O'Neill reflects on No. 21 being retired by Yankees

August 19th, 2022

From my position in right field, I could see Monument Park, a hallowed ground located behind the left-center-field fence at the old Yankee Stadium. That was the place where legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle have been honored with monuments and other Yankee greats have been celebrated with plaques. When it was suggested to me in 1999 that my career could eventually merit a place in Monument Park, I immediately changed the subject.

“It’s hard when you’re playing to think about that,” I said. “I don’t really have a quote for that.”

Then the Yankees called me in 2014 and said they wanted to honor me with a plaque in Monument Park. Oh, man. I was in baseball heaven. This kid from Columbus, Ohio, somehow had a place next to the greatest players in Yankees’ history. I was truly humbled and truly content.

But, I eventually discovered there are different levels of baseball heaven. Because, on a sunny morning in February of 2022, I learned my place in that illustrious history was going to be elevated even more. Debbie Tymon, the Yankees’ tireless and brilliant senior vice president of marketing, called me, and after we talked for a few minutes, she told me she had some news to share.

“Paul,” she said, “I wanted to let you know the Yankees are going to retire your number 21 this season.”

Retire my number 21 to join all of those Yankee legends? I was shell-shocked. I dropped the phone and stumbled through some version of “thank you,” but I wasn’t expecting this and I wasn’t prepared for it. I whispered it to Nevalee, my wife, and she began crying. Do you know how people say something gave them goose bumps? We hear that expression and we understand a person meant he was emotional or excited, but do we believe they actually had goose bumps on their arms? Well, I did. Both arms. For a long time. I was trying to grasp the magnitude of this reward.

“This,” I finally told my family and friends, “is my Hall of Fame.”

After Debbie broke the news about my number being retired on August 21, 2022, Hal Steinbrenner, the Yankees’ managing general partner, called to congratulate me. Hal was gracious and complimentary about my career and explained why I deserved to have my number retired. He also told me how I had been one of his father’s favorite players and, of course, I know some of Mr. Steinbrenner's affinity for me had to do with my fiery approach to the game. Mr. Steinbrenner was a hands-on owner who had an unbelievable passion for winning and I tried to match that passion with the way I played. I’m thankful to Mr. Steinbrenner, Hal and the entire Steinbrenner family for the support and loyalty they have showed me and my family during my time as a player and a broadcaster in New York, a career that now includes the number 21 on my back being immortalized. I could speak about the organization’s kindness and generosity for days and still not say enough. Thanks for helping my dreams come true.

If someone was accomplished enough to have his number retired by a high school or a college, that’s impressive. When it happens at the professional level, it’s even more impressive. But when I thought about the fact that my number 21 was being retired by the Yankees, the most successful and recognizable baseball team of all-time, I shook my head and reflected about how rare and phenomenal that was.

The first retired numbers I thought about were those worn by the immortals like Ruth (No. 3), Gehrig (4) and DiMaggio (5), but then I thought about how I had the opportunity to meet the legendary Mantle (7), have conversations with the great Whitey Ford (16) and become friends with the one-of-a-kind Yogi Berra (8). And then I thought about Roger Maris (9), Phil Rizzuto (10), Thurman Munson (15), Elston Howard (32), Reggie Jackson (44) and several others. It’s mind-blowing to think I’m mixed in with those players. In the most honest and realistic way, I told my family, “I’m coming off the bench on this team. There’s no way I’m in the starting lineup.” And you know what? That’s the most extraordinary team I’ve ever seen. I’m so humbled to be in that grouping with 22 other Yankee players and managers.

And, as I look at those retired numbers magnificently painted on the blue wall behind the left center field seats at the new Yankee Stadium, I’m beyond proud to be in the same neighborhood with many of my contemporaries and friends. I have such fond memories of playing with Don Mattingly (23), Derek Jeter (2), Mariano Rivera (42), Andy Pettitte (46), Bernie Williams (51), Jorge Posada (20) and, of course, of being managed by the great Joe Torre (6). To know that my number will forever be side-by-side with theirs just further cements the bond that we already have. Aside from Donnie, the rest of us were involved in winning four championships in five years, so a lot of great things happened in a short period of time. And the retired numbers are the individual rewards for performing on those superb teams. It’s the greatest honor a player could receive.

Eternity. When your number is retired, it’s retired forever. As I thought about my place in this special Yankees’ club, I discussed it with Nevalee and my three kids. And, as we spoke through happy tears, thinking about the retirement of my number in the simplest of terms made the honor resonate even more. “No Yankee will ever number 21 again,” they all said to me. “Think about that. Think about how huge an honor that is.” When it was framed that way, it was extremely meaningful because it was a reminder that my retired number 21 will be something powerful to pass on to my family’s future generations. My grandkids and my great grandkids will look at that number 21 on the blue wall at the Stadium some day and they will be told what I did to make it happen. And that’s a legacy that gives me goose bumps all over again.

In the dizzying period after I learned my number would be retired, I woke up every morning and asked myself, “Did this really happen or am I dreaming?” I think I will probably wake up that way for a long time. I keep thinking about how cool it is to receive such an honor, how everlasting it is and how I can’t supply enough superlatives to describe how I feel about it.

Since my retirement, the only Yankee to wear number 21 during the regular season was LaTroy Hawkins, who wore it briefly in 2008. LaTroy wanted to wear it to honor Roberto Clemente, which I respect and understand. But the fans protested and it became a distraction for LaTroy, and he switched to number 22. Anyway, even though the number 21 has essentially been out of circulation on the Yankees, I didn’t spend a lot of time wondering about the possible retirement of the number. The Yankees have always recognized my contributions and treated me with dignity, so I never questioned their decisions. And then they made a decision to give me the ultimate honor. Wow. That word only contains three letters, but that word says it all.

Every time I visit Yankee Stadium, no Yankee will be wearing the number 21, because it will be hanging with all of the other retired numbers. Not too far from the mighty Babe or the tenacious Thurman or the smooth Jete or the invincible Mariano. That number will never go away. I’ve always smiled when I see fans still wearing my number 21 at games because that means they are diehards who appreciated what I once did. Well, I guess I will have a perpetual smile at the Stadium, because I’m going to stare at that 21 every time I’m there now. Like I said, “Wow.”

Excerpted from “SWING AND A HIT: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me” by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry. Copyright @2022 by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.