O'Neill set for 'mind-blowing' number retirement on Sunday

August 18th, 2022

This story was excerpted from Bryan Hoch's Yankees Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Paul O’Neill’s first visit to Monument Park came at the original Yankee Stadium, shortly after the Yankees acquired him from the Reds in a November 1992 trade for outfielder Roberto Kelly -- a swap that many have pointed to as the dawn of the Bombers’ late-1990s dynasty.

O’Neill recalls examining the monuments for Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, then moved to visit tributes to Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, absorbing the iconic names that established the franchise’s winning tradition. He instantly sensed the responsibility and weight of wearing the pinstripes.

Paul O'Neill's plaque in Monument ParkArturo Pardavila III/MLB.com

“It was kind of a calling,” O’Neill said. “Once you walked into that stadium, it was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got to go see this.’ I had heard about the monuments. Going behind the outfield wall and seeing those plaques, the stories and the written things, it brought it all home. That’s where those things happen, in Yankee Stadium.”

Eight years after O’Neill was honored with a plaque in Monument Park, the Yankees will retire the beloved outfielder’s uniform No. 21 before Sunday’s game against the Blue Jays. O’Neill will be the 23rd Yankees player or manager to have his number retired.

“The first thing I noticed when I was traded over from Cincinnati was the history and pride of the Yankees,” O’Neill said. “I had the opportunity to meet Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra, and have a relationship with Whitey Ford. Those are great memories for me. You never put yourself in a position where you think you’re going to achieve something that those great players before you did.”

Affectionately referred to as “The Warrior” by fans and known for his powerful throwing arm, O’Neill spent the final nine seasons of his 17-year Major League career in the Bronx (1993-2001), winning four World Series with the Yankees (1996, ’98-2000) and appearing in a fifth (2001).

O’Neill will join teammates Derek Jeter (No. 2), Jorge Posada (No. 20), Andy Pettitte (No. 46), Mariano Rivera (No. 42), Bernie Williams (No. 51) and former manager Joe Torre (No. 6) in having their numbers retired from the dynasty era.

“It’s kind of mind-blowing,” O’Neill said. “Everybody might say, ‘Hey, that’s a lot of people,’ but a lot of good things happened in a short period of time there. To win four World Series in five years, when is that going to happen again? So I’m proud to be associated with those teams, and especially the guys that were a part of those teams that are out in Monument Park right now.”

As for how O’Neill received uniform No. 21? It was assigned to him when he joined the Reds in 1985, and O’Neill likes to think of it as a tribute to a different strong-armed right fielder -- Roberto Clemente.

“The first Major League Baseball game that I ever went to with my father, we were at Crosley Field in Cincinnati,” O’Neill said. “My father put me in a direction where No. 21 for the Pittsburgh Pirates was in the background, Roberto Clemente. And when I received the number in Cincinnati, that’s the first thing that came to my mind: ‘Wow, that was Roberto Clemente’s number.’

"I still have the picture, and that’s kind of where this number became special to me.”