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Archive for Thursday, October 26, 2000

O’Neill breaks out of slump

But veteran outfielder’s career with Yankees might be coming to close after eight seasons

October 26, 2000

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— For weeks, Paul O'Neill seemed like a ghost in the Yankees' clubhouse and at the plate.

He dressed quietly in his corner and swung quietly in games. He wore a pained expression and looked distant, and you didn't know if it was from his hip injury or the insult he felt when he came out for a pinch hitter or the insecurity that must be roiling inside about his uncertain future.

He is a man of deep pride and unusual sensitivity, a man who would like to hide his feelings but can't. When he hit into a rally-killing double play in the 10th inning in Game 1 against the Mets, he flung his helmet to the ground in disgust.

There was something tender about watching him work his way out of a dreadful slump these past weeks, seeing him change his swing, his stance, his attitude at bat. When manager Joe Torre told him he wasn't being aggressive enough, O'Neill took it personally, and they exchanged a few words.

O'Neill is not unlike his dad, Charles, who passed away at age 79 three hours after Game 3 of the World Series last year.

"He was the epitome of what it means to be an O'Neill bullheaded, independent, often misguided, and the most generous person I've ever known in my life," Paul's sister, Molly O'Neill, a food columnist for The New York Times, said in her eulogy.

Similar words, she said, could apply to her brother.

In his bullheaded, independent way, Paul O'Neill fought back from his 9-for-39 slump in the playoffs.

The hits are coming in bunches now and his hip injury is fading. In Game 3 against the Mets, he had a single, a double, and his first triple since the middle of last season. It was his second straight three-hit game, and it made him 7-for-12 in the World Series. His .583 batting average was the best on the Yankees.

O'Neill tripled again in his first at-bat in Game 4, then added a single in the sixth and made a sliding catch of Edgardo Alfonzo's sinking drive in the eighth in the Yankees' 3-2 victory.

"It's like he's in the laboratory, mixing this with a little of that, and he comes up with a different swing every at-bat that he needs to have against a certain pitcher," Torre said. "He obviously isn't as comfortable as he has been this year, physically. I'm not saying that he's hurting, but by looking at him, you know he's not as comfortable as he could be. He's working at trying to manufacture something."

Yet even after he manufactured three more hits, there was still no reason for O'Neill to express joy. He didn't want to talk much. Not with the Yankees losing the game. Not with him batting seventh instead of his accustomed third spot. And not with him unsure how many days left he has with the team.

There's little consideration given in baseball for sentimentality and services rendered, even for a gritty workhorse like O'Neill. When he sits down to discuss his future with the Yankees after the season, he is likely to find he doesn't have one.

It's no secret that the Yankees covet Cleveland outfielder Manny Ramirez, who will apply for free agency when the World Series ends.

A native New Yorker, the 28-year-old Ramirez hit .351 and had 122 RBIs last season despite missing 39 games with a hamstring injury.

O'Neill, too, will be a free agent next week, but he will be 38 at the start of next season, a player with more past than future. This season, he hit .283 with 18 homers and 100 RBIs in 142 games, and he joined Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio and Dave Winfield as the only Yankee outfielders to record four straight 100-RBI years.

O'Neill may still have another .300, 20-homer season or two left in him, but after 14 years in the majors six with Cincinnati and eight with the Yankees he knows time is running out on him.

Yet when you think of what he's done for the Yanks winning the batting title in 1994, hitting .300 or more six times, batting .308 overall, playing a solid right field, and giving them the intangibles of professionalism and character you might think the team would want to find a way to let him finish his career in pinstripes.

Yankees owner George Steinbrenner calls O'Neill a "warrior." Torre says that description fits O'Neill perfectly. But in the ways of the game, the business that it is, Steinbrenner probably will let this warrior go when the World Series is over.

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