O'Neill knows 'how lucky I was to have baseball'

June 15th, 2020

The players still don’t have games in baseball. You have to believe they will appreciate them more than ever when they do. But then maybe you don’t fully appreciate what you have until the games are gone for good.

I was talking to on Sunday about the last game he ever played for the Yankees, Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. At the time, nobody pulled the rug out from underneath O’Neill, one of the most beloved Yankees of the last 50 years in addition to being one of the great baseball winners of the past 50 years. He won one World Series title with the Reds, and then four more with the Yankees after being traded for Roberto Kelly in what turned out to be one of the best trades in Yankees history.

O’Neill had announced he was retiring after the 2001 season. It was why, near the end of Game 5 at the old Stadium in that ’01 Series, O’Neill stood out in right field, in a game the Yankees were still losing at the time, and heard the old Stadium chanting his name in an amazingly loud and emotional moment, Yankees fans rolling out the thunder for the player George Steinbrenner called “The Warrior” one last time.

“I never thought baseball was lucky to have me,” O’Neill said Sunday. “I always knew how lucky I was to have baseball.”

Three nights later, it was officially ending for him in Phoenix, after 17 years in the big leagues, and he thought he was about to go out in style, as a winner one more time. The Yankees were ahead 2-1 in Game 7 after Alfonso Soriano’s home run off Curt Schilling. Shane Spencer had replaced O’Neill in the outfield.

Just like that, there were three last outs for Mariano Rivera to get, on O’Neill’s last night as a Yankee.

“I went back to the locker room and put my bats in my locker and thought, ‘What a cool way for things to end,’” O’Neill said. “’Mo will get the last three outs and we’ll win one more Series, and then I’ll go home for good.’”

He laughed.

“You know what I remember even better than putting my bats away for the last time? George Steinbrenner yelling at the guys at Fox who were putting up the stage for the trophy presentation,” he said. “He said they were going to jinx us. And guess what? About 15 minutes later, that stage was gone.”

In between came one of the most dramatic endings for a Game 7 in World Series history. Forty-one years before, Pirates second baseman Bill Mazeroski had hit a home run off Ralph Terry in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7 to beat the Yankees. This was different, but just as shocking. This wasn’t one historic swing of the bat, but the Series and the season getting away from the Yankees as one thing after another went wrong with the greatest closer of them all on the mound. O’Neill watched it all from the dugout, in disbelief, the jumble of moments running together now:

Three broken-bat hits in the inning off Rivera, starting with Mark Grace’s single and ending with Luis Gonzalez’s blooper over Derek Jeter after Joe Torre played the infield in. In between, trying to get a force at second, Rivera picked up Damian Miller’s bunt and threw it wildly past Jeter at second. And Rivera hit Craig Counsell (he’d scored the winning run for the Marlins in Game 7 of the 1997 World Series) with a pitch. And Scott Brosius didn’t even think about throwing across the diamond after Rivera picked up another bunt, this one by Jay Bell, and got a force at third, even though if Brosius had thrown to Tino Martinez at first, the Yankees likely would have had an easy double play.

Finally, the D-backs were celebrating the end of the Series and the end of Paul O’Neill’s baseball career.

“We’d always been the ones having that kind of celebration,” O’Neill said. “Now I was watching them do that. It had happened to us as a group before, and killed me both times. We’d watched Junior [Ken Griffey Jr.] score the winning run at the end of Game 5 in ’95. And then in ’97, the Indians came back and beat us on their field in Game 5 of that Division Series. But never in the Series. Just like that, we went from winning to losing.”

O’Neill paused and said, “In the Series, that was the kind of game we’d always won.”

He had come out of Cincinnati and played his first season of Minor League ball in Billings, Mont., exactly 20 years before. Now it was over, really as soon as Gonzalez’s ball landed behind Jeter at what was called Bank One Ballpark in those days.

But even when it was over, the next summer, O’Neill considered coming back.

“Joe Torre called me the next season and asked how long it would take for me to get in shape,” O’Neill said. “They’d had some injuries and some guys had underperformed. Stick [Gene Michael] called, too, and said, ‘This might work out great, you’ve had some time to rest and heal and you’d only have to play half the season.’ That was all it took. All of a sudden, we were on a family vacation and I’m running and throwing and thinking I could do it. Then they decided to sign [Raul] Mondesi, and that was the end of that.”

Paul O’Neill, a Yankee who will be remembered, not just because of what he did for Torre’s Yankees but who he was, paused.

“Even then,” he said, “even after it was over, I was thinking about getting a few more games.”