|Right Field Charities Inaugural Banquet
By Randy Cooper
April 16, 2007 - I called Robert O'Neill from my cell phone from outside the entrance to the Hammerstein Ballroom on West 34th Street . It was the day after the Nor'easter had deluged Manhattan with eight inches of rain. Robert had told me to arrive early and gave me his cell phone number for this very reason. "Robert," I said, "they won't let me in." Robert replied, "I'll be right out, Randy." The next thing I knew the door was opening and I heard Robert's familiar voice say, "It's ok, he's the fan club president."
I hadn't been called the fan club president for several years until I received a telephone call from Robert about three months earlier. The voice on the other end of the line said "Randy, I've got something big to talk about with you. Can you stop over this afternoon?" I assured Robert that I would see him within a few hours. When I arrived at Robert's house, he invited me into his office where the walls are covered with highlights of his brother's career. "We're having a celebration of Paul's career in April at a fundraising banquet for Paul's new charity and the fan club president should be there. I have two tickets for you and your wife," Robert said. I replied, "Wow, Robert, I would love to go but we just returned from spending New Years Eve in Times Square." I had already told him about singing along to a recording of John Lennon's Imagine and dancing to New York, New York by Frank Sinatra with a million people as the ball dropped and 2006 morphed into 2007. "This is too important for the fan club president to miss," Robert told me.
My wife had asked me if I thought there would be a red carpet. Not only was there a red carpet, it was there for the guests to walk on as we entered the front doors. Robert led us to the floor in front of the stage where we were greeted by Robert's wife, Barb, along with Paul's wife, Nevalee, and the matriarch of the O'Neill family, Virginia. After chatting with our hosts, I got my wife and myself some liquid refreshments from the bar and we perused the items available for the silent auction. Paul's new charitable endeavor is called "Right Field Charities" which specializes in providing funds for Paul's baseball memorabilia to worthy charities for children. As Joe Torre said when he spoke at the banquet, "If Paul O'Neill signs his name to it, you know its for a good cause."
My favorite piece available at the silent auction was a poster with a replication of all of Mickey Mantle's baseball cards signed by the greatest center fielder to ever play the game. Robert lost his bid on a photograph of Babe Ruth and Yogi Berra which was signed by Yogi. There were many other Yankee collectibles too numerous to mention but thanks to the generous donations of the attendees, nearly every piece was sold with the proceeds going to Right Field Charities. The live auction was even more successful with signed jerseys by Paul bringing some of the highest bids of the evening.
We were then invited upstairs to where Paul was meeting with fans, posing for photographs and signing autographs. I watched for awhile as the line snaked out of the room. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time for the entire line to make its way to Paul. However, Paul stayed for as long as he could and graciously talked to his fans like they were his old friends as he signed his name and smiled for the cameras. I could feel the excitement and energy in the room as many met and talked with their favorite Yankee right fielder for the first time. Paul is a player we could all relate to: hard working, passionate and loyal. The kind of player we would all like to have on our team and the kind of man we would all like to have for our friend.
Michael Kay and John Sterling served as Masters of Ceremonies and their familiar delivery made us feel like we were all part of the great Yankee tradition. They introduced the "singing New York Police Officer" Daniel Rodriguez who brought chills to this American as he sang the Star Spangled Banner and God Bless America. Introduced from the audience was Joe Torre, perhaps the greatest Yankee manager in history. Bernie Williams was there to support his friend as they supported each other in the outfield at Yankee stadium for ten years. Jim Leyritz, also from Ohio, was added as a speaker at his request because he had traveled all the way from the Dominican Republic for this event and wanted to share his kind words about number 21. Other former great Yankee players on hand to lend their support were Ron Guidry and Roy White. Highlights of Paul's career were shown on the big screen which included crushing homeruns and head-banging catches. Highlights were also shown of Bernie's career as well as two of the most important home runs in recent Yankee history, when Jim Leyritz homered against the Indians in a playoff game and the three-run shot he hit against the Braves in the 1996 World Series.
Joe Torre spoke about Paul's passion for the game and exlosiveness, not as selfish but a passion that motivated teammates. He talked about what it was like to have Bernie Williams in center field and Paul O'Neill in right field for a decade in Yankee Stadium.
Jim Leyritz spoke of how he and Paul had the shared experiences of baseball fathers and hot, dusty summers in the Midwest, traveling in pick-up trucks loaded with kids to the infinite small towns of Ohio: Hamilton, Washington Courthouse, Plain City.
Finally, the guest of honor, Paul O'Neill, took the stage. Paul talked about what it was like to be a Yankee and play next to Bernie Williams on some of the greatest Yankee teams of all time. After all, the Yankees won four World Championships with Paul in right field. Paul thanked his wife and family and was humble and grateful for all of the great moments he had experienced as a major league baseball player. He ended his speech by quoting Jorge Posada who had said that Paul is a great speaker because his speeches are short. This writer could have listened to Paul talk about his life as a Yankee for much longer. As a fellow drummer, I could understand how Paul might have felt... that he was happy driving the rhythm of the team while others took the spotlight on front stage, that perhaps he felt he had achieved so much because of all of the great players that surrounded him. One can see that kind of humility in Mr O'Neill. However, we all know that those players achieved their greatness partly because of the guy making those leaping catches and throwing out all those base runners from right field as well as the consistent hitting he provided from the middle of the lineup. Number 21, Paul O'Neill, certainly our all time favorite baseball player and one of the greatest outfielders in Yankee history.