A DYNASTY BUILT BY A MIDWESTERN MINDSET
BY JAMES VESCOVI - APRIL, 2011
What strikes a new visitor at Yankee Stadium’s Hall of Heroes, with its lofty banners of greats like Ruth, Gehrig and Mantle, is that one player seems so recently retired. After all, most of us associate monuments to our heroes with people who have passed away-or at least been out of our sight for decades.
But there beside the late catcher Thurman Munson, also an Ohio native, hangs Paul O’Neill, with his lanky figure, poised bat and hit-hungry eyes. The banner makes you pause because it doesn’t seem that long ago when Paul was patrolling right field in pinstripes.
Paul O’Neill, nicknamed ‘The Warrior’ by Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, holds a special fascination for New Yorkers. When we think of warriors on the east coast, Travis Bickle, the Mohawk-haired, gun-toting misfit in Martin Scorcese’s ‘Taxi Driver’ could come to mind.
Paul is a Midwesterner. On the east coast, Midwesterners are viewed as conservative red-staters, farmers and all-around nice, boring guys.
It was natural that Steinbrenner, who passed away in 2010, should recognize a Midwestern warrior. He himself hailed from Rocky River, Ohio, ten miles west of Cleveland. He was the son of a shipping magnate whose Great Lakes vessels hauled iron ore to make steel for Manhattan and other world-class cities. It was Steinbrenner, too, who bestowed the role of Yankee captain on Midwesterner Derek Jeter from Kalamazoo, Michigan. The Yankees’ four championships in five years (between the 1996 and 2000 seasons) were built on the non-flashy qualities of Paul and Derek, as well as on Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Jorge Posada, players who also possessed a business-like attitude.
What exactly defines a Midwestern warrior like Paul? It’s a guy who threw everything into his game-without much self-reflection, surely without guile and with a laser-like focus on what he’d been called to do. With Paul, you got the idea that had not a single fan showed up for a Yankee game, he would have played just as hard as if in front of a capacity crowd. In fact, he may not have noticed the empty seats-he was that focused.
Midwesterners are more decent than frightening but that doesn’t mean that Paul’s bat didn’t frighten pitchers in a clutch situation, or that he was frightened to dive headfirst after balls with little regard for his well being.
I can say all this because I was both reared in Kalamazoo, Michigan and have made my home in the Big Apple for the past twenty-five years.
And here’s a story to prove I know what I’m talking about.
Years ago, when I moved to my present apartment, I contacted everyone I’d ever helped move and hinted that it was time to repay the favor.
Two types of people showed up: let’s call them the Sheep and the Goats. The latter were my born-and-bred New York friends. They not only arrived late, but when they saw a table my wife had laid out with coffee and bagels, made a beeline for it, insisting they needed sustenance before moving so much as a desk lamp.
Meanwhile, the Sheep- my New York friends who’d been raised in the Midwest- were hard at work. These warriors, men and women alike, were humping sofas down five flights of stairs, deftly boxing up dishware, and hauling boxes of hard-cover books like beasts of burden, without complaint. Nay, they reveled in the task and the use of their bodies to make things work.
The year, by the way, was 1993, Paul’s first with the Yankees. If I close my eyes, I can imagine him schlepping my furniture up and down the narrow stairways, neatly stacking boxes in the moving truck, and then fading off before anyone had a chance to thank him.
And those, in my opinion, are the qualities of a real warrior, and why Paul’s banner hangs in the Stadium so soon after a superb career.
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