Paul O’Neill dropped his phone. His wife, Nevalee, teared up. They were both stunned at the news that the Yankees had decided to retire his No. 21 jersey.
“Just a day I won’t ever forget,” O’Neill said Wednesday.
O’Neill, now an game analyst for YES Network who spent nine seasons in pinstripes, will become the 23rd Yankee to receive the honor, on Aug. 21 in The Bronx. That group includes former teammates he won four championships with: Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams and Jorge Posada.
“It’s the highest honor that I’ve ever been given in baseball,” O’Neill, who was given his own plaque in 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 replaying over and over again, just how cool this is.
“To know that there’s a generation of people who associate my name with that number to me is very special.”
A five-time All-Star and the 1994 AL batting champion, 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 in awe of the franchise’s history and the game’s luminaries who were once Yankees. He never thought he would be part of it one day.
He became a fan favorite after coming over from the Reds in a trade, known for his intense demeanor, grinding at-bats and temper tantrums that exhibited his fire. He only knew one way to play, earning him the nickname “The Warrior” from late owner George Steinbrenner. In nine seasons with the Yankees, he notched a .303/.377/.492 slash line with 185 homers and 858 RBIs in 1,254 regular-season games.
Since he retired following the 2001 season, O’Neill’s No. 21 has been mostly out of sight. It was given to pitcher LaTroy Hawkins in 2008 after the right-hander asked for it to pay homage to Roberto Clemente. It will never be worn again by a Yankee.
“These are things that you never dream about. When you’re playing the game you don’t think about these things,” he said. “You think about getting a hit or hitting a home run. Those kinds of things go away. This, to me, now that I think about it, every single time I go into Yankee Stadium and that number is up, it won’t go away.
“To look up and see a No. 21 that means so much to me, I can’t thank the Yankees enough.”