12/29/06 8:00 AM ET
O'Neill debuts on HOF ballot
Gritty outfielder won five WS rings -- four with Yanks
By Mark Feinsand / MLB.com
Paul O'Neill's career will be remembered in the opposite fashion. He may not have had the gaudy numbers of some of his peers, but there is no denying that he is one of the most prolific winners of his generation.
O'Neill captured five World Series rings during his 15 full seasons in the Majors, including four with the Yankees between 1996-2000. Although those Yankees teams featured star players such as Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Tino Martinez, it was O'Neill who was the heart and soul for New York's title teams.
"His focus on each game, on every at-bat, it really set the tone for this team as far as focus and intensity day-in and day-out," Martinez said shortly after O'Neill retired. "I feel we're the same intense types of players, though I don't show my emotions outwardly like he does, but we both want to win. I want to win every day, and when you have guys like that with you, it makes it easier."
Few players were as fiery or intense as O'Neill, and few could match the passion he had for the game.
"When I first got here, I was told by a couple of different people how selfish he was," said Joe Torre, his manager from 1996-2001. "Then I realized that the only thing selfish about him was that he wanted to get a hit every time he got up. He never gave an at-bat away. He never gave up."
O'Neill was selected to five All-Star teams and won the American League batting title with a .359 average in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He finished his 17-year career with a .288 average, 281 home runs, 1.269 RBIs, 1,041 run scored and 451 doubles.
After being selected by the Reds in the fourth round of the 1981 draft, O'Neill made his big-league debut for Cincinnati on Sept. 3, 1985. He had 12 at-bats that month, then another two ABs the following September.
In 1987, he made his way to the Majors on a permanent basis, and just three years later, he helped the Reds capture the 1990 World Series, upsetting the Oakland A's in four games.
In 1992, he was traded to the Yankees for Roberto Kelly, accounting for one of the best trades in New York's history.
"When we acquired Paul O'Neill, it will rank as one of the best additions this organization has ever made," general manager Brian Cashman said. "He's a very special individual. The special players that have played for the Yankees get recognized as pinstripes; he's one of the pinstripes."
In his nine seasons with the Yankees, O'Neill batted .303 with 185 home runs and 858 RBIs, providing leadership by example with his gritty play. O'Neill made four All-Star teams in his nine seasons in pinstripes, but it was his intensity for which he will be remembered most.
He was known to turn over a water cooler here and throw a batting helmet there out of frustration -- with himself -- but his teammates insist that it was that part of his personality that made him the competitor that he was.
"He's going to kick a water cooler or do something, but he never aims it at anybody but himself," Torre said. "There's a lot of passion there and I think that the fans really appreciated the blue-collar nature of Paul O'Neill."
"He has been what this whole team typifies," Scott Brosius said in 2001. "He's a hard worker, a professional, he's a team player and doesn't do anything to bring the spotlight on himself."
Through all of the championships and memorable moments he lived through, O'Neill said that two of his lasting memories will come from his final three games.
One was bittersweet, as he and his team watched the Diamondbacks come back to win Game 7 of the 2001 World Series in what turned out to be the final game of his career. But Game 5 of that series stands out as the most memorable, when 55,018 fans chanted his name in the top of the ninth as the Yankees trailed Arizona.
"It was pretty overwhelming, I didn't know what to do or say," O'Neill said. "I was out in the middle of a field, we were losing, and I knew that the eight other guys out there didn't care about whose night it was. They just wanted to win the game, and I felt the same way, but I was trying to think about what was the right thing to do."
"He didn't allow himself to think about it at the time, but I think that night's going to be very vivid for him," Torre said. "What really impressed me about what the fans did was that we were losing. New York doesn't have much patience for losing, but they took their time to appreciate Paul."
Thanks to Brosius and Alfonso Soriano, the Yankees emerged victorious in O'Neill's final game at Yankee Stadium. Unfortunately, New York wasn't able to finish the D-backs off, losing Game 7 when Luis Gonzalez blooped the game-winner off Rivera.
O'Neill may not have the overall numbers to place him among the greats of the game, but his position as a leader on the Yankees' latest dynasty will allow people to remember him as an all-time great winner -- which is all he ever wanted to be.
"I still feel like we're one of the better teams that ever played this game," O'Neill said after playing his final game. "Over the course of the huge history of baseball, we left our mark on this game. I'm proud to say that."
This is O'Neill's first year on the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot. A candidate must receive 75 percent of the vote to gain election.
Results of the 2007 BBWAA Hall of Fame election will be announced on Jan. 9, and the Induction Ceremony will take place on July 29 in Cooperstown.
Mark Feinsand is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.