Sometimes you can start winning a World Series for your team in Game 1, the way Kirk Gibson did in 1988 with that home run off Dennis Eckersley, and the way Eric Davis did a couple of years later, when he took Dave Stewart out of Riverfront Stadium to dead center in the bottom of the first in Game 1. And sometimes you can do it without hitting a home run or putting the ball in play, the way Paul O’Neill did one October night in 2000, in a Subway Series against the Mets, when O’Neill was as tough an out as he’d ever been in his life.
There are a lot of reasons why O’Neill, who was on that 1990 Reds team with Davis, is as popular as any retired Yankee. All you ever had to do was listen to the cheers he’s gotten at Yankee Stadium on Old Timers’ Day. When Joe Torre’s Yankees won their first World Series in 1996, it was O’Neill, playing on a bad leg, who made a running catch in front of the right-field wall on a ball Luis Polonia hit at old Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium to preserve a 1-0 victory over the Braves in Game 5.
But even with a defensive play like that, even with all the big hits O’Neill got, Yankees fans also remember that Game 1 at-bat in 2000 against closer Armando Benitez, when the Yankees were down a run in the bottom of the ninth and were about to go down a game against the Mets.
“I thought all the pressure was on us going into that Series,” O’Neill said Sunday. “We were the ones with everything to lose.”
By then, the Yankees had won 12 straight World Series games going back to 1996. They were trying to become the first team to win three Series in a row since the Oakland A’s in the ’70s.
Mets 3, Yankees 2. O’Neill against Benitez. Nobody on.
“At that point all I’m thinking is to get some sort of rally going,” O’Neill said. “And it’s funny. Going into that Series, I was a little banged up and hadn’t felt that good at the plate. I got hot by the end. But I didn’t feel hot that night. Then I got behind right away and felt as if I were in an emergency mode from pitch one.
“[Benitez] had overpowering stuff. There are some pitchers, even closers, you’re still comfortable against when they’ve got two strikes on you. He wasn’t one of them. And just like that, he’s got me 1-2.
“If it was a battle at that point, I felt as if it was pretty one-sided, because he had all the weapons. Then I managed to foul some pitches off. But even then, I felt like he still had the advantage. You know that old saying, ‘The more pitches you see, the better chance you have?’” He laughed. “This was not one of those times.”
Somehow O’Neill finally worked the count to 3-2.
“I was trying so hard to stay alive up there,” he said. “But the harder I tried, I felt like the worse things were getting, and the luckier I was getting to get a piece of the ball. When the count finally did go full, I thought, ‘Well, now I’ve got a chance.’ But not to drive the ball to right-center or someplace. Just to get a walk.”
O’Neill had talked about wanting to start a rally. But now he felt like he was the rally. The longer the at-bat went on, the louder the crowd got. In those years, with those Yankees, sometimes the bottom of the ninth was just the beginning of another great ending. So it was now with Paul O’Neill.
“I’m being completely honest. I never felt I had a chance of hitting the ball hard from the time he got ahead of me,” O’Neill said. “But then he threw ball four. I had battled and battled and fouled off those balls, all of them the other way. We hadn’t won the game yet. All I’d done was get to first base. But in that moment, I felt I’d won the battle just by getting to first base.
“All I could think when I got down there was that things were about to get interesting. Any time you put a team’s closer into the position where he’s got to face even one extra hitter, you start believing and your teammates start believing and the fans really start believing.”
O’Neill was 37 that night. Even he admits that his bat had slowed by then, the way he’d slowed down. But he finally got to third base and then Chuck Knoblauch brought him home with a sacrifice fly to tie Game 1. Jose Vizcaino finally won it with a bases-loaded single with two outs in the bottom of the 12th.
“They had their closer in there with the lead. They’re supposed to win that game. They didn’t,” O’Neill said. “Sometimes you really can have a total reversal of momentum even though it’s only the first game. And that’s what happened that night. They were never able to turn it around after that.”
The Yankees won the Subway Series in five games. Those Mets, and their fans, will always wonder how things might have been different if Game 1 had gone the other way. Only it didn’t. And it all started with a 10-pitch at-bat from Paul O’Neill in the bottom of the ninth.
George Steinbrenner nicknamed O’Neill “The Warrior.” That’s what he was that night. Not with a walk-off home run in the Series. Just a walk.