Paul O'Neill's blooper might be funniest ever

February 24th, 2022

A version of this story was originally published in August 2021.

Paul O’Neill thought the game was over.

His Reds were playing the Phillies at Veterans Stadium on July 5, 1989, looking to take the rubber match after dropping seven of their previous 11 games. Closer John Franco was on the mound in the 10th inning of a 2-2 game, trying to force another inning to give his team a chance.

Steve Jeltz, the Phillies’ speedy shortstop, had reached on an infield single to start the inning, then swiped second base to put the winning run in scoring position. When Lenny Dykstra lined a ball to right field with one out, only one thing ran through O’Neill’s mind.

“Dykstra hits me a ball, it’s wet, and I’m thinking it’s a do-or-die play,” said O'Neill, who turns 59 on Friday. “I come up with it or we lose.”

O’Neill did not come up with it. Instead, he made a play that will be remembered for years to come, alongside the many highlights that led the Yankees to announce they will retire his No. 21 this August.

Charging to make the play, O’Neill bobbled the ball twice, first off the heel of his glove, then again off his bare left hand. Frustrated by his inability to make a game-saving play, O’Neill lashed at the ball with his left foot, looking very much like he did as a high school football kicker.

“I kicked straight-on, George Blanda-style,” O’Neill said. “I thought the game was over. I thought I'd lost the game.”

What O’Neill failed to realize was that Jeltz had slipped on his way to third, causing him to hesitate as he went to round the base. Fortunately for the Reds, the ball sailed off of O’Neill’s foot toward the infield, heading directly for first baseman Todd Benzinger.

“I bobble it, I bobble it, and I'm figuring the game's over, so I just kicked it,” O’Neill said. “I didn't know that Steve Jeltz had slipped going around third base; Todd Benzinger cut it off and he didn't score. I went back to my position, just thinking, 'Unbelievable. I could have been back in Triple-A tomorrow if I kicked that ball in the stands or something.'”

The Reds would go on to lose the game later in the inning on a passed ball, but Benzinger later told O’Neill he thought they could have thrown out Dykstra at second base on the now-infamous play.

“Benzinger was checking the runner and didn't see what happened,” O’Neill said. “He said, ‘We would have gotten Dykstra at second, but you had nothing on the throw.’ I looked at him and I said, ‘Benzy, I kicked it.’ He didn't even know.”