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Paul O’Neill recalls final Yankees game, how close he came to return in new book

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Excerpted from “Swing and a Hit: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me” by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry.

My Ultimate, Unforgettable Night time At Yankees Stadium

The Yankee followers knew I used to be retiring. Everybody knew. Regardless of how a lot I attempted to deflect questions on 2001 being my final season, the followers had been keenly conscious of the inevitable and that’s why they turned my closing recreation at Yankee Stadium into one of the crucial superb, humbling, and emotional nights of my profession. We had been enjoying a pressure-packed Recreation 5 of the World Collection in opposition to the Arizona Diamondbacks, however, at instances, the followers made this evening about my exit. To this present day, I’m honored and flabbergasted by their reactions.

Earlier than this momentous recreation, my feelings had been flowing in numerous instructions and I didn’t wish to communicate to reporters. However, since this was my final evening within the Bronx, I grudgingly agreed to reply some questions. I made certain to speak in regards to the glory and majesty of the Yankees, not about me.

“For those who see an image representing baseball, you see an old style baseball with Babe Ruth’s autograph and the previous bats,” I stated. “While you stroll into this Stadium, you are feeling that due to the historical past that’s been right here. Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio. Issues haven’t modified that a lot. These are the issues that meant essentially the most to me once I acquired right here and people are the issues that stick to me the entire time I’ve been right here.” They usually nonetheless do.

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Yankees Paul O’Neill leaves the sphere previous cheering followers within the ninth inning of Recreation 5 of the World Collection in opposition to the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.
Reuters

Operating pregame sprints throughout the outfield, the followers chanted my identify time and again. Once I jogged to my place in proper subject within the first inning, they gave me a standing ovation.

Already? I hadn’t achieved something. Nicely, significantly, I knew it was a thanks for my 9 seasons in New York. I lifted my glove to acknowledge them after which I took a few deep breaths and gazed across the stadium to take in every thing that was occurring, if that was even attainable. I noticed posters that learn, “Thanks, Paulie.” It was so surreal.

Standing within the batter’s field within the eighth, I used to be greeted with one other standing ovation and my eyes had been blitzed by a stream of flashbulbs popping. There have been no mobile phone cameras again then. The followers had been standing once more for me within the ninth as I stood in proper subject and I clutched my cap and pulled it over my eyes. I actually thought I’d cry. That’s when the “Paul O’Neill, Paul O’Neill,” chants intensified.

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Yankee followers maintain indicators up for Paul O’Neill within the eighth inning throughout Recreation 5 of the World Collection at Yankee Stadium.
Francis Specker

Once I heard these chants, I used to be overwhelmed. I lowered my head a number of instances and stared on the outfield grass as a result of I didn’t know what to do. We had been shedding the sport, a World Collection recreation! So, it wasn’t as if I may wave to the followers or tip my cap and even whisper “Thanks.” While you’re shedding a World Collection recreation, that’s not the best way you act. However the truth that the followers cheered whereas we had been shedding was fairly an honor. It’s one of many biggest presents I’ve ever obtained, on or off the baseball subject.

And, fortunately, the sport, not me, turned the only real focus as Scott Brosius hit a two-out, game-tying homer off the embattled Byung-Hyun Kim within the ninth. It was the second straight recreation through which Kim had surrendered a ninth-inning lead. We had been alive once more. I batted once more within the tenth and grounded out. That was my closing at-bat within the Bronx as a result of Alfonso Soriano rapped a run-scoring single within the twelfth to raise us to a second straight dramatic win. We led the collection, 3-2. Little doubt, the trustworthy followers and the ever-present ghosts guided us within the Bronx.

The euphoria of New York didn’t lengthen to the video games in Arizona. We had been walloped 15-2 in Recreation 6, and Andy Pettitte, who was rocked by the Diamondbacks, later discovered he had been tipping his pitches. We had a one-run lead in Recreation 7 with the ball in Mariano Rivera’s hand. Three outs to go together with Mariano pitching? Ninety-nine instances out of 100, we might win that recreation. However this time, we didn’t.

Luis Gonzalez’s broken-bat, bloop single over a drawn-in infield knocked within the profitable run and shocked Mariano, shocked us, and dissatisfied New York. After the bloop, I walked again to our dugout and lingered. I rested my arms on the railing and watched the Diamondbacks have a good time, a scene I’d have discovered inconceivable fifteen minutes earlier.

In that second of reflection, I thought of how my profession had ended with a loss within the World Collection. However, in time, right here’s my recollection of that collection: the one moments I bear in mind are the three dwelling video games due to how gripping they had been, how impactful they had been, and the way a lot they meant to the town following 9/11. Maybe it’s as a result of I retired and I need my closing recollections to spark some pleasure, however that’s what I’ll without end cling to from that collection.

Did we wish to win one other title? In fact, we did. The end result was upsetting. However when it was throughout and I used to be packing my gear for the final time, the worth of these three video games in New York outweighed the ultimate end result for me. I’m unsure anybody else shares my opinion, however that’s the way it felt to me.

