All I want for Christmas is The Warrior, Mr. Paul O’Neill, Number 21, to be immortalized by the New York Yankees.
Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and I and my fellow New York Yankees fans aren’t exactly feeling festive. Manny Machado’s free agency won’t be decided until after the New Year. We didn’t win the World Series this year. The worst part? The Boston Red Sox did!
But as I sit writing this at my parents’ dining room table, with a noseful of fir thanks to the tree on my left, I want none of those things for Christmas. Nor do I want lifetime season tickets, or for CC Sabathia to be my new BFF, though the latter would be great.
No, Yankees fans. My Christmas wish this year is different. Instead of infinite championships, or for me to become great friends with a player out of nowhere, I want something else no one else has even considered.
As 2018 winds down, and Santa and his elves get last-minute orders filled, I have an easy one.
All I want for Christmas is for the Yankees to retire Paul O’Neill’s number 21.
Some of you may recall I recently wrote about numbers the Yankees needed to un-retire. In it, I mentioned if Ron Guidry can have one truly great year and get his number 49 retired, then Paul O’Neill’s number 21 deserves the same.
We’ll follow the Yellow Brick Road of O’Neill’s career shortly, but there are other factors to consider besides that. It’s really just a matter of common sense. That this hasn’t even been considered is a borderline slap in the face to the legacy of the man we called “The Warrior.”
Consider this. O’Neill retired in 2001 at age 38 following a 17-year career, nine of which he spent in New York. In Game 5 of that year’s World Series, as he played in his final game at Yankee Stadium, the chants of his name were deafening. This was a player who was not just popular, but universally beloved by the fans.
Fast forward to today, and nothing has changed. Highlights of his playing days between innings are met with thunderous applause. The front office thought so highly of him, they made him a color commentator for games on the YES Network.
Most important of all, however, is this. Since O’Neill’s retirement, no one has worn his number 21. Well, that’s only half true. LaTroy Hawkins wore it very early in the 2008 season but switched to 22 after nearly getting booed out of the building.
The point is 21 is an iconic number. A man who had several good years in New York, not just a few sprinkled here and there, wore it.
It isn’t doing anyone any favors sitting in limbo, so it’s time to make room in Monument Park.
A warrior honored
And Paul O’Neill more than deserves it. Granted, when he arrived from the Cincinnati Reds in the Roberto Kelly trade back in 1993, he was only 30 years old and without much of a reputation. He won a World Series ring in 1990 but as a player, he seemed like someone with some home run pop with a rocket for a right field arm. He had 96 career home runs in eight seasons when he arrived in the Bronx, but only a .256 lifetime batting average.
Well, the short porch at Yankee Stadium soon fixed that. O’Neill batted a career-high .311 with 20 homers and 75 RBI his first year in pinstripes. In strike-shortened 1994, he won the AL batting title with a mark of .359 and finished fifth in MVP voting.
A batting title, four World Series rings, and serving as the de facto clubhouse leader while Derek Jeter matured into the team’s captaincy. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the epitome of being a Yankee. Sure, O’Neill only played in four All-Star Games with New York, but that can be blamed on his playing in the Steroid Era. He played hard but never matched the production of guys like Albert Belle or Ken Griffey Jr.
And none of it mattered. At all. Yankees Universe loved Paul O’Neill whether he hit .359 or .259. On a hot streak or in the midst of a discouraging slump, he always played like it was Game 7. He put so much pressure on himself to be excellent, regardless of circumstances.
Don’t believe me? Ask this water cooler.
Moreover, the main reason to retire Paul O’Neill’s number 21 this holiday season is simple. As grateful as he is for everything the New York Yankees did for him, as both a player and broadcaster, he probably doesn’t care one way or another about his number’s fate! That’s a level of selflessness even The Gift of the Magi can’t meet!
That said, as Brian Cashman and Hal Steinbrenner enjoy their holidays, perhaps they can consider this as they open presents and nibble on Christmas cookies. Or while they watch Little Drummer Boy, whatever their preferred Yuletide activity is. Paul O’Neill gave the team and its fans hard work and passion each time he stepped on the field.
He already has a plaque in Monument Park. The least they can give him for Christmas is retiring his number next to those of Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, and the rest of his teammates.