Paul O’Neill’s Rage to Succeed

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

Giuliani).

Yet even as portfolios bloomed and dingy little apartments

climbed in value, there seemed to be something missing. Something purer,

higher.

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.

Drummer Boy

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

them.”

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

leagues.

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

Robert.)

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

are home-schooled.

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.

Ending It

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.”