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Yankees honor 'The Warrior,' Paul O'Neill

Former Yankees player Paul O'Neill waves to the

Former Yankees player Paul O'Neill waves to the crowd as he takes the field before being honored in a ceremony. Credit: AP / Jason DeCrow

While growing up in Ohio, Paul O'Neill competed against his brothers in everything. They were bigger, older and better than he was. It was then that he was introduced to losing.

He hated losing so much, he hoped to never fail again. He developed a rage to succeed. He pursued perfection.

In 17 big-league seasons, the final nine with the Yankees, O'Neill responded to his ordinary failures by throwing bats, smashing water coolers and loathing himself in the dugout. During hot stretches, he was notoriously reluctant to speak about himself.

And whether he was going good or bad, he obsessed over his swing -- even if it meant holding an imaginary bat and stepping into an imaginary pitch at an imaginary home plate while standing in rightfield.

"You want to win,'' said O'Neill, 51, who was a key part of four World Series winners from 1996 to 2000 and also played for the 1990 champion Reds. "It's just something that's part of your makeup. Did it hurt me at times? Maybe. Did it help me at times? I think it certainly did.''

Without his ultra-competitive nature, O'Neill conceded, he might not have been honored Saturday with a plaque in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. He joined Rich Gossage and Tino Martinez with a plaque presentation from the Yankees this season.

"You put pressure on yourself every single day to succeed or you have to live with yourself until the next time you go to play,'' O'Neill said after a brief ceremony on the field before the game. "Every single day meant something to me . . . every single at-bat.''

O'Neill succeeded enough to rank among the top 20 Yankees in batting average (.303), on-base percentage (.377), home runs (185), RBIs (858) and doubles (304). He made five All-Star teams.

"He expected a lot of himself,'' said Derek Jeter, who presented O'Neill a framed picture of the plaque during the ceremony. "He was intense and expected perfection.''

O'Neill initially was disappointed when the Yankees obtained him from the Reds for Roberto Kelly in November 1993 because he thought he had failed his hometown team. "When you're traded, you're disappointed because you don't feel like you played well enough to stay where you are,'' he said.

Something made him feel differently about that pretty soon after, though. "Talk about the perfect time to come here,'' he said. "It started turning around and we started winning.''

There's that word again.

"Paul was unique,'' Joe Girardi said. "I had as much fun being his teammate as anyone I've ever played with.''

Hall of Fame manager Joe Torre said he once called a meeting during a tense playoff run. His message was simple: "I told them, 'We got to have a little fun, guys.' '' Torre said O'Neill waited a few minutes and then told him, 'Skip, it's not fun unless you win.' ''

O'Neill was dubbed "The Warrior'' by late owner George Steinbrenner, and his work ethic, will to win and fiery attitude endeared him to many -- especially Yankees fans.

In O'Neill's final game at the old Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series, the fans rhythmically chanted "Paul O'Neill!'' over and over. At the time, he said, it took him a while to figure out what they were saying. Once he realized the chants were for him, he became visibly emotional.

On Saturday, the chant was heard again. This time he had no trouble detecting the message. Said O'Neill, "Both days are things I'll never forget.''

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