As Paul O’Neill’s No. 21 is retired, one last kick of a water cooler
By Gary Phillips
The Yankee Stadium that honored Paul O’Neill on Sunday differed from the one he played at throughout his nine seasons in New York, but he felt right at home in his first trip to the ballpark this year.
A five-time World Series champion and a current YES Network broadcaster, O’Neill had his No. 21 officially retired before the New York Yankees’ 4-2 win against the Toronto Blue Jays.
The festivities featured appearances by some of his former Yankee teammates — Mariano Rivera, Andy Pettitte, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada and Tino Martínez — and video messages from the likes of Joe Torre, David Cone, Derek Jeter and Roberto Clemente Jr., whose father, a Pittsburgh Pirates icon and celebrated humanitarian, also wore No. 21.
The day came with some question marks because O’Neill, who is unvaccinated against COVID-19, is still broadcasting Yankees games remotely. But for the most part, the ceremony Sunday played out much as they all do, with the fans in the crowd and at home probably unaware of any heightened precautions.
The Yankees (74-48) presented O’Neill, their intensely competitive former right fielder, with various gifts, including a customized water cooler with a bandage on it and a baseball bat ripped through it, a nod to the dugout equipment he frequently destroyed in his 17 major league seasons with the Cincinnati Reds and the Yankees. O’Neill playfully gave it a kick.
Scandal’s “The Warrior” played over the loudspeakers during the ceremony and chants of O’Neill’s name rained down from the crowd. (When George Steinbrenner owned the Yankees, he referred to O’Neill as a “warrior.”)
“Some things never get old,” O’Neill said, responding to the fans’ serenade.
“I’ll never forget how much it meant for you guys cheering. People didn’t want to come here and play because they were scared of you,” he told the crowd.
An Ohio native, O’Neill began his career with the Reds in 1985. A 1992 trade for Roberto Kelly sent him packing to New York, where O’Neill won four of his championships and a batting title while cementing himself as a fan favorite from 1993 to 2001.
O’Neill, who batted .300 or better in each of his first six seasons with the Yankees, collected 1,426 hits, 185 home runs and 858 RBIs with New York. Overall, he finished his career with a .288 average, 2,105 hits, 281 homers and 1,269 RBIs. O’Neill added a .284 average, 11 home runs and 39 RBIs over 85 postseason games, including 27 World Series contests.
The Yankees have honored O’Neill before: They dedicated a plaque to him in Monument Park, beyond center field at Yankee Stadium, in August 2014. While he never won a Most Valuable Player Award, and dropped off the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame after just one year, Sunday offered a fitting accomplishment for a player who meant a great deal to a team and its fans.
“To join these greats and to know that the No. 21 will never be worn by a New York Yankee again is by far the biggest personal honor that I have ever achieved,” he said in remarks meant to close his speech.
He then quickly returned to the microphone to acknowledge Yankee Stadium’s Bleacher Creatures before throwing a ceremonial first pitch to Posada. That concluded O’Neill’s day; he did not speak to reporters after the ceremony.
Because of his vaccination status, O’Neill has been calling YES Network games from his home in the Cincinnati area this season. YES has a vaccine mandate in the workplace, and the network’s other personalities have been broadcasting on-site. That includes play-by-play announcer, Michael Kay, who helped emcee Sunday’s ceremony while standing next to O’Neill.
O’Neill, who did not appear at Old-Timers’ Day on July 30, thanked YES’s president of production and programming, John Filippelli, and his co-workers for his time at the network. “It’s a big part of what my life is now,” O’Neill, who is in his 21st year with YES, said during his speech.
Per Major League Baseball protocols, unvaccinated personnel cannot have contact with active players, nor can they enter dugouts and clubhouses. While no current Yankees participated in the ceremony, those restrictions were not an issue with O’Neill’s ceremony, which took place in Monument Park and on the infield grass as active players watched from the dugout.
Before the game, a few Yankees and Blue Jays players were not aware of any limitations in place for the ceremony and said that COVID-19 has become less of an everyday concern in MLB circles, even as the pandemic continues.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” Yankees reliever Lou Trivino said when asked if COVID-19 rules still impacted daily routines. “If it is, I don’t know because I just don’t really care.”
Ron Marinaccio, his bullpen mate, added: “Our travel is pretty much back to normal, aside from the Toronto trip, obviously, when we’re crossing our country borders. But I don’t think it affects too much other than extracurricular stuff like that.”
Marinaccio, a rookie right-hander, was referring to when teams visit the Blue Jays in Canada, where vaccination is required upon entry. The constraint has occasionally led to opposing unvaccinated players missing such games — the Kansas City Royals, for instance, had to place 10 players on the restricted list before a series in July — but Toronto infielder Cavan Biggio pointed out that the Blue Jays have to meet those same standards every time they head to the United States.
Other than those occasional absences and keeping an app with all relevant information on one’s phone for border-crossing trips, Biggio said the baseball world was largely unimpeded by the pandemic these days.
“Our team, us being in Canada in general, we’re the most affected by it,” said Biggio, who tested positive for the coronavirus in April after showing symptoms. “Early in the year, we were getting tested every time we were coming back into the States and whatnot. We don’t get tested anymore, but we have to fly to Buffalo or do customs in the U.S.”