NEW YORK -- Paul O'Neill threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Game 4 of the American League Championship Series Tuesday at Yankee Stadium and received a warm welcome from his longtime fans. But several hours before the game, the Yankees legend was next door on the familiar and hallowed
NEW YORK -- Paul O'Neill threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Game 4 of the American League Championship Series Tuesday at Yankee Stadium and received a warm welcome from his longtime fans. But several hours before the game, the Yankees legend was next door on the familiar and hallowed ground of the old Yankee Stadium, and closing his eyes he could feel the earth shake again.
"I can remember standing on home plate here and actually feeling the ground shake," O'Neill said. "It was that cool. Playoff baseball, here in the old Yankee Stadium. Just to realize who ran around here, who walked down in the same tunnels we did. There were pictures of Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle walking down the same corridors of the old Yankee Stadium. There are a lot of great memories and a lot of great teams we were fortunate to be a part of in the late '90s.
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"You think of the four World Series. You can think of the last out of every one of them. The night Joe Girardi in 1996 hit a triple and I scored from third. I was kind of able to just take it in because it was an easy score, but I still remember standing on home plate, watching him circle the bases and feeling the ground shake. Just the noise. There's a top 10 list. I remember Mattingly's home run in the playoffs in '95. I can remember the fans chanting your name in 2001. The Mets series. There are just so many memories that happened here in the old Stadium."
It was there at what is now called Macombs Dam Park, before the Yankees and Astros met again next door, that O'Neill helped make a Yanks fan's wish come true. The five-time All-Star gave batting tips to a lucky Starwood Preferred Guest member team, challenging them to a homer-hitting contest.
Long Island native and SPG member Patrick Annello used his Starwood points to successfully bid on the "Go to Bat with Paul O'Neill" auction prize as part of SPG Moments, one of Marriott International's award-winning loyalty programs. O'Neill was right there in roughly the same space, in another chilly October, swinging at the fences. This time, he was batting in three rounds with several kids, including Annello's two sons, nephews and friends.
"Paul is probably the hardest-working baseball player I've ever seen," said Annello, who grew up watching many Yankees champions at this location. "He played every play 100 percent. That's what I would want my kids to do, and my players. I think he's a great example for the youth of today. He played the sport the way it should be played."
O'Neill, now a YES broadcaster, is providing pregame and postgame analysis during this series. He was much happier to be talking about this ALCS presented by Camping World on the morning after Game 3 with the Yanks facing a 2-1 deficit instead of 3-0.
"It's playoff baseball -- the Yankees' win was big last night, so the series is up and running now," O'Neill said. "It's a huge game tonight. It's just a big opportunity for Sonny Gray, coming over [in a trade], to pitch a big game tonight.
"It's amazing where they've come in a short period of time. Obviously, the Houston Astros are a very good team. You've got [Dallas] Keuchel and [Justin] Verlander, who are going to go late in the series if it continues. Big game last night to get back in the series -- really the biggest offensive outbreak on either side. And Carsten Sabathia, big game again, he's done it all year. Aaron Judge, breakout game; Todd Frazier, big, big three-run homer. So good things, momentum changed and right now it's on the Yankees' side.
"Last night, they shut down [Jose] Altuve and [Carlos] Correa. I just think it's so important to get ahead. To throw zeros up early and get a lead, get the crowd into it. Right now, the Yankees had a big offensive night last night, and hopefully it continues tonight."
Yankees broadcaster John Sterling was even a part of the Starwood event, providing play-by-play on a loudspeaker after all of the swings by O'Neill and the kids. Sterling's father brought him to this location starting when he was a "tiny" boy, and he told the kids at the event about the time a full house screamed O'Neill's name in a timeless moment back in 2001.
"Right here, on the night of Game 5, against Arizona in 2001, they knew he was going to retire," Sterling said. "In fact, that was the end of the line for Tino [Martinez] and [Scott] Brosius, too. In one of the most emotional moments, the entire stadium chanted, 'Paul O'Neill! Paul O'Neill!' So when I see Pauly, that's what comes to mind, because we are here on the actual locale."
O'Neill surveyed the field as the D train rumbled by, as new Yankee Stadium glistened in the sun with another big game looming.
"We're out here with a group of young kids, and I don't know that they realize where they are," O'Neill said. "It brings back a lot of memories for me. SPG did a great job. This is an awesome thing for these kids to have an opportunity to come out and play baseball, and look at where the stars play in the new Yankee Stadium, and kind of remember what it was like to be here at the old Yankee Stadium."
O'Neill asked the kids if they knew where they were.
"I want everybody to just close your eyes," he said, "and think of 50,000 people surrounding you, they're chanting your name, you're playing in the World Series. There were a lot of nights like that, standing right here."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him on Twitter @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub.