Paul O'Neill in 1998

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Remembering The 1998 Yankees: A Conversation With Paul O'Neill

Says '97 Heartbreak Fueled Championship Run

Benjamin Block
August 15, 2018 - 10:34 am
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Note: This is the third article in WFAN.com’s weeklong series remembering the 1998 Yankees on the 20th anniversary of their world-championship season.

Forever endeared to Yankees fans as "The Warrior," Paul O'Neill began his relationship with New York on Nov. 3, 1992, when the 29-year-old Ohioan was acquired in a trade that sent Roberto Kelly to Cincinnati. Six years later, he was one of the most valuable players on that magical 1998 club that won a mind-bending 125 games en route to capturing the 24th World Series in Yankees history.

Now 55, and 20 years removed from that season, the memories seem as if they couldn't be clearer for O’Neill. On this day, as he has since joining the YES Network as an analyst in 2002, O’Neill emerges from the broadcast booth. And all 6-foot-4 of him looks like he could pinch-hit for the 2018 Yankees, if asked. Yet, his pinstripes have long been turned in for a steady diet of oxford shirts and slacks.

Minutes before prepping to tape the pregame of a Yankees-Orioles matinee from Yankee Stadium earlier this month, O'Neill — soft spoken, humbled and reflective — spoke exclusively with WFAN.com.

Benjamin Block: What memories have the 20-year anniversary of that 1998 team brought up for you? 

Paul O’Neill: It was the greatest team that I was ever a part of. Everything went perfect. I mean, the record speaks for itself. You know, the stories themselves usually don’t come out until you get around the guys again, and you always look forward to that, but it’s amazing to me that it’s been 20 years.

MORE: Brosius Proved To Be Anything But An Afterthought On 1998 Yankees

BB: What were your recollections of the day-to-day with the guys in the clubhouse that year?

PO: Just how perfect the season went. You always look back on good teams, but seldom do you look back on good teams where everybody had a good year. It’s just like everybody had a good year that year. If we needed something, like a pinch hit, for example — I remember one time (Darryl) Strawberry pinch-hit a grand slam to win a game. I mean, just crazy stuff. Tino (Martinez) had a career year. It was just one of those years where, like I said, on paper we were a really good team, and everybody had great years.

BB: Was there a specific moment when you knew something special was happening, or was it that Strawberry pinch-hit grand slam?

PO: It kind of progressed throughout the year. I don’t know if there was one defining game. I mean, when you win 100-and-some games, no, there’s not one. You just know you’re good. But as the season progresses, there becomes more pressure going into the playoffs and into the World Series that you pretty much have to validate things by winning a world championship, or it’s pretty much for naught.

BB: So, have you reminisced with any of the guys from that season that you’re still in touch with? 

PO: I work with David Cone, so we speak about that a lot. That team — the core part of that team — was still part of that ’99 and 2000 (team) also, so yeah, you see those players now and then around the stadium because the Yankees are so good at keeping teams together and remembering teams. And New York people don’t forget championships, so there are times when you come across the guys. 

BB: What else do you remember about 1998, especially considering how the 1997 season ended so disappointingly?

MORE: Keidel: 1998 Yankees Were Perfect

PO: I think ’98, ’99 and 2000 happened because of ’97. Absolutely. That defeat and how hard it was, you don’t lose that. I think that you win with the fear of that losing. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it drives you.

BB: How did you differentiate going into a season with the expectations to contend for, or win, a championship, as opposed to 1996 when expectations weren’t necessarily as heavy?

PO: I think you understand New York, and you understand Mr. (George) Steinbrenner at that time. A good year was not wins and losses, a good year was winning the world championship. Easier said than done. A lot has to happen. A lot of good has to happen at the right times. And again, winning in ’96 and then the horrible defeat in ’97 I think really drove us for the next few years.

BB: When you hit that double (with the crazy slide) with two outs in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the (1997) ALDS versus the Cleveland Indians, and then Bernie Williams flied out in the next at-bat to end the season, what was going through your mind? 

PO: That’s probably as disappointed as I’ve ever been in Major League Baseball. Because you won in ’96 and then you’re in that position in '97 where you just assume you’re going to do that same thing again with the same people, and there’s such a quick end to things and you just don’t really know how to take it. But it sets in as the winner goes on, and it just eats at you. And by the time you get back to ’98, you have to play the whole year and get to the playoffs just to get back to that spot again where you can play in the playoffs. Once you get there, you don’t take it for granted.

BB: Plus, you had hardly any time off following the abrupt end to ’97 and before the start of ’98.

PO: Looking back, it was a grueling time because of the mental part of the game and the big games, but I’ll tell you what, it was the most fun you could ever have. 

BB: Would you or have you ever ranked your five championships? 

PO: ’98 is the best team. There’s no doubt about it. I think ’98 and then 2000 because of the Mets thing. That was probably the most pressure we felt -- that we had to win. There were plays in ’98 and 2000 when we were losing both games. Against the Padres in ’98 and the Mets in 2000, Game 1. Coming around and coming back and winning those Game 1s, to me, changed the whole World Series.

BB: Did you think life could get any better than playing for the Reds as a hometown kid than what you were able to accomplish here in New York? 

PO: I mean, yeah. Once you go through a parade and you see the amount of people that the Yankees affect, you realize the tradition and the things that go on here and how passionate people are about the Yankees. You don’t have that around other organizations.

BB: Let’s fast forward to this season. What have the fans been like this year, considering the lofty expectations set on this young club and the comparisons — fair or unfair — being made to that ’98 team? 

PO: Well, the fans do drive you here. They do put a little bit of pressure on you to succeed. This has been a fun team. I think that the excitement around New York, around this team has been great. It’s definitely back to the level where people are expecting to win, but until you do, there’s always expectations. It’s very hard to do. You just can’t throw a team out there and hope things work out.

BB: So, are you pleased with the moves they made at the trade deadline? 

PO: I think (general manager Brian) Cashman does a great job. You don’t want to change the whole chemistry of this team, but he has made it a better team. Obviously Aaron Judge being hurt kind of deflated things for a while, but you realize that he could be back in a month. You worry about what he’s going to be when he comes back, if he’s the same player, but they have plenty of talent out there -- and young talent, which is what I think gets the fans excited. You know, the Yankee organization is able to do win-loss-wise what other organizations are not. A lot has to do with the decisions that the organization makes.

BB: Right. And this team has been remarkable at avoiding extended losing streaks.

PO: It’s every year. It’s a lot harder than people think.

BB: And that’s what you guys were able to do in ’98.

PO: When you remember years like that -- that’s 20 years ago -- you remember all the good stuff -- the World Series and the people. It’s just great memories.

BB: What’s your relationship with Judge? And what have you said to him since he went on the disabled list, if anything?

PO: He’s the best. He’s a great kid. And it’s no doubt in my mind that’s why the young kids have come up here and have such great attitudes as far as playing without all the other stuff that comes with the game sometimes. He is a leader, and the Yankees couldn’t ask for anything more.

BB: Things have to go right obviously, but what’s your overall feeling on how this season will wind up for this team?

PO: Well, haha, my overall feeling is they’re a very good team. But Boston is a very good team. Houston is a very good team. And in a short series, a lot has to go well. But you know what, this has been a fun year to watch, and it’s been an amazing run of some of the young players, as far as (Gleyber) Torres and (Miguel) Andujar. These guys don’t just come around like that. These kids have done a great job.

Follow Ben on Twitter at @benjaminblock21