Special Feature with Paul O’Neill — in the October Issue of Yankees Magazine
By Alfred Santasiere III
February 4, 2016 — It’s hard to believe that it’s been almost 15 years since Yankees icon Paul O’Neill played his last game in pinstripes. But regardless of how many years have passed since the right fielder’s swan song, his epic good-bye will stay with him — and with the Yankees fan base from the late ’90s and early 2000’s — forever.
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Lake Worth, Florida, for Bucky Dent’s annual charity golf outing, which O’Neill played in for the first time. Before my group hit the links with O’Neill, I sat down with him to discuss his final game at Yankee Stadium — an epic win in the 2001 World Series — along with the emotional aftermath of the tragedies of Sept. 11.
My candid conversation with O’Neill will be published in the October Issue of Yankees Magazine, and this first-person piece will be highlighted by The Warrior’s recollections of Game 5 of the 2001 World Series. That night, when O’Neill took the field in the top of the ninth inning, the Stadium crowd chanted his name for nearly five minutes.
“Like so many other ballplayers, I’ve been lucky enough to get an ovation after big home runs or great catches, but this was totally different,” O’Neill began. “This wasn’t a chant that would only last for a few seconds, but instead, it seemed as if it would go on for the entire half inning. At first, I got goose bumps because I was so honored that our fans thought that much of me. I didn’t’ realize that I meant so much to New York City until that moment. Then, as the chant continued, I had no idea how to react. It wasn’t as if I could tip my cap and run into the dugout. I was standing out there in right field during a World Series game that we were losing, and more than 50,000 people were chanting my name for almost five minutes.
“If I could have said anything to the fans at that moment, it would have been, ‘Thank you very much, but we’re losing the game,’” O’Neill continued. “But knowing that I couldn’t communicate those feelings to the crowd, I began to just soak it all in.”
After the half inning — and the serenade — came to a close, O’Neill and his teammates quickly regained their focus. Although they were trailing the Diamondbacks by two runs, recent history was on their side. A night earlier, O’Neill’s ninth inning single, brought the tying run to the plate in the bottom of the ninth. Then, with two outs, Tino Martinez hit the first pitch he saw over the centerfield wall to tie Game 4, and Derek Jeter earned the nickname “Mr. November” when he won that game with a 10th inning home run.
The Yankees were facing the same obstacle in Game 5.
Then, it happened again. The Diamondbacks brought closer Byung-Hyun Kim into the game to protect a two-run lead for the second night in a row. This time around, Jorge Posada led off the inning with a double, and with two outs, Scott Brosius hit a home run to even the score. Alfonso Soriano singled in the winning run in the bottom of the 12th.
“That comeback for the ages made my swan song so much more meaningful,” O’Neill said. “The thing I will remember most from the end of that game was the joy that our fans had. I remember looking into the stands as I was walking off the Yankee Stadium field for the last time as a player, and all I saw was people hugging each other. It was very special.
“After I got into the clubhouse, I took my home jersey off for the last time, but I had no intention of parting ways with it,” O’Neill continued. “Besides playing my last game at Yankee Stadium in that jersey, it had an American flag on the back. That symbolized all that our country had fought through, and I wanted to keep it forever. When I look at that jersey all these years later, it brings me back to that incredibly emotional time.”
In the end, the Yankees fell short of their ultimate goal, falling to the Diamondbacks in the last two games of the Series, both played in Arizona. But for O’Neill, the three World Series games at Yankee Stadium provided a level of gratification that had previously come only with championship seasons.
“I was at peace with the way the season ended,” said the notoriously fierce competitor. “The three games at Yankee Stadium were the most memorable of my career. You couldn’t write a script like that. Because of what those three victories meant to New York City in the wake of the worst tragedy on American soil, those three wins were enough for me.”
— Alfred Santasiere III