It’s been 16 years since Paul O’Neill last appeared in a major league game, yet he never truly left baseball. The ex-Yankees right fielder has remained a fan and ambassador of the game well into his retirement, and recently helped a Glen Cove family live out a dream through Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Moments Master Class, a loyalty program from Marriott International.
The event, held at Macombs Dam Park where the old Yankees Stadium used to be, saw SPG winner Patrick Annello’s two sons and their seven friends learn baseball fundamentals from O’Neill and compete with the Yankees legend in a home run hitting contest. O’Neill, for his part, relished the opportunity to inspire the young athletes in their baseball endeavors.
“It’s been a while, it doesn’t feel like it used to,” joked O’Neill, who used a plastic bat in the home run contest to level the playing field. “But it’s a great day. You look at the excitement on these kids’ faces, being able to come out here and run around, it’s a great event. It brings back a lot of memories because everyone had their Little League careers. You do start at a young age, and baseball’s a game you kind of live with.”
O’Neill understands that last point as well as anyone; he’s remained a popular figure in the Yankees’ inner circle, delighting fans with his yearly Old-Timers’ Day appearances and his long-running stint as a color commentator for the YES Network, which has allowed him to keep close tabs on his old team as it’s evolved through the years.
“The Yankees have been so good to me. [Broadcasting] has kept me somewhat involved with the organization. I do enjoy it, and now that the team has totally changed, I probably enjoy it more, because you have a different viewpoint,” O’Neill said, adding that, though he was somewhat surprised by the Yankees’ success this season, he’s found common ground between the current squad and his dynasty-era teams. “They did turn the corner quick, maybe [like in] ’96, because they kind of came from nowhere. But you also see the parallels of this happening for years to come, because of the youth and because of what the organization has done.”
Since hanging up his cleats in 2001, O’Neill, from his perch in the broadcast booth, has witnessed the rise of baseball analytics, an increase in infield shifts and, especially over the last few seasons, a more specialized, matchup-driven approach to pitching that favors teams with deep bullpens. O’Neill admits that the game’s evolution may make the extraordinary success of his Yankees teams hard to imagine today—since his retirement, no team has won back-to back championships, let alone three straight—which makes him appreciate his days in pinstripes that much more.
“You never know when you have that kind of magic team. Looking back we kind of took it for granted, but it was a special time,” O’Neill said. “Will you get back [to that success], we don’t know, but you do have an opportunity with the way this team is built, with youth. They’re good, and it’s fun to be a Yankees fan [right now]. I just look back at how lucky we were to win in New York. The New York fans have been unbelievable to me, so I’ve got to be happy with that.”