Paul O’Neill Number Retirement Raises Debate

Paul O'Neill
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The New York Yankees recently announced they will retire the number 21 of Paul O’Neill this August. A fan favorite during his nine years in the Bronx, “The Warrior” will join the ranks of 22 other Yankee greats in Monument Park. O’Neill had a very successful stint in New York, helping the team win four championships. However, whether retiring his number is the right move is worthy of debate. The Yankees have retired more numbers than any other major league club, to the point of abusing the practice. O’Neill, who was very good with New York but not necessarily legendary, presents an interesting case. Do the Yankees need to retire yet another number? Does O’Neill fit the criteria? And if he does, why did the team wait this long? All these are factors worth considering to decide whether this was the right move.

Yanks Retiring Paul O’Neill’s Number

The enshrinement of number 21 in Monument Park forever to honor Paul O’Neill is tremendous news for many Yankees fans. His steady play in right field and ability to hit in the clutch helped the team to four World Series titles. The crowd chanting his name for several minutes during his last home game in the 2001 World Series shows what a beloved figure he was in New York. After being traded from the Cincinnati Reds before the 1993 season, O’Neill stuck around the Bronx for nine more years before retiring. During his Yankee tenure, he hit .303 with 185 homers, 858 RBI, 304 doubles, and a .869 OPS. For four straight seasons (1997-2000), O’Neill drove in 100 or more runs. His accolades as a Yankee included four All-Star appearances and a batting title. He hit .359 in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

The news of O’Neill’s number retirement is something of a formality. The number has essentially been retired in practice by the team for the last 20 years. The one time 21 was issued in 2008 to LaTroy Hawkins, fan backlash resulted in Hawkins promptly changing his number.

O’Neill’s Worthiness Not Cut and Dry

Although it makes sense for the team to officially retire number 21 at this point, there is still a question of whether it’s truly the right call. The Yankees have already honored 22 players in this way, which in itself dilutes the significance of retiring a number. Every number from 1 to 10 is now unavailable. For a team that has rigid standards in other departments (e.g. the outdated facial hair policy) the Yankees have a somewhat relaxed standard for number retirement.

The thing is, by the standard the Yankees have set, O’Neill is technically deserving. One could argue he has more of a case than Reggie Jackson, who earned the honor despite only playing five seasons in New York. Sure, Mr. October won two titles as a Yankee, but he’s better remembered for the one magical night he had to end the 1977 World Series than his overall stint with the team. O’Neill had a longer tenure in New York and won more titles. However, he fits within a gray area among Yankee honorees. He spent half his career with the team and put up very good numbers, but was never the face of the franchise, like a Don Mattingly or a Derek Jeter, not to mention earlier Yankee legends.

So when it comes to whether Paul O’Neill belongs among the 22 other honorees in Monument Park, the answer seems to be both yes and no. By the team’s apparent criteria, his numbers were certainly good enough. The fact that number 21 has been mostly out of circulation for 20 years makes the move a mere formality. However, no matter how good O’Neill was, retiring his number will continue to water down the practice. There are plenty of great Yankees with a plaque in Monument Park but their number remains available, including Paul O’Neill himself (until August, anyway). For a while, the team should stick to that, with the exception of franchise cornerstones like Jeter or Mariano Rivera. Otherwise, the lavish ceremonies the Yankees are well-known for will continue to lose their luster.

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Players Mentioned:

Paul O’Neill, LaTroy Hawkins, Reggie Jackson, Don MattinglyDerek JeterMariano Rivera