I knew little about the Yankees’ new outfielder, Paul O’Neill, who had been obtained from the Cincinnati Reds for Roberto Kelly, New York’s lone all-star the season before. In his Stadium debut, O’Neill filled Kelly’s shoes more than adequately: he went four-for-four with two RBIs. To fully appreciate what O’Neill brought to the lineup, though, Yankees fans would need to wait for a night when he was less than perfect at the plate. O’Neill played with a grim determination, and when he failed to deliver in crucial situations, his frustration with himself was visible from the top rows of the upper deck. If anybody was keeping track at the Elias Sports Bureau, O’Neill almost certainly led the league in public displays of disgust and self-loathing. Striking out with the bases loaded, he would leave the batter’s box and, seething, bat in hand, head straight to the Gatorade bucket sitting in the corner of the Yankees dugout. After beating the liquid out of it, O’Neill would grab his glove and retake the field muttering to himself like someone you might avoid sitting too close to on the subway. It was clearly not an act, and the fans loved it, and him, and the fire he brought to the Yankees.
I would become more personally acquainted with O’Neill’s trademark intensity later in the season, during games when I was stationed down the first-base line and O’Neill was playing right field. Warming up O’Neill between innings was nothing like the easygoing game of catch it was with any other Yankees right fielder. This was especially true after O’Neill had just made the third out in the previous frame; God forbid he had stranded runners in scoring position. After he stalked out to his position, I would loft the ball to him in a soft arc. He would fire it back at me so fast, and with such palpable frustration, that I was afraid to move my glove an inch from where I held it up to him as a target. O’Neill had an incredible arm, and my saving grace was that he had good control. He was in fact at the top of the pitching depth chart if the Yankees needed a position player to fill in on the mound in an emergency. When he threw the ball in a bad state of mind, it actually made an audible sizzling sound before exploding with an angry pop
in the pocket of my glove. It was not much better when I worked bats [transcriber’s note: “bats” means working around the on-deck circle as opposed to the lines or running balls to the umpire]; after making an inning-ending pop-up or groundout, he would hurl his batting helmet in my direction, sending it skipping at shin-shattering speed across the grass in front of the dugout.