because there’s something in him that speaks directly to them. He
came of age when they did-in the 90’s, in an economic boom, in a city that
suddenly soared, symbolized by a home team that could do virtually no wrong
(both city and team represented by the same ubiquitous cheerleader, one Rudolph
Yet even as portfolios bloomed and dingy little apartments
climbed in value, there seemed to be something missing. Something purer,
Rudy sensed it during his quest for the Senate; being one of
50, down in D.C., where he was expected to act like a member of his party,
wasn’t for him. Bankers sensed it, too, ditching six-figure posts for the lure
of options and the Internet.
Paul O’Neill-a Midwesterner in appearance and lifestyle, a
bit out of place even in the suburbs he has adopted as home-became a vessel for
those gilded-age frustrations. And the more he displayed the fans’ pain, the
more they liked him.
Now the clock hands are turning, leaving Mr. O’Neill-and his
fans-not much further along than where he started: no Hall of Fame recognition
in his future, with little time left to play on.
The fans sense it in the air, this coming of the end. At 38
years old, the Yankee right fielder is very likely playing in the last half of
the last season of his pro-baseball career. He has not made that official yet;
asked about it, he just shakes his head and says he’s concentrating on this
game, this season, all the baseball clichés.
His manager says it’s up to Paulie, although others close to
him expect this year to be the end. And if it is, then Mr. O’Neill, like a lot
of his fans-talented late-30’s guys facing changes and middle age-is left
grappling with his mortality and the increasing incidence of his failures.
On this night, a hint of that is on display. With Met lefty
Al Leiter’s nasty slider on tap for the evening, manager Joe Torre is resting
his lefties, especially slumping ones like Mr. O’Neill. Returning outfielder
Gerald Williams gets the start instead.
It’s an easy win for the Yanks; Mr. Torre even pinch-hits
fellow lefty Tino Martinez, who rewards him by powering one deep into the
seats. But there is no place in this game, this night, for Mr. O’Neill-as there
will not be a few days later, when many of the Yankees and Mr. Torre head to
Seattle for the All-Star game. Mr. Williams finishes the game, and all we see
of Mr. O’Neill is a moment in the Yankee receiving line, touching fists with
Scott Brosius, Ramiro Mendoza and Derek Jeter, the stars of the night.
This is a town used to the nonchalance of its sports
heroes-the Patrick Ewings, Rickey Hendersons, Allan Houstons and Mike
Piazzas-who placidly accept the burdens of their failures as well as the fat
dollars of their contracts. It’s part of the game, failure; if you let it tear
you up inside, well, there will be nothing left of you, they will tell you.
But not Mr. O’Neill. He
still wears the pain on his face as if it were a light coat of TV makeup: the
scowling rictus that transforms the sweet suburban face into a mask of despair.
And these are not the silly, for-display histrionics of a Turk Wendell-“I hate
the Yankees,” he whined on July 8, after he came up short on the mound and the Yankees, again, took the Series
against the Mets. Paul O’Neill hates only himself. His pain is the real stuff.
Here is the thing about Paulie: He is a 38-year-old man who
loves the game of baseball too much for his own good. Sure, he is decent enough
on the drums to sit in at a John Mellencamp concert and pound out “Gloria,” and
his tennis game is good enough for any country club. A reverse jam on the
basketball court? No problem.
But what he really seeks is perfection on the diamond. He’s
been searching for it since the age of 8. And he is not going to find it.
Most of us have come to grips with this basic reality-that
we are not perfect at what we do. Paul O’Neill has not.
Mr. O’Neill first set foot in pinstripes in Yankee Stadium
in 1993, spraying line drives into all corners of the grassy expanse, and
hurling his helmet when the drives flared into outs. Right away it became clear
to New Yorkers: This wasn’t just another spoiled ballplayer.
A tall, strapping everyman of a player, born of the Ohio
suburbs and Little League summers, Mr. O’Neill wasn’t shy about showing how
much he hurt inside each time he failed. And with a career average of .285, his
bouts of self-loathing occurred a bit more than seven times out of 10.
Yet in the clubhouse before a recent game with Tampa Bay, he
is polite, soft-spoken, respectful even. This is no David Cone, master of the
ready-for-prime-time self-critique. Asked to explain his intensity, he shrugs
his shoulders, shuffles his feet, casts his eyes downward.
Up close, he’s more handsome than he appears on TV, his
features less craggy and pinched, his hair full and wavy. He is kicking back in
the lounge chair in front of his two lockers, one of them holding some
components from a drum set, both strewn with bats, balls and spikes. He is
scantily dressed in a threadbare T-shirt and white shorts, his broad shoulders
and narrow waist cutting a classic stevedore profile.
Derek Jeter and Orlando Hernandez are ribbing each other in
the trainer’s room; Alfonso Soriano and Mariano Rivera gab away in Spanish from
their adjoining lockers, and Tino Martinez is dressing to his right. Scott
Brosius drops by Mr. O’Neill’s locker, pulls up a chair, and the two men talk
quietly about their sons’ Little League exploits in Westchester.
