NEW YORK — Eight years ago, Paul O’Neill was thanked by the New York Yankees for his contributions to their dynasty with a plaque in Monument Park.
On Sunday, the Yankees retired his number 21, making him the 23rd player or manager in franchise history to be honored in such a way.
The ceremony was drastically different from others, not only because it has not been vaccinated against COVID-19, but also because the Yankees started Sunday with 14 defeats in their past 18 games. The frustrations are so high that during the 33-minute ceremony there was a noticeable booing of CEO Hal Steinbrenner and CEO Brian Cashman.
New York’s first retirement ceremony since 2017, when Derek Jeter’s No. 2 was honored, featured the usual video tributes and messages, gifts and a thank you.
During his roughly eight-minute speech, 59-year-old O’Neill thanked fans several times. He opened by saying, “You Yankee fans have obviously been practicing and it still sounds great.”
O’Neill, a four-time World Series champion as a Yankee, was nicknamed “The Warrior” by the late owner George Steinbrenner. “The fans remember the teams that won and we won,” said O’Neill. “And we’ve won a lot.”
O’Neill hit .303 with 185 home runs and 858 RBIs for the Yankees from 1993 to 2001. He was a four-time All-Star with the team, winning the 1994 American League batting title during a short-strike season.
He wore the number 21 throughout his career in the big league, starting as a rookie with the Reds in 1985.
“That’s why I celebrate this day, because this is the biggest dream I’ve ever had in my life,” O’Neill said in his speech.
Former coach Gene Monahan was there, along with teammates Tino Martinez, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera.
Six minutes after the ceremony, O’Neill stood next to his wife and family to reveal his retired number in Monument Park. He was brought onto the field in a golf cart as the highlights were played on the video board – including his last home game in Game 5 of the 2001 World Series and his running catch to end Game 5 of the 1996 World Series.
Then there were short video messages from Jeter, Joe Torre, David Cone and Don Mattingly, along with a message from Roberto Clemente Jr., the Hall of Famer’s son and a former Hispanic announcer for the Yankees.
“It’s clear that Paul is a central figure in one of the many great times in Yankee baseball and the dynasties,” said manager Aaron Boone before the Yankees faced Toronto, adding: “It’s nice to know Paul [as] a kind, even silly guy who sometimes contrasts with who he was between those lines.”
Steinbrenner gave O’Neill a framed plaque from his jersey; other gifts included a custom wine bottle with his No. 21, a framed jersey signed by the current Yankees, and a water cooler, a nod to his propensity for tossing water coolers into the dugout.
The autographed, framed jersey came closest to having any interaction with the current New York roster due to its vaccination status; unvaccinated personnel should not interact with players in the dugout and clubhouse.
O’Neill has been calling games on the YES Network from his home in Ohio since the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. In an interview with NJ Advance Media published Saturday, O’Neill said of his vaccination status, “I’d rather not talk about that.”
Since O’Neill retired after the 2001 World Series, the only player in New York to wear the number 21 was reliever LaTroy Hawkins at the opening of the 2008 season, but he switched places not long after the season started.