New York Yankees: Paul O'Neill and the 5 Biggest 'Warriors' in Franchise History

Rick Weiner@RickWeinerNYFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2012

New York Yankees: Paul O'Neill and the 5 Biggest 'Warriors' in Franchise History

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    It's not just about playing hurt, because nearly everyone plays hurt. These guys play when they're injured.

    It's not just about being tough, because nearly everyone who is willing to step into the batter's box against a baseball traveling in excess of 90 mph is tough. These guys play chicken with the ball when it's headed right for them.

    It's not about having dirt on your uniform, because nearly everyone ends up with some dirt on their uniform. These guys end up with a veritable rainbow of colors on their uniforms when the game is over.

    These guys are simply wired differently than everyone else. They leave it all out on the field because they don't know any other way to perform.

    These guys wear their emotions on their sleeves and make no apologies for who they are.

    These guys know that pain heals, chicks dig scars and glory lasts forever.

    Without further ado, I present to you the greatest warriors in the Yankees' history.

Paul O'Neill

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    When George Steinbrenner spoke about his players, it was with emotion and, as he got older, affection. So it came as no surprise that when George called Paul O'Neill "his warrior," fans and the media took to using the nickname to describe the Yankees' right fielder as well.

    O'Neill did not take kindly to failure. Whether it was failure on his own part or what he perceived to be the failure of the umpire, water coolers and bat racks in the Yankees' dugout were immediately put in danger when O'Neill was upset.

    In the field, O'Neill was routinely seen crashing into walls or fully extending his airborne body as he patrolled right field, never worse for wear. He was a blue-collar guy who played a blue-collar brand of baseball—hard, intense and at full speed.

    While Derek Jeter is the captain and the face of the franchise, Paul O'Neill was the heart and soul of the dynasty.

    The sendoff that Yankees fans gave O'Neill (video above) is all the proof needed that O'Neill was indeed a warrior. Only a warrior gets everyone in Yankee Stadium to completely ignore the top of the ninth inning during Game 5 of the World Series—a game that the Yankees were losing—so that they could pay tribute to him in his last game.

Thurman Munson

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    The unquestioned leader of the Yankees in the 1970s, Thurman Munson bought swagger to a franchise that had lost its way in the years following the departures of Yankee legends Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Elston Howard.

    Not only was Munson the team's unquestioned captain and leader, but he was its heart and soul as well—the proverbial straw that stirred the drink, if you will. Like Paul O'Neill, Munson was a blue-collar kind of guy and was beloved by his teammates and fans alike.

    His feud with Carlton Fisk* was vicious and legendary, especially the bench-clearing melee that broke out on August 1, 1973 (pictured). Munson lay atop Fisk to allow Matty Alou to round the bases, and Yankees SS Gene Michael found himself being choked by Fisk at the bottom of a pile of fighting players.

    *In 2000, Peter Gammons wrote an excellent piece about their feud that's worth a read.


Derek Jeter

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    You hear it all the time—Derek Jeter is overrated because he plays in New York, just another example of the New York hype machine making their athletes appear to be bigger and better than he actually is.

    For those who watch Jeter work on a daily basis, the opposite is true—Derek Jeter has probably never gotten credit for how good of a baseball player he actually is.

    There is not one particular play or a particular trait that defines Jeter's Yankee career—it's his all-around body of work and how he goes about doing his job day after day. Jeter is the whole package.

    While his career is closer to the end than the beginning, Jeter has left it all on the field for nearly two decades—and left no room for debate as to whether he belongs alongside the other "warriors" in Yankees history.

Bobby Murcer

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    Sure, Bobby Murcer never lived up to the lofty expectations that come with being anointed "the next Mickey Mantle," but that never bothered him.

    While nowhere near as well known as the feud between Thurman Munson and Carlton Fisk was, the affable Murcer had a feud of his own—with Hall of Fame pitcher Gaylord Perry and then-commissioner of baseball, Bowie Kuhn.

    Murcer was tired of Perry's cheating ways going unchecked, and in 1973, he called the commissioner out for it, telling the press that "Kuhn didn't have the guts" to stop Perry from throwing his patented (and illegal) spitball. Murcer and Perry would go back and forth at each other for a number of years, including when they were teammates in the Bronx during the 1980 season.

