Monday, November 5
Updated: November 6, 1:38 PM ET
O'Neill's passion was playing, winning
By Jim Caple
PHOENIX -- Paul O'Neill left the final game of his career in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the Word Series when New York manager Joe Torre lifted him for a pinch-hitter against left-hander Randy Johnson. Well, if you're going to go out, better to go out without having to face Johnson.
Even though his career had effectively ended, O'Neill stood in the dugout working on his swing. A professional to the end.
While he did not achieve the career marks of baseball's better known retirees this season (Cal Ripken Jr., Tony Gwynn and possibly Mark McGwire), O'Neil made his mark. He won the 1994 batting title and more importantly, he won five world championships, one with Cincinnati in 1990 and the rest with the Yankees in 1996, 1998, 1999 and 2000. He finished one inning short of a sixth when the Diamondbacks rallied in the bottom of the ninth to beat O'Neill's Yankees 3-2.
"We were world champions with three outs to go," O'Neill said at his locker. "And we had the best reliever in the history of the postseason on the mound. When you get beat under those circumstances, sure, you're disappointed but I'm also just happy to walk into this clubhouse with this group of guys. It's awesome."
O'Neill, 38, batted .281 with 1,269 RBI during is 17-year career, which is remarkable considering that in his mind, pitchers never threw him a strike. His constant moaning over called strikes and his frequent displays of anger when he made an out made him one of the least popular players in visiting cities. But his obvious competitive drive made him a huge favorite in New York. When he took the field for what appeared to be his final inning in Yankee Stadium in Game 5, the fans stood and applauded him, loudly chanting his name.
He joined the Yankees in 1993, just before they were beginning their recent return to baseball supremacy, winning four championships and playing in five World Series in six years.
"When the season started, a lot of people asked why I was going to play again," O'Neill said. "And it's because I wanted to finish the run. There'll be some changes here but they're certain to keep winning because there are great players coming back like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. But there are going to be changes. And the run we had is something I'm going to hold onto forever."
O'Neill says he occasionally takes out his five championship rings to look at but that he's never worn them all at once. Which is probably best since with the combined weight of the jewelry, he wouldn't be able to lift his hand off the floor.
He wore his father's ring for his final game. He doubled in the first inning but was thrown out attempting to stretch it into a triple. He struck out in the fourth and singled in the seventh, hitting .333 for the series.
Asked what he'll remember most from his Yankees days, he said there was too much to name, including everything from the great Italian food in New York City to the World Series victories.
"I'm going to miss Paul," Torre said. "We certainly wish we could have sent him out on a winning note but we understand that there are two good teams on that field and they both can't win."
With O'Neill, the Yankees usually did.
Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.