Had the career of Paul O’Neill taken place solely as a member of the Cincinnati Reds, the #21 may be retired in his honor. Unfortunately, for the Reds at least, after being dealt to the Evil Empire in New York City, O’Neill realized his potential and went on to become on the most potent hitters in the game.
Nonetheless, O’Neill is still the best to ever wear the #21 as a member of the Cincinnati Reds.
No, not the former Secretary of the Treasury, although O’Neill looks as if he could adapt to that role quite well. The Reds fourth round pick of the 1981 amateur draft took time to blossom into the sweet swinging lefthander Yankee fans know him as.
Coming out of Brookhaven High School in Columbus, Ohio, O’Neill was the proverbial hometown kid, playing for the hometown team in the aftermath of one of baseball’s greatest dynasties. O’Neill certainly never dominated in the Minor Leagues, leading one to question if he would ever put it all together and be a lethal weapon in the middle of a lineup.
Most famously, while in right field at Veterans Stadium against the Philadelphia Phillies in 1989, O’Neill fielded a basehit, only to botch it. Instead of bending over again to pick up the ball and attempt to keep the runner barreling in from second from scoring, O’Neill reared back and literally, kicked the ball back into the infield. When watched in real time, it seems almost unbelievable that someone could have the wherewithal to pull off such a dauntingly bizarre and daring play. Thankfully for the Reds, the ball came right back into the infield and the run managed not to score. (At least not on that play)
The year was 1990, and the Cincinnati Reds were en route to winning their fifth World Championship in franchise history, and their right fielder, Paul O’Neill was helping lead the way. He even garnered some MVP votes for his contributions, albeit his numbers did not jump off the page with a slashline of .270/.339/.421 with 16 homeruns and 78 RBI’s.
His following season in 1991, netted him his only All-Star Game appearance while in the Senior circuit, and ultimately allowed him to finish with the best numbers of his career at the ripe age of 28. O’Neill had slugged 28 homeruns, and coupled that with 91 RBI’s, both career-highs at the time.
Thinking that he may have finally hit his stride, expectations were high for the homegrown product coming into the 1992 season. Things could not have gone worse. O’Neill had career lows in nearly every major offensive category, a gigantic disappointment coming off the previous season.
Only in rookie ball in 1981, and Triple-A in 1985, had O’Neill ever batted over .300 before in his professional career. Once being shipped to the Yankees in exchange for Roberto Kelly, O’Neill went on a torrid hot streak that lasted over four years. His 1993 season saw him begin a stretch of batting at least .300 until the end of 1998 season, where he was an indispensable cog of what had now become the greatest dynasty in the modern era of the sport.
Had the 1994 strike not shortened the season, who knows where O’Neill’s average would have ultimately wound up, but as it reads in the record books for all of eternity, is an electric .359 batting average, winning the American League crown. After spending the first 12 years of his professional baseball life in the Reds organization, O’Neill had suddenly found his niche in the Bronx.
Granted, this all makes sense. On teams where there are not very many offensive weapons; the better you are, the fewer the amount of good pitches you see. As it has been since the Highlanders became the Yankees way back during the Woodrow Wilson administration; the Yankee lineups have had an ample amount of offensive protection. The Babe had Gehrig, Joe D had Henrich, Mantle had Maris, and the modern era Yankees all had each other from Derek Jeter, to Bernie Williams, to Tino Martinez, to maybe most importantly, Paul O’Neill.
It is without question that Paul O’Neill will go down in the annals of history as an important cog in the New York Yankees machine. The shy, quiet man that grew up and tried his hardest to excel and succeed in the state he grew up in, just needed a change of scenery, which is so often the case with ballplayers.
The other candidate that drew a considerable amount of thought, was former first baseman, Sean Casey. One of the all-time great guys to ever put on a Cincinnati Reds uniform, the man nicknamed “The Mayor,” is, and was, one of the funniest and most humble people you could ever meet. To be honest though, outside of the National League Wild Card appearance in 1999 against the New York Mets, the teams Sean Casey played on, stunk. O’Neill had his fair share of stinkers in his time here, but those can be overlooked when a Championship banner is unfurled.
His number may never be retired among the great in Reds history, but Paul O’Neill will always hold a dear place in Cincinnati sports lore. More than a man that created an all-time great blooper, O’Neill featured one of the games sweetest hitting strokes and realized his dream of growing up and becoming a Cincinnati Red.