    What makes Murcer a warrior on the field happened the day of Thurman Munson's funeral—August 6, 1979. Murcer, Munson and Lou Pinella were all best friends, and Sweet Lou and Bobby were affected perhaps more than anyone else by Munson's death.

    After giving a moving eulogy at Munson's funeral, one that the whole team attended, they returned to the Bronx to take on the Baltimore Orioles. Yankees manager Billy Martin wanted to sit Murcer as he felt he'd had a hard enough day, but Bobby insisted that he play. Murcer would single-handedly win the game for the Yankees.

    Down 4-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, Murcer took Orioles starter Dennis Martinez deep for a three-run home run, bringing the Yankees within one. In the bottom of the ninth, still trailing 4-3, Murcer singled to left field, a hit that would score both Bucky Dent and Willie Randolph, giving the Yankees a 5-4 win.

    Any man who can bury his best friend in the afternoon and then perform under pressure as Murcer did that night is a warrior by any definition.

    Murcer would once again show his intestinal fortitude as he bravely battled brain cancer. His memorial service was held on August 6, 2008—29 years to the day that Murcer laid his best friend to rest.

Lou Gehrig

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    It would be easy to point at his consecutive-games-played streak and proclaim that was the reason we can call Lou Gehrig a "warrior," but that would only tell half the story.

    The greatest first baseman that the game has ever seen, Gehrig played much of his career with injuries—whether it be with a broken thumb, a broken toe, or debilitating back spasms—likely caused by ALS or "Lou Gehrig's disease."

    What you may not know is that towards the end of his career he had his hands X-rayed, and the results were both shocking and not surprising at the same time. Doctors found no less than 17 different fractures in his hands that had healed while Gehrig continued to play. Say it out loud—Lou Gehrig played at a level nobody else had ever played at before with 17different fractures in his hands.

    Enough said.

Mickey Mantle

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    Sure, Mickey Mantle self-medicated himself to the point that it eventually led to his death, but for nearly two decades, there wasn't a tougher player in the league than "the Mick."

    Mantle famously injured his knee during the 1951 World Series when he and Joe DiMaggio went after a fly ball hit by Willie Mays. DiMaggio called Mantle off at the last second, and Mantle subsequently caught his cleat in a drain cover in right field, dropping to the ground.

    It has been widely speculated that Mantle tore his ACL (if not other knee ligaments as well) on the play and played the rest of his career on a knee that was never fully healed from the injury.

    By the time his playing days were over, the simple act of swinging a bat was so painful for Mantle that he sometimes had to drop to one knee to recover.

    Mantle was the greatest switch-hitter of all time, and the fact that he put up the numbers that he did while never actually healthy is even more impressive than the numbers themselves.

Elston Howard

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    While Jackie Robinson had broken the color barrier in baseball 13 years before Elston Howard made his major league debut, Howard was the first black player to appear in a game for the Yankees on April 14, 1955.

    Howard didn't have an easy time of things—although he was beloved by his teammates, especially Hank Bauer, who stood up for Howard whenever he felt it was needed, Howard found himself on a team run by  "good ol' boys" Casey Stengel and GM Dick Weiss. Casey genuinely liked Howard but Weiss was never a big fan of black players—he supposedly turned down a chance to acquire Ernie Banks along with Howard from the Kansas City Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1950.

    Early in his Yankees career, Howard was unable to stay in the same hotel as the team. Often he found himself as a boarder with a black family in the black section of town—a shameful and dark time for the sport and country.

    What Elston Howard had to endure was not on the same level as what Jackie Robinson and those who came before him went through. But at the same time, the fact that Howard was able to handle the situation with dignity and class while performing at an All-Star level was quite remarkable and noteworthy.

Closing Thoughts

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    Without a doubt, there are players I left off this list who would fit right in with this group.

    Andy Pettitte, Whitey Ford, Bill Dickey, Yogi Berra, Jorge Posada and Mariano Rivera could all be referred to as "warriors" as well.

    Watering down the field is something I tried to avoid—and that is not meant as a slight to any of the above named players.

    Simply put, the Yankees have been blessed with some of the toughest athletes in the history of the game to grace the field

    There's no shame in being in that second group of "warriors" that answer the call.

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