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Paul O’Neill salutes the Yankees crowd.
Francis Specker

And as I reminisce about our run from 1996 to 2001, profitable 4 titles in six seasons was a legendary achievement. There hasn’t been a back-to-back champion since we did it greater than twenty years in the past. Trying again on these superb seasons, I pinch myself on daily basis as a result of I can proudly say I used to be a part of that dynastic interval. It was an historic run full of wonderful gamers and memorable moments. For me, there was additionally one closing bow on the Stadium, an evening that also replays in my head like an exquisite, dizzying dream.


Nearly Coming Out of Retirement For The Yankees In 2002

Rested and retired in June 2002, I used to be attempting to behave like a reporter (and possibly failing at it) whereas working for the YES Community. I used to be hanging out within the Yankees’ clubhouse and speaking about hitting with some gamers. That’s when a serious-looking Joe Torre, my previous supervisor, approached and requested to see me in his workplace. Oh, no — had I damaged a media rule or one thing?

Hardly. It was one thing far more intriguing than that.

“How lengthy would it not take you,” Torre requested, “to get able to play?” I laughed as a result of I assumed Joe was joking, however he repeated the identical query and added, “We’ve acquired some points we have to tackle right here.”

The Yankees had been utilizing Shane Spencer, the 1998 superhero, and John Vander Wal in proper subject and so they weren’t glad with their manufacturing. When Spencer injured his wrist and Torre had to make use of infielder Enrique Wilson in proper, Wilson appeared unsteady. That angered proprietor George Steinbrenner, who advised reporters, “We might make some adjustments.” I assume I used to be a part of that potential change.

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Swing and a Hit
AP

My thoughts went from cruising at twenty-five miles per hour as I ready to announce a baseball recreation to rushing at ninety miles per hour as I attempted to course of whether or not I wished to play in one other baseball recreation. Since my household was leaving for a trip in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina the following day, I advised Joe I’d focus on it with Nevalee, my spouse, and resolve if this was one thing I wished to contemplate.

However guess what? I stuffed a few baseball gloves in my suitcase and my first day on the seaside was spent long-tossing with my son Aaron. Simply in case, proper? I additionally ran sprints on the seaside, one thing I hadn’t achieved in over seven months. Simply in case, proper?

With every hour that handed, I began to assume this sudden comeback may occur and I’d get one other probability to play baseball. One thing that had not even been a faraway thought for me was now a really current thought.

After which I heard from Gene Michael, the Yankees’ vp of major-league scouting, and the overall manger who had acquired me from the Reds in 1993. After that life-changing commerce, Michael was the primary Yankee official I spoke with and the primary one that satisfied me I may thrive in New York. And now he was supporting this concept, too. “This may be among the best issues that ever occurred to you,” Michael stated. “You’ve had a psychological break and now you’ll be able to come again. You possibly can nonetheless play. You recognize that and I do know that. You possibly can come again and you are able to do it.”

Stick was proper. I knew I may have performed past 2001, however I actually wished my spouse and my three kids to have a extra secure life and never the all-consuming lifetime of a baseball-player household. Earlier than I retired, I believed I may have performed in a reserve position in 2002. However I didn’t wish to do this. I used to be all the time pondering in absolutes: if I wasn’t in a position to play on daily basis anymore, then I wasn’t the participant I felt I ought to be.

Nonetheless, after Stick’s telephone name, I took this unofficial provide very significantly. I saved operating and throwing on the seaside, my thoughts drifting again to the Bronx with each toss and each stride. The Yankees had some inside discussions about me probably going to play for the Triple-A farm group in Columbus, Ohio, which was very near my dwelling. May this occur? May my baseball profession out of the blue be revived? My eagerness was palpable.

Yankees
Paul O’Neill
AP

The Yankees couldn’t wait on me. Not lengthy after my dialog with Joe, the Yankees acquired the power-hitting Raúl Mondesí from the Toronto Blue Jays. The Yankees determined they wanted a proper fielder instantly and couldn’t wait the three or 4 weeks that it might have taken me to prepare.

I by no means had a second act and I stayed retired. It’s humorous, although. I noticed how a lot I missed baseball and the way a lot I nonetheless beloved baseball, as a result of the potential for enjoying once more excited me. It scared me, too, however I used to be poised to hit a number of extra line drives.

Looking back, I’ve all the time puzzled what it might have been like to come back again and compete after a layoff. My thoughts and my physique had been each so relaxed. The comeback by no means occurred, however I handled the concept significantly. I by no means superior to the purpose of getting right into a batting cage, so I’m unsure how rusty or how easy my swing would have been.

Who is aware of? I may have skilled for a number of weeks to make this grand return and been billed as a savior of kinds. And, figuring out me, I most likely would have began out 0-for-10 and remembered how maddening it’s to be in a droop and stated, “The heck with this. I’m going again on trip.”

Copyright @2022 by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.