Traded to New York by Cincinnati in November 1992, Paul O'Neill walked out to Monument Park at old Yankee Stadium.
“The first thing you look is for Babe Ruth and then you see Lou Gehrig,” O'Neill recalled, “and then all of a sudden you kind of graduate to the people that you have just met in Yogi Berra and Mickey Mantle and these iconic names.”
On Aug. 21, O'Neill's No. 21 will be added to the greats in the Bronx, the 23rd player or manager to have his number retired by the Yankees.
"Just to have that, your number kind of mixed in with some of the greats that ever played the game," he said Wednesday, “it’s the highest honor that I think I’ve ever been given in baseball.”
O'Neill says he chuckles with pride whenever he sees a fan with his No. 21 jersey at the ballpark.
A four-time World Series champion for the Yankees, O'Neill was nicknamed “The Warrior” by late owner George Steinbrenner.
“It was almost embarrassing at the time because you’re still playing. You embrace it much more when you don’t have to prove anything on the field anymore,” O’Neill said. “I think certain people are just wired certain ways. Every at-bat, every game, every World Series meant a lot to me. Ever since I started playing sports against my older brothers, it was about winning and losing. It wasn’t about how you played. It’s who won and who lost. And that is basically how I played my career.”
O’Neill hit .303 with 185 homers and 858 RBIs for the Yankees from 1993-2001. He was a four-time All-Star with the team and won the 1994 AL batting title during a strike-shortened season.
He wore No. 21 for his entire big league career. When it was assigned to O'Neill by the Reds as a rookie in 1985, he remembered back to his childhood.
“The story where it started where I kind of thought it was cool was the first Major League Baseball game that I ever went to, and my father, we were at Crosley Field in Cincinnati and my father put me in a direction where No. 21 for the Pittsburgh Pirates was in the background, being Roberto Clemente,” O'Neill said.
A plaque for O’Neill in Monument Park was dedicated on Aug. 9, 2014.
Since O'Neill's retirement after the 2001 World Series, the only Yankees player to wear No. 21 was LaTroy Hawkins at the opening of the 2008 season. The pitcher signed with the team during the offseason and wore No. 22 in spring training.
Morgan Ensberg wore No. 21 during spring training and switched to No. 11 when the season began. Hawkins had 22 for exhibitions and took over 21 on opening day. After pressure from fans, Hawkins went back to 22 for the 16th game, on April 16.
“To know that 21 won’t be worn in Yankee Stadium is such an honor,” O'Neill said. “It’s on my mind all day. It just keeps replaying over and over again just how cool this is.”