Suddenly the old Yankee farmhand Gerald Williams, newly acquired
from the Devil Rays, enters the locker room, resplendent in a form-fitting suit
of dark and shiny blue. “Who is the banker? Who is the lawyer?” cackles Andy
Pettitte, as Mr. Williams glides through to a locker two away from Mr.
O’Neill’s. “How ya doin’, Gerald?” Mr. O’Neill offered. The two outfielders
overlapped for three years between 1993 and 1996, when Mr. O’Neill was an
established star and Mr. Williams was a struggling rookie clocking time on the
Columbus–New York shuttle. Now Mr. Williams had been brought back to firm up
the slack corners of the Yankee outfield.
“Let’s go hit the yard,” Mr. O’Neill says to Mr. Martinez as
he grabs his bats and heads toward the sunlight for batting practice. In the
cage, Mr. O’Neill is in a rotation with Mr. Martinez and Jorge Posada, both of
whom are smashing line drives into the blue seats in right field. Their swings
are fluid, effortless, the ball jumping off their bats. Flexing the bulging
muscles in his weight-lifter arms, Mr. O’Neill watches from outside the cage.
When his turn comes, his swing seems a bit labored: a lot of fly balls to the
opposite field, a bunch of grounders to second, none close to leaving the park.
No anger, though-just the tell-tale grimace.
Reggie Jackson stands close by, taking it all in. His main
project now is lifting David Justice out of his torpor, but Mr. Jackson has a
special eye for left-hitting right fielders wearing pinstripes.
“Paul O’Neill is a
professional baseball player. He doesn’t have the talent of a [Barry] Bonds or
a [Ken] Griffey [Jr.], but he has what we call big care and big heart-what it
takes to be a champion and a winner. Will I be sad to see him go? Not really. I
want what Paul wants. The guy was a winner and a champion, and when he decides
it’s over, it’s time for me to be happy for him because he has fulfilled his
dream, and he has fulfilled a wonderful baseball life and a baseball career.”
But it is not a life
that Mr. O’Neill cares to talk much about these days. He is batting .260, and
with his power numbers on the wane following a brisk April start, Mr. Torre had
recently demoted him from the prestigious No. 3 slot in the order-inherited
from Don Mattingly in 1996-to the gray murk of the six hole. And unlike the
playoffs last year, the move this time looks to be permanent.
“So, Paul, given that this is your final year and it hasn’t
been a great one …. “
Looking up balefully at the microphone thrust in his face,
Mr. O’Neill grimaces, shakes his head and, in a voice so quiet that it barely
registers on tape, says: “I just can’t talk about this right now.” But instead
of shooing his visitor away, he stumbles on, his sentences fragmented, jumpy,
as if each one were a hair plucked from his skin. “There has never been a year
when I haven’t had a few bad at-bats. That’s the nature of baseball. Even in my
best years, there have been months when I just couldn’t do what I wanted to do.
And right now, that’s what I feel like.”
Will he miss New York? Again, a shake of the head, a whoosh
of air expelled. “I don’t know what you are asking me. I’ve lived in New York for the past nine years now. I
might live here forever … I … I …. ” Once more, the droop of the head. “I … you
know, I can’t answer these questions, because I just don’t have the answers for
Robert O’Neill, Paul’s older brother by two and a half
years, has a theory as to why Mr. O’Neill is so pained when talking about
himself. “Dad was a very humble person,” he says. “My dad grew up in a rough
environment: eight children and no money in the Depression in Nebraska. One of
the biggest sins in our family was to be publicly vain. He hated people who
were vain. In some way, I think that’s what Paul never liked about Pete Rose or
Lou Piniella-this vanity that you see in these professional athletes. I think it
really comes from my dad.”
Mr. O’Neill grew up in the Columbus suburbs with four older
brothers and an eldest sister, Molly, formerly the chief food writer for The New York Times . His father, Chick
O’Neill, ran an excavation business but had one true passion-baseball. He was a
left-hander who pitched briefly in the minor leagues and really wanted just one
thing from life: to see one of his sons play in the big leagues. By the time
Paul was 10, it became evident that he, the youngest, had the right stuff.
While Mr. O’Neill’s excavation business had done well enough
to allow the family to move to the affluent North Columbus suburbs (a
six-bedroom house with four acres), he soon became so consumed with coaching
and nurturing his son’s blossoming career that business began to suffer.
But it was worth it. He taught his son everything he knew,
all those fundamentals: the impeccable base-running skills for which he is
known, the adroit play in the outfield-everything came from Chick.
“For the four of us, the passion for baseball had left us by
high school,” says his brother. “I don’t know if it was the era. Maybe you were
supposed to rebel against your parents, but Paul never rebelled like the four
of us and my sister did. We were all out seeking pleasures to annoy our
parents, and he wasn’t. That saved his athletic career.”
