Monday, April 21, 2003

Paul O'Neill savors good days

Standout with the Yankees and Reds has a book coming out about his dad and enjoys being a dad in Montgomery

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Ex-Reds and Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill relaxes in his home in Montgomery. In the background is a Yankees jersey signed by some of his teammates.
(Ernst Coleman photo)
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"Can we do this by phone?" Paul O'Neill is on the line. The man New York Yankees owner George Steinbrenner once labeled the "ultimate warrior" would rather not do a face-to-face interview.

Uh, well, Paul, it's tough to shoot a photo that way.

"Can't you use something on file?" O'Neill says.

When he was winning five World Series with the Reds (1990) and Yankees (1996, 1998, 1999, 2000), the intense right fielder was never one to cozy up to reporters. He always was much more comfortable playing baseball, which he did exceedingly well.

Even now, a year and a half into retirement in suburban Cincinnati and with a new book to promote - Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir ($25.95; William Morrow), written with Burton Rocks, will hit bookstores May 13 - it seems he would still rather steer clear of writers, if possible.

When he finally agrees to a one-hour interview/photo session, it's a congenial and relaxed Paul O'Neill who answers the door at his Montgomery home and leads the way into the kitchen, where he parks his

6-foot-4 frame on a metal-backed chair.

Book publishers had approached him often during his nine seasons as a mainstay with the Yankees (1993-2001), he says, but he always turned them down, preferring to concentrate on baseball. He changed his mind after retirement, deciding a book would be something his children could always return to. Plus, it would allow him to honor his father, Charles "Chick" O'Neill, who died hours before Paul and his Yankee teammates won the deciding game of the 1999 World Series.

Chick O'Neill was a minor league ballplayer before he made a living as a backhoe operator. He taught his son all he knew about baseball, made a habit of taking Paul and his siblings to the ice cream shop after Little League games, and instilled in them the importance of family. Chick O'Neill also was an outgoing fellow who enjoyed striking up conversations with strangers at the ballpark.

"His personality was a lot different from mine," O'Neill says. "He was by nature a lot more positive than I was. There was never a bad day (for him)."

Baseball fans always knew when Paul O'Neill was having a bad day. Frustrated with his performance, he'd punch a water cooler or abuse a batting helmet.

"I never - even as a young kid - accepted losing very well," says O'Neill, who grew up in Columbus. "It stems from losing to my (four older) brothers. The hardest person in the world to lose to is somebody in your own family, because you get mocked the whole day in the house. I don't think anybody in my family was that good of a loser."

These days, he says, he directs that intensity to other endeavors, such as golf. Having said that, he anticipates the next question.

"I'm not throwing clubs and stuff like that, but I get frustrated," he says. "That's one thing my wife doesn't really understand. (She says), 'Why can't you just enjoy playing golf?' Well, if you play golf, you go to play scratch golf, not to be a 20 handicap. You learn the game and see how good you can get."

O'Neill was plenty good as a ballplayer, finishing his 17-year big league career with more than 2,000 hits (.288 lifetime average), five All-Star game appearances and the 1994 American League batting title. A good day meant hitting a home run, or throwing out a runner at home.

Now, "It's hard not to have a good day," he says, "because the kids are happy."

He and his wife, Nevalee - they were neighbors growing up in Columbus - have three children: Andy, 13; Aaron, 10; and Allie, 7.

O'Neill shows off his World Championship Rings from the Reds and the Yankees.
(Ernst Coleman photo)
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Their father takes them to school each day, goes to their games, helps coach Andy's basketball team. The boys also play baseball, but O'Neill assists as coach only "a little bit" because he feels it would place too much pressure on his kids. "I'd rather coach basketball because nobody knows what I did in basketball. They enjoy sports. I don't know if that's my doing, but that's what they like to do."

Their young lives used to revolve around the baseball season. Spring training in Florida meant living and going to school in Tampa. The start of the regular season meant moving to New York. They switched schools again when the season ended and the family returned to Cincinnati, which the O'Neills have called home since Paul's days with the Reds.

"They're so much more comfortable living in one city now," O'Neill says. "It's the way you're supposed to grow up."

O'Neill, though, hasn't severed ties with New York, or with the Yankees. He'll work about three dozen of their games this year as a broadcaster. People there still revere him as a key part of a baseball dynasty.

He and Nevalee didn't venture into the city much during his first years with the Yankees, but in time they grew to know and love the Big Apple and all it offered - its restaurants, nightlife, people. Ask what O'Neill misses most and Italian food is high on the list.

"That city becomes part of you," he says.

When the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks occurred, O'Neill was on the disabled list with a cast on his foot, watching events unfold on TV. Shortly thereafter, he and teammates visited Ground Zero. In a nearby armory, they met people who were missing family members.

A Latin American boy, whose father had not been found, ran up to O'Neill. The boy told him how much he loved baseball, and wished the ballplayer a speedy recovery.

"I still have a hard time talking about that," O'Neill says, sitting in his kitchen, looking away. "I can see this kid, and I'm thinking, 'You just lost your father.' He was worried about me getting back into right field."

As O'Neill's retirement neared, he and his wife considered making their home in the New York area, but decided against it.

"There's no other city in the world I'd rather be in for a weekend," he says. "But as far as the important, normal things in life, I think they're a lot easier to find here (in Cincinnati). Every off-season we came home, and saw the kids out playing in the yard with other kids, and they were just so happy here."

There's a little bit of Chick O'Neill in that statement. Which is why it's no surprise that after ball games, you're likely to find Paul O'Neill and his kids in a local ice cream shop.

Book signing

Paul O'Neill will sign copies of Me and My Dad: A Baseball Memoir (co-authored with Burton Rocks), at 7 p.m. May 19 at Joseph-Beth Booksellers, Rookwood Pavilion, Madison and Edwards roads, Norwood. 396-8960.



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