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Yankees' Edge Is a Lot of Bullpen

BILL PLASCHKE

He insists it's all about the team but clearly, Paul O'Neill, the Yankees' old warrior, has made his mark in this Series.

October 26, 2000|BILL PLASCHKE

NEW YORK — Not all old New York Yankees in this World Series are ghosts.

There is one standing in the outfield, grimacing, sliding, tugging his cap over his eyes, alive.

Not all old New York Yankees in this World Series are grainy images with static voices.

There is one running around the bases, chugging, gasping, hands on his knees, alive.

He is not Babe Ruth, or Roger Maris, or Tommy Henrich, or George Selkirk, or Hank Bauer, or even Dave Winfield.

But Paul O'Neill has a little bit of all those other Yankee right fielders in him. Maybe not the parts that made them stars, but the parts that made them Yankees.

After the Yankees' 3-2 victory over the Mets in Game 4 of the World Series Wednesday, the tendency would be to write mainly about young and beautiful and leadoff homer-hitting Derek Jeter.

But this series feels more like aging and grass-stained O'Neill.

With the Yankees using three one-run victories to lead the series, 3-1, the temptation would be to write about a leather bullpen that has fit them perfectly.

But this series looks more pants-leg-touching-shoes O'Neill.

You knew he didn't have a triple the entire season, right?

You must then know he's had two in this series alone, including one hit into the right-field corner in the second inning Wednesday that left the 37-year-old grabbing his knees.

He eventually found his breath, and trotted home with the game's second run on Scott Brosius' deep fly ball. .

In the sixth inning he singled, putting the Mets in yet another pitcher-tiring pickle. In the eighth inning, he made a diving catch of a leadoff line drive by Edgardo Alfonzo, backing the Mets into a late-inning corner from which they never emerged.

"About two or three years ago, George Steinbrenner, when he introduced him at the Yankee dinner, called him a warrior," Manager Joe Torre said of O'Neill. "I don't think anything fit him better than that description."

You knew O'Neill had only one hit in his first 12 postseason at-bats, and was dropped from third to seventh in the order, and everyone thought the shaky-hipped guy was finished, right?

Then you know that nobody in this World Series is hotter, as he's hitting .563 with nine hits in 16 at-bats.

This included the 10-pitch at-bat that resulted in a walk that started the ninth inning rally that led to an extra-inning win in Game 1.

This included three consecutive hits to help cement Game 2.

When he came to the plate in the eighth inning Wednesday, some folks began chanting, "M-V-P, M-V-P."

However, twice during the postgame interview sessions, Paul O'Neill interrupted the questioner for the sole reason that the questioner was daring to ask about Paul O'Neill.

"You know, I really don't want to talk about me right now," O'Neill said. "This is the time of the year you talk about the New York Yankees. I don't want to be rude, but that's just the way it is."

That's just the way he said the name of his team, too. In italics. As if they are bigger than him.

Is it any wonder that he plays the same way?

When asked about today's clinching possibility, he said he couldn't wait. Literally.

"You want to go out and play right now," he said, later adding, "I know we're one win away from something special."

And to think that, according to scouts, he came into this series just seven games away from embarrassment.

Listen to one of them commenting in the New York Daily News.

"He's struggling big-time, and he might be slowing to a crawl. He might come back. I don't know. He's playing outfield OK. If you pitch him and change locations on him, you can get him out."

That report appeared in a newspaper that hit the stand only hours before O'Neill started banging on the Mets.

"I couldn't be happier [after] all he has gone through physically, emotionally, during this season," Torre said. "He is such a tough, tough competitor."

You can see that in right field, between pitches, in something that has nothing to do with pitching. When the game stops, O'Neill begins pantomiming his swing.

"He is very intense, to say the least," said Jeter. "He's always telling me not to give away any at-bats."

You can see this toughness in the dugout after a strikeout or close out on the bases. He will bang down his helmet and scream, maybe at umpire, maybe at the base, sometimes at himself.

"This has been a gut-wrenching series, no doubt about it," he said. "When you walk off the field, you konw you've been through a battle."

You could see all of this last October, when his father died between Games 3 and 4 of the World Series, yet he played in the clinching Game 4, anyway, weeping openly afterward.

"That last win can be the toughest," he said.

When the old Yankee walked down the crowded hallway from the interview room long after Wednesday's game, head down, golf shirt hanging out of his pants, only one person said hello and wished him well.

It was a maintenance worker.

Their eyes met, O'Neill smiled, and the old Yankee walked on.

*

Bill Plaschke can be reached at his e-mail address: bill.plaschke@latimes.com.

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