• Sal Maiorana

O'Neill gets Subway Series off to a rollicking start

NEW YORK (June 26, 1998) – Yankee Stadium stood idle and dark on this Friday night, but the only thing that would have convinced you of that fact was that Paul O’Neill was wearing the Yankees’ road gray uniform as he trotted around the bases. Interleague baseball had debuted the previous year, and in the first 1998 game between the Yankees and Mets, O’Neill hit a go-ahead three-run homer in the seventh inning that propelled the “visitors” to an 8-4 victory at Shea Stadium and in the process made Queens sound like the Bronx. The announced crowd was 53,404, and after O’Neill sent a Mel Rojas forkball that didn’t fork deep over the left-center field wall, the Yankee fans took over the ballpark and created a ruckus louder than the multiple jets that tokk off and landed at nearby LaGuardia Airport during any Mets game. “This was the fans’ game. It was very special to hear the fans trying to outdo each other,” said Joe Torre. Also special was yet another moment that made it crystal clear that the Yankees, who won for the 54th time in 73 games, were on an unstoppable mission for glory in 1998. O’Neill’s clutch bomb was merely the latest example of whenever this team needed something to happen, it made it happen. “It was exciting,” said O’Neill. “I think when you add 50,000 people in New York, whether it’s at Shea Stadium or Yankee Stadium, it’s a lot of fun. This is becoming a neat little tradition.” The Yankees were trailing 4-3 when the seventh inning began, Mets starter Al Leiter having held them in check fairly well. But then with one out Leiter walked Chuck Knoblauch on a 3-2 pitch, and the next batter, Derek Jeter, hit a slow roller between first base and the mound. As first baseman John Olerud went to field the ball, Leiter charged toward the bag, but he arrived a fraction too late and the always-hustling Jeter slid under his attempted tag. Worse, Leiter landed awkwardly on his left knee and after attempting one warm-up pitch, he shook his head at manager Bobby Valentine and had to leave the game. Valentine brought in Rojas and the first pitch the right-hander threw left the yard in a hurry and just like that the Yankees were ahead 6-4. “O’Neill has been such a big player for us this year,” Torre said with a shake of his head. “And last year and the year before.” When the 1992 season ended, O’Neill wasn’t sure where his career was headed. He’d been a full-time starter with the Cincinnati Reds since 1988, won a World Series in 1990, and earned an All-Star appearance in 1991, a year when Reds manager Lou Piniella challenged him to pull the ball and hit more home runs. O’Neill hit a career-high 28. But then things unraveled in 1992 as O’Neill slipped to 14 homers and produced a career-worst .246 average and anemic .373 slugging percentage. None of that mattered to Gene Michael, the Yankees general manager at the time. He loved the way O’Neill played the game, how he competed, and he believed the lefty-swinging O’Neill could thrive in Yankee Stadium. He inquired about a trade and pulled one off that, at the time, raised some eyebrows around baseball. Michael sent outfielder Roberto Kelly – three years younger than the 30-year-old O’Neill and a 1992 All-Star who was considered a key piece to the Yankees future – to Cincinnati for O’Neill and a minor-leaguer who never sniffed the majors. In Bill Pennington’s book Chumps to Champs, Michael explained his rationale this way. “I had watched O’Neill play a lot, and to me, I felt sure he was coming into his prime,” Michael said. “I liked that he got riled up about making outs. I liked the passion. It could have been a mistake, but I was no longer sure that Roberto was going to blossom the way we had envisioned. We had to get more left-handed, and Paul was that piece. He was a good defender and had a good arm. He would get along with Donnie (Mattingly) and the other veterans, which was important. And he understood the New York media; that wouldn’t be a problem.” Buck Showalter was the manager at the time, and he told Pennington, “Was it a ballsy trade? You bet. Shit, people thought we were panicking. But Stick had done his homework.” O’Neill lit up in New York. He hit .311 with 20 homers in 1993, then won the AL batting title at .359 in the 1994 season that was disastrously wiped out by the players’ strike. From 1995 to 1997 he never dipped below .300 (including a superb .324 average in 1997 when he drove in a career-high 117 runs), making this one of the best trades in Yankee history. And now, O’Neill was on another rampage in 1998 as he would eventually drive in 116 runs with a slash line of .317/.372/.510. As he sat in the visiting clubhouse at Shea, O’Neill reflected on this latest Yankee triumph. “It was a fun game to be a part of,” he said. “I faced (Rojas) in the National League and had no success whatsoever against him. He just happened to get a forkball up. In that situation, I’m trying to hit the ball hard somewhere. I’m glad we played here because that ball isn’t out of Yankee Stadium. If he threw me three good ones, he’s probably going to get me.” But Rojas didn’t throw three good ones; he threw one bad one, and that’s all the Yankees needed.

NEXT POST on Aug. 1: Ricky Ledee steps into the spotlight.