It was November of 2001 when Paul O'Neill last took the field for the New York Yankees. Every Yankee fan undoubtedly remembers the emotional moment that was Game 5 of the 2001 World Series, when the fans in Yankee Stadium that night, unsure of whether they'd ever see Paul O'Neill in pinstripes again, cheered Paulie's name while "The Warrior" stood tall in right field late in the game.
As a huge Yankee fan, I can still hear it myself. "Paulie clap clap clap clap clap." Not once for the remainder of the inning did it stop. "Paulie clap clap clap clap clap." This was likely the moment O'Neill dreamed of his entire childhood. "Paulie clap clap clap clap clap."
For a moment in time, during that 9th inning with the Yankees trailing 2-0, it all hit me. This wasn't just the man who knocked over water coolers after striking out. It wasn't the man who threw bats on the field after an unlikeable call. This wasn't even the man I knew who conducted his own batting practice while playing right field. It all hit me watching from my couch; this was The Warrior.
Looking back on O'Neill's career, he likely won't make the Baseball Hall of Fame. He won't be remembered as a prolific homerun hitter. Heck, he won't even go down as the best right fielder the Yankees have ever had. Paul O'Neill stood for more than just that. Paul O'Neill was more than just a toy soldier. While impressive, he wasn't just the guy who took the field for nine seasons in New York hitting .303 and clubbing 185 homers to O'Neill bull’s-eyes in right field. Paul O'Neill was the heart and soul of the Yankees. He took the field everyday and didn't expect a win; he demanded one. He was a pivotal and driving force to leading the Yanks to four World Series wins in five seasons. Paul O'Neill owned New York.
Since his retirement, no man has worn the number 21 for the Bronx Bombers. Six seasons have come and gone since The Warrior graced right field; however his presence is not yet forgotten. While some people probably expected the Yankees to retire O'Neill's number in 2006, five years after its last use, the number remained unofficially retired.
Now, entering the seventh season without O'Neill, Paulie's number is back.
To begin spring training, non-roster invitee Morgan Ensberg was assigned the number 21. Upon watching my first spring training game, I didn't notice Jeter's new haircut or Giambi's physique. I didn't notice what Mussina was hitting on the gun or how many pitches Rivera got out of the ninth with. The first thing I noticed was the subtle 21 on the back of the first baseman. "Who's wearing Paulie's number?" I demanded of the TV. Apparently, I wasn't the only one.
At the conclusion of spring training, Ensberg returned 21 to Paulie's legacy and opted to wear number 11 instead. He attributed the forfeit of the number to the "heat" he received for wearing it. "The feedback from the fans was: 'That's not your number.' It was unbelievable," Ensberg was quoted as saying. "The gist of it was that it was Paulie's number, and I understood." It appeared as though the Warrior's spirit would still live in the House That Ruth Built.
Instead, O'Neill's number will be worn on the back of someone other than the 6'4" 215 pound Warrior. For the first time in seven years, a Yankee will wear the number 21 in a regular season game. If LaTroy Hawkins takes the mound in New York tomorrow during the seventh inning or so, he will officially end the Paul O'Neill era in the Bronx.
Hawkins claims to be wearing the number 21 to honor Roberto Clemente (a noble cause for a gracious legend). For Yankee fans, however, they will have to learn to cope with the fact that it isn't Paulie coming out of the bullpen this season.
Will the Steinbrenner family ever opt to retire O'Neill's 21? That remains to be seen.
After all, O'Neill was George Steinbrenner's favorite Yankee. He stands for the same things Paul did throughout his career. Retiring his number would mean the Yankees are choosing to recognize hustle, dedication, and winning as desired traits for their baseball players.
That indeed is what Paul O'Neill stood for.