After an injury-filled start, the Yankees are raking again. Who better to analyze the state of the Bronx Bombers — and Major League Baseball in general — than Paul O’Neill, the five-time World Series champion?
The 56-year-old O’Neill is beginning his 18th season on the air for YES Network, the country’s most-watched regional sports network. He earned Emmy nominations in 2011 and 2013. Nicknamed “the Warrior” by late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, O’Neill was the heart and soul of the last Yankees dynasty, which won four World Series from 1996 to 2000.
I talked to O’Neill about today’s loaded Yankees lineup, the “home run or bust” hitting approach of modern MLB hitters, and more.
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The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
SPORTING NEWS: With many of today’s major league hitters, it’s either a home run or a strikeout. Is this a phase? Or are we here to stay?
PAUL O’NEILL: I think that power has become a huge part of the game, obviously. I just hate to see that everybody is a home run hitter now. To me, the best teams are balanced. You have contact hitters, you have speed and you have power. … But until you start winning world championships over and over and over again, by just hitting home runs, teams are always going to try what wins championships. Not what wins regular season games.
SN: During a recent YES telecast, you said it’s up to hitters to beat the defensive shift. So you do not want MLB to legislate the shift out of the game?
PO: To me, when I heard a major league hitter say, ‘I can’t hit the ball the other way,’ it doesn’t make sense to me. I was obviously a hitter who used the whole field. It’s never easy. When they say it’s easy to go the other way, nothing is easy at the major league level. It’s a very, very hard game. Things happen exceptionally quick out there. But is it possible to fight a ball off to beat a shift? In my mind, 100 percent it is. But in the back of your mind you’re like, ‘Could I have hit that ball out of the ballpark?’ Because that’s the mentality of the game now. … Back when I was playing, to get a hit you would drag bunt, or lay down a bunt, because they were giving you an easy hit. Then you would get to first base and think, ‘That was a good pitch, could I have done more with it?’ So you’re always kind of second-guessing yourself in that situation. There are times when a home run doesn’t mean much in a game. Your down five runs and you’re leading off an inning. So you hit a home run? You’re still down four. But if you start an inning off, and it becomes a big inning by hitting the ball the other way, in my mind that means more.
SN: It boggles my mind when I see a struggling hitter refuse to go the other way on the shift. Wouldn’t it get some of these guys off the schneid — and help them break out of slumps?
PO: Absolutely. That’s one of the things that’s overlooked now. There was a lot of pride in being a .300 hitter. And now you say what great years guys had when they hit 30 or 35 home runs. All of a sudden you look over to the left and they hit .230. Well, give me the guy who hits 25 homes, hits .320 and drives in 120. To me that’s a more productive hitter, day in and day out, to add and build around in the lineup.
SN: Where is Paul O’Neill on pitch clocks? In a way, aren’t they against the timeless nature of the game of baseball?
PO: It does in a sense. You always want to continue to bring in kids and your younger generation. You want them to be baseball fans. … Some of the long games are three or three-and-a-half hours. You can’t keep their attention. The playoff games and World Series games are going well past midnight. You’re losing the 5- and 6-year-old kids that are your future fan base. In that sense, I can see speeding up the game. It’s very hard for players who have routines to hurry up through that routine. But if you implement it in the minor leagues and you get people used to play that kind of game, it will filter into the major leagues. There’s nothing better than calling a game, watching a game, or even being part of a game, that’s at a good pace. It adds to the excitement.
SN: On the air, you talked about of star players coming into New York. Your friend Tino Martinez went through it, succeeding the great Don Mattingly. How do you think Giancarlo Stanton will do in Year 2 in the Bronx?
PO: I could not be more impressed the way he handled it last year. He got off to a bad start. He didn’t make excuses. He’s very mentally strong. There was a time throughout the season when he was the offense. When (Aaron) Judge went down for a while, it was almost a challenge. He met it very well. I would have no doubt in my mind thinking he will be much more comfortable in a full year this year. The first couple of months last year were kind of an adjustment to get used to all the do’s and don’ts in New York. I think he handled it extremely well. I expect big things from him this year.
SN: Who should play first base for the Yankees? Greg Bird or Luke Voit?
PO: You always think these things will work themselves out. At the beginning of camp, you thought one guy is going to win this job. But now with (Aaron) Hicks gone for a while you will have the opportunity to get both of these guys in the lineup. There will be a time when you have to make a decision. But right now you have an opportunity to DH one and play one at first. It’s going to continue. Both of those guys are bona fide major league players. Both will get an opportunity to play. It’s frustrating as a player when you don’t feel like the job is yours 100 percent. But that’s the nature of the game. They’re both going to get an opportunity. Obviously either (manager) Aaron Boone is going to make to make a decision. Or just go with the hot hand.
