Paul O’Neill dropped his phone. His wife, Nevali, cried. Both were stunned by the news that the Yankees decided to retire with their number 21 jersey.
“Just a day I will never forget,” O’Neill said on Wednesday.
O’Neill, now a YES Network game analyst who has spent nine seasons in striped streaks, will become the 23rd Yankee to receive this honor on August 21 in the Bronx. This group includes former teammates who have won four championships with: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettit, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.
“It’s the highest honor I’ve ever had in baseball,” O’Neill, who earned his plaque at Monument Park in 2014, said on a Zoom call. “I don’t really know how to explain it. It’s on my mind all day, and it keeps repeating over and over again, how cool.
“Knowing that there is a generation of people associating my name with that number is very special.”
A five-time All-Star and 1994 batting champ, the 58-year-old O’Neill recalled what it was like when he first joined the Yankees in 1993 and visited Monument Park. He was fascinated by the history of the game and the stars of the game who were once Yankees. He never thought that he would be a part of it one day.
He became a fan favorite after coming from the Reds in a trade, famous for his fierce behavior, bat grinding and tantrums that showed his fire. He only knew one way to play, which earned him the nickname “Warrior” from the late owner George Steinbrenner. In nine seasons with the Yankees, he notched a .303/.377/.492 slash with 185 Homer and 858 RBI in 1,254 regular season games.
Since retiring after the 2001 season, O’Neill’s number 21 has been out of sight. It was awarded to bowler Latroy Hawkins in 2008 after a right-handed man asked to honor Roberto Clemente. It will never be worn again by a Yankee.
“These are things you never dream about. When you play the game you don’t think about these things,” he said. “You think about getting a hit or a home hit. These kinds of things are disappearing. That, for me, now that I think about it, every time I go to Yankee Stadium and that number goes up, it just won’t go away.
“For looking at number 21 and seeing number 21 that means so much to me, I can’t thank the Yankees enough.”