Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 22, 2022

Searching For “The Warrior’s” Passion

A NOTE TO READERS:  Like a baseball game impacted by a rainstorm, this post was delayed by external forces.  Not the weather in this case, but a combination of heavier than usual traffic and areas of road construction that resulted in a much longer than expected drive back to New England Sunday evening, following a weekend at Yankee Stadium.  The regular Sunday and Thursday schedule resumes later this week.  As always, thanks for reading.

The Yankees won a baseball game Sunday afternoon, a noteworthy event because the victory was just the third for the team in its past ten games, all of which have been against other AL East teams.  New York’s 3-7 record over that portion of its schedule, which shrunk its division lead from overwhelming to merely sizable, was in line with the team’s anemic results over the past month.  Since Toronto had already taken the first three contests of a four-game set, Sunday’s 4-2 win over the Blue Jays also wasn’t enough to prevent the Yankees from losing a sixth consecutive series.

Still, a win is a win, and this team and its fans were happy to get one.  A larger than usual portion of the nearly 47,000 in attendance stayed until reliever Lou Trivino, the fourth New York pitcher of the afternoon, induced a ground ball from Jackie Bradley Jr. that scooted across the infield directly into the waiting glove of second baseman Gleyber Torres, who threw to Anthony Rizzo at first for the game’s final out.  As “New York, New York” blared from the Stadium’s speakers and game highlights flashed on the big screen in center field, many of those cheering in the stands surely thought back to how the afternoon began some three hours earlier.

No team in professional sports honors its past quite like the New York Yankees.  Fans say that’s because no other club in any sport has a history so worthy of celebration, while critics counter that the team’s ownership and marketing department simply can’t pass up any opportunity to sell more tickets and memorabilia.  Whatever one’s preferred line, Sunday was another special moment on the Yankees’ calendar, this one honoring Paul O’Neill with the official retirement of his number 21. 

An Ohio native, O’Neill spent the first seven years of his career with his childhood favorite Cincinnati Reds before coming to the Bronx in a trade following the 1992 season, shortly before his 30th birthday.  With today’s accepted narrative about the career arcs of ballplayers, critics would question the wisdom of the Yankees giving up the younger Roberto Kelly, an All-Star reserve in 1992, for a 30-year-old coming off a season in which he posted the lowest batting average and OPS of his eight seasons with the Reds.  Instead, O’Neill defied the age-based assumptions and blossomed in the Bronx, his left-handed bat taking full advantage of the Stadium’s short right field porch.  In nine seasons as a Yankee, his .303 batting average and .869 OPS were more than 40 and 100 points higher, respectively, than his numbers in Cincinnati. 

Even more than his 20 home runs a season, it was O’Neill’s attitude that endeared him to New York fans, especially the denizens of the benches in right field known as the Bleacher Creatures, who were literally and figuratively behind the outfielder for nearly a decade.  O’Neill played with passion, determination, and barely contained emotion.  During Sunday’s ceremonies, he was presented with a bright orange plastic water cooler with a bat impaled in it, a comic reminder of the times O’Neill took out his frustrations after a poor at-bat on a cooler in the Yankees’ dugout.  O’Neill’s approach to the game led owner George Steinbrenner to nickname him “the warrior.”  It also meant that prior to the 2002 season, when he left for the YES Network broadcast booth after playing on four championship squads, adoring fans were adamant that his number should not be reissued.

Like most teams, the Yankees typically wait a few years after a fan favorite departs before putting his number back into circulation.  Alex Rodriguez, a two-time MVP in New York, retired in 2016, but his number 13 jersey remained in storage until Joey Gallo came over from Texas at last year’s trade deadline.  When Gallo took the field wearing A-Rod’s old number, there were a few comments but no real outcry, perhaps because of Rodriguez’s PEDs history.  In contrast, fans protested when the Yankees issued number 21 to LaTroy Hawkins in 2008, and when the outrage started being misdirected at Hawkins, whose only sin was donning the uniform he’d been given, the relief pitcher soon asked for and received a different number.

Finally on Sunday, the de facto retirement of O’Neill’s number became official.  Perhaps it was neither a testament to the team’s storied history – O’Neill was a fine player, but hardly a legendary one – nor to the Yankees’ insatiable marketing appetite, though commemorative tee shirts were on sale.  Maybe the decision to add number 21 to the franchise’s long list of retired digits was fan-driven, the team finally acknowledging the passion of both the player and his most ardent supporters.  If so, it was especially timely, because passion is something the 2022 Yankees badly need. 

As New York has piled up losses in the last month, as the starting pitching has regressed and the bullpen has at times imploded and the defense has gotten shaky and, most alarmingly, as the team’s offense has all but disappeared, the Yankees have frequently appeared somnolent, far more ready for a nap in the clubhouse than a big inning at the plate.  That was apparent even during the team’s improbable win on Josh Donaldson’s 10th inning, ultimate grand slam last Wednesday.  While the ending was high on drama and theatrics, the contest until that point was but one more example of missed opportunities and listless play.  Sunday’s outing wouldn’t count as a complete turnaround, but in salvaging one game of the Blue Jays series the Yankees did manage to display a little fire.

To be sure, the thousands in the stands were the first to unwrap their emotions.  During the ceremony for O’Neill, principal owner Hal Steinbrenner was serenaded with boos when he was introduced, and a reference to GM Brian Cashman, who was not on the field, elicited a similar reaction.  More surprising, because of the timing, were the jeers that greeted the names of manager Aaron Boone and underperforming center fielder Aaron Hicks when starting lineups were announced just before game time.  That has usually been a point at which even players out of favor with the crowd receive at least a smattering of applause.

Then, when Aaron Judge was hit in the upper arm by an Alek Manoah fastball in the 5th, the normally placid star barked at the Blue Jays pitcher, pointing out that it was the second time that afternoon Toronto’s ace had thrown him a pitch very high and very inside.  Even as he was doing so Yankee players were coming over the dugout railing onto the field.  Order was quickly restored, and a week from now the incident will be forgotten.  But in the moment, it was all too rare evidence that this Yankees roster has a pulse. 

From there, this game actually had highlights for the home squad, with rookie Oswaldo Cabrera channeling Derek Jeter in the 8th inning by ranging to the right from his shortstop post, snaring a grounder off the bat of Alejandro Kirk and then completing the putout with a jump throw across the diamond to Rizzo.  The sparkling play was the third defensive gem by Cabrera in as many days, from three different positions – shortstop, third base, and right field.  The best highlight of all, though, came in the previous frame, when Andrew Benintendi, who has done little at the plate since arriving from Kansas City last month, smacked one into the right field seats for his first Yankee home run, providing the eventual margin of victory.  While it’s a start, one win of course doesn’t mean that the team has set a new course.  For that, these Yankees may want to consider taking out their frustrations on a water cooler or two.

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