Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

BASEBALL PLAYOFFS

Hitting or Raging, O'Neill Is a Dandy Yankee

Baseball: Right fielder has become one of the game's most consistent players, but he still takes every out very personally.

October 13, 1998|MIKE DiGIOVANNA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Right fielder Paul O'Neill has hit .317 during his six years with the New York Yankees, averaging 21 home runs and 96 RBIs and establishing himself as one of baseball's most consistent offensive players.

But if you really want to learn something about O'Neill--and maybe a thing or two about the craftsmanship to be found in assorted dugout accessories--watch him after he pops up, or flies out with a runner on second, or grounds into a double play.

"I know one thing," Yankee Manager Joe Torre says with O'Neill in mind, "whoever invented those plastic water coolers did a heck of a job."

There may not be a more intense player in baseball than O'Neill, who turns every at-bat into a life-or-death struggle, who takes every out personally, and who may never be satisfied until he hits 1.000.

O'Neill, whose Yankees can secure a World Series berth with a victory over the Cleveland Indians in Game 6 of the American League championship series tonight, seems to play with a permanent scowl.

He could have a single, double and a home run with four RBIs in his first three at-bats, but if he swings at a bad pitch and makes an out on that fourth one, look out.

He waves his bat violently in the air or slams it to the ground. He hurls his helmet, batting gloves and shin guard. And those poor Gatorade coolers . . . they never know what hit them.

"You get a good belly laugh out of him sometimes, but don't let him see you laugh--that makes him even more mad," Yankee second baseman Chuck Knoblauch said. "He can be four for four, he'll strike out or pop up, and judging from his reaction, you'd think he hasn't had a hit in a week."

Rage has been O'Neill's companion since his childhood days in Columbus, Ohio, where he grew up as the youngest of five brothers in what he called "a very competitive" environment.

"We competed as a family, and I always lost because I was the youngest," said O'Neill, a wiry 6-feet-4 and 215 pounds. "It was a love-hate thing. You love your brothers, but you hate losing to them.

"I can still hear my mom yelling, 'Quit teasing the baby!' because we'd be playing basketball or something, they'd let me score 18 points and then they'd reel off 21 straight points to win."

Paul eventually grew up and became the best athlete of the O'Neill clan. He was selected in the fourth round of the 1981 draft by Cincinnati and reached the big leagues in 1985.

He had one good year with the Reds, hitting .256 with 28 homers and 91 RBIs in 1991, and five more better than average.

But Lou Piniella, the Reds' manager at the time, thought O'Neill should hit more home runs and tried to get him to change his line-drive swing, but O'Neill refused. That caused so much friction that Piniella demanded O'Neill be traded, so it was off to the Yankees in November 1992 for O'Neill, who with first baseman Joe DeBerry was traded for outfielder Roberto Kelly.

"When I was traded, I heard all the horror stories about playing in New York," said O'Neill, 35. "But when I went to spring training that year and started playing with guys like Don Mattingly, I fit in real well, and it seemed like a neat team.

"Then I got used to walking down that tunnel and into Yankee Stadium. That's a great thing. When you play here, you get more involved with the history and pride of the Yankees, and you don't take that for granted.

"It's neat to know you're playing the same position Babe Ruth did, that Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig and Joe DiMaggio played for the Yankees, and that Reggie Jackson hit three homers in a World Series game here, one into the black seats [beyond center field] that I've never even sniffed in batting practice. You get into that."

Just as O'Neill had his preconceptions about New York, Torre, who replaced Buck Showalter to start the 1996 season, had heard some of the horror stories about O'Neill.

"I was told he was a selfish player--not by anyone inside the organization--because he throws helmets and hits water coolers and all that stuff," Torre said.

"But observing him and talking to him in spring training, you realize it was a passion. He wants to get a hit every time. . . . Last year, [Yankee owner] George Steinbrenner called him a warrior, and I think that was a perfect fit. He's really the backbone of this ballclub."

Torre, who managed Atlanta in the early 1980s, describes O'Neill as a leader in the Dale Murphy mold, "not because he goes around telling everyone he's a leader or because he's very outgoing, but just by going out there and playing the game the right way, day in and day out."

You wouldn't think a leader would throw so many fits of fury, but O'Neill's tantrums are never directed at anyone else, and rarely are they uncontrolled. Players see how demanding he is of himself, how much he strives for perfection, and it rubs off.

"He's always mad at himself, never anyone else," Torre said. "He doesn't hurt anyone. The only thing I ever caution him about is, 'Don't hurt yourself because then you won't be available.' "

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|