SN: The Yankees’ offense is almost all right-handed. Are they too lopsided? Do they need more lefties to target the famous right field porch?
PO: If you look at the way the new (Yankee) stadium plays, and the way that right-handed hitters use right center field, kind of inside the ball out, and still hit home runs, I don’t think it’s as important as the old stadium. Lefties had a big advantage. You could hook the ball down the line. Right-center was kind of Death Valley out there. You have much more of an opportunity as a right-handed hitter to reach the seats. The hitters are big and strong — and have the opportunity to take the ball the other way.
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SN: Gary Sanchez’s potential is off the charts. But he drives fans crazy with his inconsistency. What’s your outlook for Sanchez this season?
PO: It’s very important that he gets off to a good start. Mentally. Last year is behind him — but it can rear its ugly head if you get off to a tough start again offensively. A lot of times with young players, your offense can bleed into your defense. He has worked a ton on his defense. There’s no doubt in my mind that he can be a really good catcher. But I think if he gets off to a good start offensively, it’s going to make everything run a little smoother. … There were times a year, or a year and a half ago, you looked at him as the best, not one of the best, all-around hitters in the Yankees’ lineup. That is saying a lot. You had Judge, (Didi) Gregorius, guys who could really hit. His ability to use right-center. His ability to drive the ball out of the ballpark and still in my mind be a .280-plus hitter, that is something you don’t find in catchers very often.
SN: A lot of Yankees fans were surprised that GM Brian Cashman didn’t open the checkbook for Bryce Harper or Manny Machado. Were you surprised the Evil Empire played it cool?
PO: I think (Cashman) has those big names already. You brought Stanton in last year. Judge is on the brink of becoming one of those players. You have really, really good players. Just to add a superstar, sometimes it can be a circus act. There has to be enough people to feel they need to play well in order for the team to win. That is a motivator as a player. Sometimes when you get too many All-Stars on a team, you almost lose sight of, ‘I need to produce and do this or this team can’t be successful.’ You always figure somebody will do it. Even Stanton last year, it wasn’t a coincidence he really played well when Judge was down. I don’t think so. I think internally you feel, ‘This is a time when I can show my importance and this is what I need to do.’ You find a way to play a little bit better.
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SN: You hear it all the time: ‘Mike Trout is boring. Baseball needs more characters.’ Does today’s baseball need more guys like the Warrior — who will really push themselves to win a game?
PO: It’s hard for me to comment on that. People are wired the way they are. Bernie Williams was a tremendous baseball player. But he didn’t take it home the way I did. Or Tino did. It’s fun to have teams with energy. Where their self-worth depends on how they do on the field. Their pressure to succeed takes over the team. It’s important to me that teams go out there and look like it’s important to win. Sometimes when you’re watching a game you can tell what team wants it a little bit more. And nine times out of 10, that team goes home with a win.
Promising a big year! Happy opening day!! pic.twitter.com/qSA3ozZcqQ
SN: Is that why fans respond so positively to a heart-and-soul guy like Todd Frazier?
PO: He’s a baseball player. He grew up as a little leaguer. He’s lived and died baseball since he was 10 years old. People can associate with that. Because a lot of people look at themselves as little league baseball players with a dream of playing at the major league level. When you get away from the game, and just play on natural talent, sometimes it looks like you’re almost lazy. People like to see effort, they like to see grit. If you look at the history of baseball, and you look at the all-time greats, they had bumps and scrapes and dirty pants. That’s the way the game of baseball was played.
SN: I was at a conference once where Keith Hernandez reminisced about the old Shea Stadium. He said it was a ballpark, pure and simple. That fans would show up hours early to watch the ’86 Mets take fielding practice. It didn’t have all the pyrotechnics. Should today’s stadiums go back to basics — and drop some of the Las Vegas glitz?
PO: Again, when you’re retired as long as I am, I’m part of a different generation. You went to stadiums to watch your team and watch them win and lose. But a lot of people go to stadiums now as a social event. To eat, to take in the ballpark, the grandeur of the big screen and the music. Yeah, it can take away from the game if you’re not a purist. But again you’re trying to draw fans into the ballpark. Any way these organizations can do that, they’re going to continue to do it.
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