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Twenty-one reasons to hate the Yankees
By Michael Malone
Special to Page 2
Nothing jars you from the boozily blissful afterglow of a night out in New York like Paul O'Neill telling you to buckle your seat belt.
Not long after turning 38, Paul O'Neill became the 38th New Yorker to lend his voice to the Taxi & Limousine Commission, painting yet another pinstripe on this damn Yankee town. Like Judge Judy, Chris Rock, Vinnie Testaverde, Walt Frazier and Yo-Yo Ma before him, O'Neill put on a cheery voice he reserves only for, well, taxicab voiceovers, and broadcasted the benefits of seatbelt safety. "If you want to hit a home run for safety," O'Neill quips with uncharacteristic jocularity, "you'll buckle your seat belt."
One can picture O'Neill in the recording studio, in full uniform in the middle of winter, trying his damndest to recite his lines flawlessly. Perhaps there would be a minor stammer near the end, a lingual Knoblauch toss, whereupon the producer would ask O'Neill to give it a second take.
"What do you mean, try it again?" O'Neill would surely bellow, his face scrunching up like a tot who's just realized there's only one more gift under the Christmas tree, and it ain't PlayStation. "That one was perfect!"
The producer would then explain that these things take time, and even a pro such as, say, Dennis Franz, needed a half-dozen takes to pull off a perfect delivery. That it wouldn't be long before Paul could go home and practice his swing in front of the mirror, then scream at his wife for the overly al dente state of his pasta.
But he would not be mollified; no, not Paul O'Neill. We all know how he would react -- he'd slam the headphones on the console, smashing them to bits like a dugout Gatorade tub following a failed hit-and-run. He'd storm out of the studio, and Joe Torre would be summoned from a lazy fishing hole in South Florida, called upon to once again get his player's head sorted out. Yes, that's what would happen.
Yankee fans like to call O'Neill "intense," but I believe the clinical term is "sniveling juvenile." Commentators, who receive substantial bonuses every time they refer to a player as a "warrior" (it's baseball, fellas), never fail to identify O'Neill in such a way, prompting my girlfriend to ask in earnest during last year's Series, "Paul O'Neill's a warrior, or a worrier?" "The latter," I answered truthfully.
Why do all reasonable people despise O'Neill? To be honest, Clemens' boorish World Series actions notwithstanding, there's no one else on the Yankees to hate. On the field and off, these are lean years for Bomber-bashers; I thank the Lord I've got two decades of Yankee-hating to fall back on. They're a selfless bunch of talented lunch-pailers who go out and do their jobs well every day.
There's the blandly benign Jeter, smiling vapidly when others assail his eminence. There's Bernie, who wields a jazz guitar with the same ease as he does a Louisville Slugger. Whether they're overcoming cancer, substance abuse or aneurysms, they've got more happy endings than a "Touched by an Angel" marathon. They're a classy bunch. There. I said it. Except for Paul O'Neill.
Make no mistake, the man can play; despite his supposed off-year in 2000, O'Neill still plated a cool hundred. Clenching my teeth like O'Neill on Photo Day, I'll concede that there are few players I'd rather send to the plate with the game on the line. But admit it -- if Paul O'Neill were a child, you wouldn't let your kid hang out with him. You'd make fun of him behind his back, and on Parent-Teacher Night, you'd scrutinize his parents for a clue as to where they went so horribly wrong.
So it looks like New York has one more year of Paul O'Neill. One more year of hard line drives in the gaps at crucial moments, of triple-figure ribbies, of hitting .400 in the Series and all the usual whining, caterwauling and helmet-spiking. After this season, he'll likely step down, too proud a man to take the field with a diminished set of skills, leaving the Yankees to go out and buy an accomplished rightfielder or three to help them win another dozen championships. Kids will grow out of their "21" jerseys, and people will eventually stop talking about Paul O'Neill.
Maybe you'll see him on line at some Midwestern grocery store, wearing his old uniform and screaming at the kid at the register, justifying his place in the Express line by explaining how separate jars of peanut butter and jelly should be counted as one item. Onlooking soccer moms will shake their heads and whisper disdain among themselves.
And long after Paul O'Neill has departed Gotham, you'll find me staggering along the city's lonely streets in the small hours, with only rats and the homeless for company. It's not the most pleasurable means of late-night travel, but it beats ever having to hear O'Neill tell me to buckle my belt again.
Michael Malone is a senior editor at Playboy.com, where he writes about food, drink, sports, music and, occasionally, Playmates. His writing has appeared in Gear, The San Francisco Examiner, Stuff, Rugby and Smoke, and he's currently shopping around his first novel, "Too East For Numbers." His woefully self-aggrandizing website can be found at www.mmalone.com.
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