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O'Neill's glorious farewell

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© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000

NEW YORK -- Yesterday is gone, sudden and swift. Who knows where yesterday went?

Tomorrow is cold, hazy and unpromised. Who knows what tomorrow holds?

But today? Today belongs to Paul O'Neill.

Try to take it away. He dares you.

He is running out of time. If you believe what you hear, this is O'Neill's last stand, his final few days as a Yankee. Soon, the stories say, rightfield will be under new management, and O'Neill will be looking for work.

But if this is farewell for O'Neill, give the guy credit for knowing how to say it.

O'Neill was at it again Wednesday night, getting three more hits, scoring another run, looking 25 years old, leading his Yankees to a 3-2 victory over the Mets. Once more, he willed his aching, aging body to perform in a championship game. Because, after all, who knows when he may pass this way again?

"You want to go out and play right now," O'Neill said. "You don't want to go home and wait. You're anxious."

How else would you expect O'Neill to say goodbye than this way, sliding to catch balls in the outfield, driving the ball into the gap, pushing himself, his team toward one more victory, refusing to surrender to age, to injury, to the Mets.

"I couldn't be happier for what he has done after what he has gone through physically and emotionally this year," manager Joe Torre said. "He is such a tough competitor. Two or three years ago, George Steinbrenner called him a warrior. I don't think anything could describe him any better."

For so long, this has been the way O'Neill has attacked the game, like a soldier taking a hill, like a fireman running into a smoking building. He has been their fire, this helmet-throwing, dirt-kicking, fuming, frowning ball of fury who is so consumed by the game.

"Paul's intense, to say the least," teammate Derek Jeter said. "He's someone who has helped me by teaching me not to give at-bats away. He thinks he should get a hit every time up. He's gotten hot at the right time. We're a much better team when he's hitting the ball."

But O'Neill is 37 now, nearing the end of the line. Lately, what he has personified is the image of the aging Yankee, proud but fading.

It has been a hard year for O'Neill. He has battled age and injury, and at times it appeared both were slapping him around pretty good. There have been times when it was difficult to look at O'Neill and think not of what he still had, but of what he had lost. He seemed pained, uncomfortable at the plate.

During August and September, he hit .229. In the first two rounds of the playoffs, he hit .231, and twice, Torre pinch-hit for him late in crucial games. His bat seemed slow. His legs seemed gone. His days seemed numbered.

But the Series seems to have cured him, renewed him. Not that he wants to discuss it.

"I don't want to talk about me," he says sharply. "It's the time of year to talk about the Yankees."

Typical. But the way O'Neill has played the Series, you don't need self-description. He has made the ball bleed, and Mets fans weep, going 9-for-16 in the four games. He was 2-for-4 Wednesday, his third straight multihit game. He has played like a guy who knows it is his last chance, like a guy determined not to let it get away.

None of it might matter, of course. If the Yankees' run of success is to continue, there is a desperate need for retooling, and rightfield seems like a logical place to start. Already, the talk in New York has turned to Cleveland's Manny Ramirez and how much money it might take to put him in pinstripes. Besides, doesn't it sort of feel as if it is time for George Steinbrenner to add a new flavor?

This is one of the hard parts of sport, swallowing sentiment in order to add strength. And the thing is, O'Neill is making it more difficult with the fury he has brought to this Series.

What did you expect? For O'Neill to sulk? To surrender? Ha.

During his career, there have been times you wanted to suggest to O'Neill that he step back and enjoy things a bit more. He is so driven, so consumed, that at times, he seems not to enjoy his work or his position. "It isn't fun," he says, "if you don't win."

Perhaps O'Neill was right all along. Perhaps he needed to push himself so much to get where he wished to go, and to stay there as long as he did. He never took a step backward.

Yesterday? There are so many of those, stacked up like memories. He no longer owns yesterday.

Tomorrow? That has someone else's name on it. He is no longer promised tomorrow.

But today? Today, O'Neill gets to take the field in pinstripes. He gets to attack another opponent with a championship on the line. He gets to play a special game for a special prize.

Funny. Today seems like plenty.

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