Still the warrior
Once again, O'Neill gives Yankees his best
Updated: Thursday March 29, 2001 10:42 PM
By Jamal Greene, Sports Illustrated
NEW YORK -- Paul O'Neill is old. Well, he's actually only 37, but he plays like Walter Matthau. His back is slightly hunched. He often looks like he's in pain ... and often he is.
At times this year, his bat has looked about as quick as Ernie Lombardi in tar. He complains more than your grandfather. He's even a little wily.
Witness his first at-bat of Game 4. Rick Reed, using a combination of a fastball, curve and change, had gotten four of his first five outs on strikeouts. Reed's 1-0 pitch to O'Neill was a fastball on the outside part of the plate.
Reed's fastballs flirt with 90 mph, challenging hitters to be overaggressive, but the lefty O'Neill stayed back, put his best opposite-field swing on and slapped the ball down the left field line for a double.
Although it was his fifth hit of the series (with three hits Tuesday, O'Neill is batting a team-high .583 and has six hits in his last eight at-bats), it was only his second line drive and one of the few balls he's been able to lift off the ground in the last month.
His last home run came Sept. 6. He entered the World Series batting .231 with one extra base hit in the postseason, prompting manager Joe Torre to drop him from third to seventh in the order and twice pinch-hit for him late in games.
Think the Mets think he's old? Witness the shift they put in place in his second at-bat.
Center fielder Jay Payton played left-center and left fielder Benny Agbayani guarded the left-field line. Call it the no-bat-speed shift.
What did O'Neill do?
He split the uprights, lining an RBI triple into the gap in right-center, right to where Payton would have been if the Mets thought O'Neill would pull the ball.
If not for a diving stab by second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo, O'Neill would have had four hits on Tuesday night. Whence the newfound skills?
"Once he gets his timing down with the leg kick and the swing and everything, it all clicks into place," said first baseman Tino Martinez. "I don't know what turned him around. He's worked really hard."
Hard work is the one thing age can't take away from O'Neill. In the 1996 World Series, battling a strained left hamstring, he chased down a Luis Polonia liner with two outs and runners at the corners in the bottom of the ninth of a 1-0 Yankees win.
In 1997, healthy, he hit .421 with two home runs and seven RBIs in the Yankees' Division Series loss to Cleveland. With the Yankees trying to crawl back down 4-3 with two outs in the final game off that Series, O'Neill legged a single into a double. He has spent hours of extra time in the batting cage trying to pull himself out of his funk. There's a reason Don Mattingly, a teammate from 1993 to 1995, called O'Neill his favorite player of all time.
It figured that O'Neill wasn't in the chattiest of moods after the game. His team lost. There was work to be done.