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Monday, December 12, 2011

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: PAUL O'NEILL

Over my lifetime, I always had baseball heroes, guys I watched and wanted to be. You know the players, Ron Guidry, Rickey Henderson, Don Mattingly and one more guy that was always larger than life. He was in Cincinnati with the Reds and then just exploded as the ultimate Warrior with the New York Yankees. That's Paul O'Neill. Not only did Paul try to be the best he could be, he knew he could be the best if he worked hard. You have to admire that.

These days Paul is in the YES booth and really handles it well, with that group of guys and gals, he fits in perfectly and offers terrific analysis and dare I say, Mr. O'Neill seems a lot more relaxed these days. It's great to see.

Recently I reached out to Mr. O'Neill and thanks to his brother Robert, I was able to secure an interview with Paul for Bleeding Yankee Blue. It's an honor and privilege to bring you our Internet exclusive interview with Paul O'Neill, to talk about baseball, the booth and some incredible charity work that you need to know about, his foundation, Right Field Charities.

(In Photo: Chick O'Neill)
BYB: Growing up, did you always want to play professional baseball?

Paul O'Neill: Yes, my dad Charles O'Neill played in the Dodger and St. Louis Brown organizations after he was in the War. My four older brothers starred on competitive teams. I went to a lot of games as a little spectator before I ever put on a uniform. But yea, baseball was in the cards for me practically from birth.

BYB: Every kid has a player they impersonate at the plate of their little league game. Who was yours as a kid and why?

Paul O'Neill: Willie Mays. He was an exciting player to watch. He did extraordinary things on the field. And his name. He had the right name. The words ‘will’ and ‘amaze’ are sort of in his name. Some baseball people think he would have hit the most home runs if he hadn’t spent so much of his career playing in the Polo Grounds.

BYB: You had a career in the making in Cincinnati with 1 championship already under your belt. Then you were traded to the Yankees in November 1992. What was your reaction?

Paul O'Neill: Totally bummed. Disappointed in myself that the Reds didn’t want me. After a lot of unnecessary beating myself up, it all worked out for the good. I’ll always be a Yankee first. I won the most there, it is the greatest city in the world with the best fans. Usually, they have a good team to cheer for.

BYB: As a kid I always loved Lou Piniella. What was it like to play for him with the Reds?
Paul O'Neill: Demanding. I respect Lou. He was explosive like me but you can’t doubt his professionalism. He understood we were there to win first and foremost. You never wanted to give Lou anything but your best. He’d notice. He taught me a lot about hitting and wanted me to hit the ball over the fence more. He is pretty much an icon now. One of the few to win it all as a player and manager. There is something pretty memorable about that.

BYB: My son once asked me why you got so angry if you got an out in a big moment. I told him because Paul O’Neill wanted to hit the ball every time. Would that be a safe assessment of your passion for the game?

Paul O'Neill: That’s half of it. I tend to be a perfectionist, hating failure. That may have started long ago as the youngest of six. There were so many of us, you sort of had to vie for dad’s praise and attention. But baseball is a game where great hitters get beat 7 out of 10 times. Where a guy could play fifteen years and feel accomplished because he has two World Series rings. Over 95% of roster players go home losing every year in baseball. I probably needed a thicker skin. I spent too many sleepless nights going over strikeouts or popups.BYB: George Steinbrenner created the nickname The Warrior” for you. What’s it like to have the owner of the Yankees give you a nickname that represents pure guts?

Paul O'Neill: He thought that is how all his players should be. He’d notice too if you weren’t giving everything you had. Don’t forget how much experience Mr. Steinbrenner had in the world of sports. He knew a few things about what won championships. But I will always be grateful for his choice of words. It is a good feeling never to be traded by an organization.

BYB: You were part of some of the greatest Yankee teams ever. What made that 4 championship run so special? Was it just a great team balance?

Paul O'Neill: In an era when guys hit sixty and seventy homeruns, from 1996-2001 only one guy in one year hit forty homers for us, Tino, I think in 98. So we had a complete team. We pitched, we played defense, we scratched. We had guys in their primes but most of all, to win that much, you have to come through in the clutch. We had so many clutch players we won those one run games enough. That’s what puts you over the top in baseball, the tightly contested games.

BYB: Describe being managed by one of the classiest guys in baseball, Joe Torre?

Paul O'Neill: Joe would let me go my own way until he thought I was beating myself up too much or thinking too much about what happened yesterday, thinking myself into a slump. Then, he’d step in for the good of the team and tell me to focus and remind me that if it seemed this hard for me, it’s just as hard for the guy you are playing against. Baseball never gets easier, just more and more unpredictable. You can’t be like Pete Sampras and win 95% of your matches in baseball. You can’t be Rocky Marciano and never lose a fight. In baseball you will lose. Rising back up is a big thing in baseball. Coming back the next day.

BYB: Putting you on the spot here, but if there was 1 Yankee teammate that you wish you could be like, who would it be and why?

Paul O'Neill: Don Mattingly. The greatest defender at his position. He was left handed. He was from the Midwest. He’s like me more, maybe stays in the background more than some players away from the media glare.

BYB: Describe your transition from player to broadcast booth guy?

Paul O'Neill: It is way, way more easy to broadcast games than play in them. Plus, I can easily say to my current boss, I just don’t feel like working this weekend, my family has plans. You can’t do that when you are wearing a pinstripe uniform. A lot of times, you are working or traveling when others are relaxing.

BYB: You are involved with charity work and people don’t realize how important it is as a star athlete to give back. Tell me about your charity work and why it’s so important to you?

Paul O'Neill: It has been going on most of my career. You make appearances for non-profits and banquets and golf tournaments and such to help them raise money. I can do more now because my kids aren’t so young and I don’t play a hundred and eighty games a year. You should give back as much as you can. Many, many people in the world suffer. With my non-profit, Right Field Charities, we particularly focus on giving free memorabilia to charity events that raise desperately needed funds for childrens’ causes. Someday, God-willing, we will be able to fill every request or most of the requests but the needs out there in the world are gargantuan so we all have to pitch in. Like Joe Torre said, and his charity does tremendous work, small steps. I plan on living a long time and building from what we started.

BYB: You have a website called www.PaulONeill21.com. Fans are thrilled because we all know you’re not a Twitter or Facebook guy. Tell us about what you want to accomplish with it?

Paul O'Neill: The website has been around for a while. It gives fans access to some of my life’s work, the baseball and charity work. It’s like a book that keeps changing. It’s a fun, baseball oriented site that is suitable for any age. We don’t put advertising on it to keep it clean. All of the content is free. It is beautifully edited and run by my brother, Robert. We try to keep the prices for the memorabilia reasonable. Like any business there are costs nobody would think of. But my main point there is this, I hope people will look at the site and say to themselves, I can make a difference. I can participate. I hope it honors the Yankees. I hope in just a small way it will make the world better. I hope people will support and approve of Right Field Charities, maybe even do a little Christmas shopping for some loved ones.

There is no way to describe it. I am a true Paul O'Neill fan. Not only is he honest, he's truly a class act. Thank you to the O'Neill brothers for this terrific interview. Be sure to check out PaulONeill21.com and Paul's charity work, Right Field Charities. Get on there and buy something. The money will go and help someone in need.

We hope you enjoyed this interview, I know I did.

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