The Yankees' Paul O'Neill yells in the third inning of...

The Yankees' Paul O'Neill yells in the third inning of a game on May 8, 2001. Credit: Newsday/Audrey C. Tiernan

TAMPA, Fla. – Even on a team filled with uber competitors like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte – just to name a few – Paul O’Neill’s competitiveness stood out.

"I think Paul was a big tone setter in our clubhouse," Joe Girardi said by phone Wednesday as he drove to the Phillies' spring training complex in Clearwater, Fla. "And he wasn't a guy that was necessarily talking about it. He was the guy that was demonstrating it by example … Paul always played with a sense of urgency where he never gave an at-bat away. Every inning meant something to him and every at-bat and every game and the intensity that he displayed I thought was infectious."

Girardi, the Yankees’ manager from 2008-17 who is entering his third season as the Phillies manager, was a teammate of O’Neill’s in the Bronx from 1996-1999. He laughed several times in recalling what it was like watching the intensity O’Neill, whose No. 21 will be retired during a ceremony Aug. 21 at the Stadium, displayed on a daily basis as the water cooler, empty area of the bench or the outfielder’s lumber were all in potential danger of injury should an at-bat not go his way.

"It was great to watch him perform every day because the cooler was going to get it, his bat was going to get it," Girardi said. "I mean, you’d look at his bat and it was all chewed up from hitting it on his spikes because he was upset with a swing."

Girardi said Joe Torre’s veteran bench coach – and baseball lifer – Don Zimmer, was one of few in the dugout who could tweak O’Neill in those moments.

"Zim could get him to laugh," said Girardi, who was often O’Neill’s "card partner" on team flights. "Zim would always tell him when he was walking into the dugout slamming his helmet or his bat [in the bat rack] or walking by Zim talking to himself, Zim, who was from Cincinnati and Paul was from Cincinnati, would tell him, ‘I know a concrete guy who will give you a job for $300 a week if you want.’ And we’d all start laughing and he’d tell Zim to shut up. It was priceless. But everyone felt that intensity every day, and there was a sense of urgency to win today."

And for Girardi, that synopsizes O’Neill’s continued popularity among Yankees’ fans to this day as well as anything.

"I think people really appreciated the way he played the game and how he took every at-bat as if it was his last and it meant something, and he was displeased with himself when he didn't perform to his expectations," said Girardi, whose locker was next to O’Neill’s at the previous Yankee Stadium. "He was he was tough on himself … he was always striving for perfection in everything that he did, whether it was defense or offense, running the bases. He was always striving for perfection."

O’Neill, meanwhile, in a Zoom press conference later Wednesday afternoon, still sounded blown away by the news.

"It's the highest honor that I think I've ever been given in baseball," said O’Neill, who received a plaque in Monument Park in 2014.

When Debbie Tymon, the Yankees senior vice president of marketing, delivered the jersey retirement news to him earlier in the week, O’Neill said, "I basically kind of dropped the phone" and his wife burst into "tears."

O’Neill added later: "I had heard…that a big reason that this [happened] was because of the backing of the fans and if that's true, all I can do is be thankful, and I always have been thankful to the New York fans. They’ve treated me unbelievable."

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