11 years ago, Paul O'Neill hung up his spikes after a very respectable 14 year major league career.
The feisty, long-limbed left-hander finished the final nine seasons of his career in the Bronx and Yankees brass has sure not forgotten about "The Warrior's" contributions to those four Yankees World Championship teams from 1996-2000. In fact, with the exception of a brief two week stint in April of 2008, no Yankee has worn O'Neill's No.21 since.
But does O'Neill deserve to have his Yankees number officially retired alongside Hall of Famers such as Babe Ruth, Bill Dickey, Joe DiMaggio, and Yogi Berra?
That, of course, is up for debate among many of the fans and media. Realistically, O'Neill is a borderline candidate. A major part of making your way into the retired number section near Monument Park in Yankee Stadium means comparing your lifetime statistics against those who came before you.
Winning World Series titles also helps (O'Neill won four.) In the case of the New York Yankees, that's some significant company to measure yourself against. Heck, Earle Combs and Tony Lazzeri are in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and even they don't have their Yankees numbers retired.
Paul O'Neill was traded to the Yankees prior to the 1993 season from the Cincinnati Reds in exchange for Roberto Kelly—in retrospect, a steal for the Yankees. O'Neill won the American League batting title in 1994, batting .359 during the strike shortened season, and played in five All-Star games, four of which came with the Yankees during the mid-1990s.
He was consistently one of the best hitters in the American League for the majority of his time in New York. O'Neill also finished in the top 10 in the American League in both hits and runs batted in during the 1997 and 1998 seasons.
Along with Bernie Williams, Tino Martinez and, of course, Derek Jeter, O'Neill helped team up to make opposing American League pitchers' lives quite difficult during those championship seasons, as the Yankees routinely led the American League in runs scored.
Many fans will always hold a very special place in their hearts for O'Neill, who was a big fan favorite of those Yankees teams. Fans are graced with the rock group Scandal's 1980's classic "Warrior," which is played during a video montage of O'Neill highlights at some Yankees home games. O'Neill has also been a broadcaster for the YES network's telecasts of Yankees games.
During spring training in 2008, Yankees relief pitcher LaTroy Hawkins attempted what no brave soul had dared to since 2001—he tried to pay homage to the late Roberto Clemente by donning the great Puerto Rican's jersey number.
Bad move. Yankees fans and intense media scrutiny made Hawkins' spring training life a nightmare. The proud veteran took the number into the first two weeks of the 2008 season, though eventually relented and traded in No.21 for the more innocuous 22.
The most recent, close comparison to O'Neill's candidacy may be Ron Guidry. The Gator pitched for the Yankees for 14 seasons and still had to wait 15 years before having his number retired in the Bronx. The popular belief has been that the unspoken acknowledgement of O'Neill's service with the Yankees, by not issuing the number 21 since his retirement, has been a very respectful nod to a man who embodied so much of the grit, perseverance and fortitude of the late 1990's Yankees dynasty teams.
In the meantime, while the unspoken acknowledgement remains a powerful statement, it still may not be enough to have No.21 taken off the books forever. Though as time passes and more nostalgia builds for that very special time in Yankees history, perhaps Yankees brass will seek to honor the man, who to so many, was the heart and soul of those great Bombers teams.
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