In an article she wrote for The Times , Molly O’Neill talked of the countless games and
practices she was dragged to in the 1970’s (she is 10 years older than Mr.
O’Neill), and how she would read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar in the empty bleachers while brother Paul did his
thing before his entranced father. “Molly always felt conflict with my father,”
remembers Robert O’Neill. “He had fallen so in love with baseball, and that was
what he could give his children; it’s what he knew about. He couldn’t talk to
Molly about Sylvia Plath because he hadn’t read her.”
In high school, it was baseball and basketball and nothing
else. By then Paul was 6-foot-4, with a powerful left arm and that sweet
slugger’s stroke. In 1981, he was signed straight out of high school by the
Reds as a fourth-round pick at age 18; his father had to sign the contract.
His bonus was $60,000. The first thing he did was buy a blue
Thunderbird. He married his high-school sweetheart in 1982 (they had known each
other since kindergarten) and was sent off to Billings, Mont., and the rookie
By 1987, he was challenging an aging Dave Parker for the
right-field job. By 1990, he was a regular-hitting .270, knocking in 80 runs or
so. But by 1992, his average had shrunk to .245.
Lou Piniella, then the Reds manager, had been pressuring Mr.
O’Neill to pull the ball and hit for more power. Knowing that was not his game,
he fought Mr. Piniella and the result was “The Trade”-November 1992, Paul
O’Neill to the Yankees for Joe Deberry and Roberto Kelly.
In 1993, his first year for the Yankees, Mr. O’Neill hit
.311. In the strike-shortened year of 1994, he hit .360. Now he was a member of
a team and a city that soon came to love him.
Beside the clutch hitting, the fans loved the dark furies
and the water-cooler rages. This is a man who cared, who had the hunger and
felt the pain. He was sort of a throwback, too: He wore his uniform loose and
saggy, hiding his hunkish build. No fancy high tops either for Mr. O’Neill,
just simple low-cut spikes. His baseball instincts were so pure, too. For a big
guy, his sprint from first to third was a sight to behold. He very rarely got
picked off. In right field, he covered tons of ground and never seemed to err
(taking imaginary swings during outfield lulls).
In 1994, he signed his first and only long-term deal, a
four-year contract for $19 million. “I told him he was worth at least six
million [a year] on the open market,” says Joe Bick, his agent of 17 years, “but
he never even considered it. He never came close to getting his true market
value. And he never really cared to.” (Similarly, his brother Robert says that
Mr. O’Neill should be making $600,000 on his Web site selling memorabilia,
instead of the $200,000 it takes in. He doesn’t want to be greedy, he told
In 1996, when Mr. Mattingly retired, Mr. O’Neill assumed the
honored three hole in the lineup, and that’s when the 100 R.B.I. seasons and
the championships began to pile up.
But it was the fourth game of the 1999 World Series against
the Braves, when Mr. O’Neill played just hours after his father died of heart
failure in Lenox Hill Hospital, that made Mr. O’Neill a different kind of New
York hero. One remembers him in the clubhouse, tears and champagne streaming
down his face.
“Let’s face it, he was Dad’s favorite child,” said his
brother, Robert. “He knew it, too …. When he died, my mother gave him Dad’s
wedding ring, and he wears it today. Dad had worn that for 48 years.”
Today, Mr. O’Neill owns houses in Westchester, Cincinnati
and Boca Raton. His three young children-Aaron, Andy and Alexandra-and his
wife, Nevalee, follow Mr. O’Neill around, the school year starting in New York,
continuing in Cincinnati and finishing in New York. The two months in Florida
There is a curious self-denying quality to Mr. O’Neill. Even
when he hits a home run, he will never stand and admire its flight, as Mr.
Jackson used to do. At the crack of the bat, down goes the head and he breaks
into the stone-faced jog around the bases, Chick’s mantra no doubt echoing in
his ears: No vanity, Paul!
He does not read the papers and is rarely, if ever, seen
with a book. While his sister Molly may entertain four or five times a week in
her Manhattan apartment, brother Paul is a very infrequent guest. Only
occasionally is his wife able to drag him to a Broadway show.
So what will happen when the baseball life is done? Indeed,
one can’t help but feel melancholy watching Mr. O’Neill’s at-bats these days.
The 4-6-3 double plays are all the more frequent, as are the strikeouts on
fastballs up and in. And the funny thing, too, is that the explosions of black
ire have tapered off. It’s rare these days to see the helmet chucked or the bat
thrown. More often than not, there is just a look of befuddlement .
Maybe, after 15 years, he’s accepting it: failure. Still,
it’s hard, said Mr. Jackson. “You just don’t want to retire. For your whole
life you say, ‘I’m going to succeed, I’m going to win,’ and then all of a
sudden to say, ‘O.K., I give up, I have to give in to this’-that’s just not
what you have done your whole life.”