Excerpted from “Swing and a Hit: Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me” by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry. Copyright @2022 by Paul O’Neill and Jack Curry. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
I carried an insatiable desire for hits and my Louisville Slugger, either model M-110 or C-243, to the plate 8,669 times in the major leagues, which includes the post-season. My desire was often fulfilled as I collected 2,190 hits, including some very important hits in the month of October. But the successful plate appearance that fans frequently want to discuss ended without a hit. It ended with a walk. And I cherish the interest in it and I happily discuss it. It was as critical a walk as I’ve ever had.
Flash back to the 2000 postseason, and we were all singing “New York, New York” for the Subway Series between the Yankees and the Metsthe first Subway Series since the Yankees defeated the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. I was excited to be competing in such a monumental series and excited that the Yankees had the chance to win our third straight championship and our fourth in the last five years.
But, personally, I was also in a depressing place because of the way I had been struggling. I had a right hip pointer that required a cortisone shot before the series, and I wasn’t even sure I would be able to run or play against the Mets. Plus, I had managed only one extra base hit in the previous seven weeks. My timing was erratic, I couldn’t catch up with pitches, and I couldn’t drive the ball, either. Every hitter wants to be at his best in a World Series, but I wasn’t anywhere close to my best. I was 9 for 39 (.231 average) with five RBIs in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
We were two outs away from losing Game 1 as I settled into the back of the batter’s box against Armando Benítez, a 230-pound closer who had a fastball that nearly touched 100 miles per hour and who had struck out 35 percent of the batters he faced that season. From the first pitch, I was in survival mode against Benítez—pure survival mode. We were trailing 3-2, so I had to do anything I could get on base and start a ninth-inning rally.
Benítez’s first pitch was a low fastball that missed the strike zone. After that pitch, I stepped out of the box and took a few practice swings. That routine became a theme for the at bat. I wanted to slow Benítez down, but I also wanted to slow myself and the game down, too. Those pressure-packed moments can move very fast, but I had some control of the pacing. I needed to exert it.
I was ready for Benítez’s next pitch. Or at least I thought I was. I swung through a 97-mile-per-hour flash of white. If Benítez threw that same pitch two more times, my at bat would end with a strikeout because I didn’t think I could connect against his heat. Benítez fired another fastball down the middle and I stared at it for a second strike. I was down 1-2 and I had not felt this helpless in a long time.
Get some control, I told myself, as I retreated from the box. I took a few more practice swings. The fans at Yankee Stadium were restless and pensive, waiting and hoping for something to happen. Benítez threw me that same fastball and I lunged to cover it and punched it into the seats down the left-field line. That swing was the epitome of survival mode as I kind of flung the bat at the ball, made contact and produced a weak foul ball.
Before the fifth pitch of the at bat, Benítez shook off two signs and then tossed another fastball. Once again, I barely connected and lifted it into foul territory behind third base. Robin Ventura, the third baseman, drifted toward the seats and leapt into the second row, but he collided with some fans and wasn’t able to make what would have been a phenomenal catch. Ventura’s valiant effort came extremely close to ending my at bat, but I was still alive and flailing away. I have seen hitting magicians like Wade Boggs or Ichiro Suzuki intentionally hit foul balls and try to get to a certain pitch in a preferred location. That wasn’t what I was doing. I was trying to put the ball in play, but I couldn’t do it.
After five straight fastballs, Benítez threw a splitter that faded off the outside corner and pushed the count to 2-2. Then Benítez missed with a 96-mile-per-hour fastball to set up a full count. I used my cleats to spread the dirt around at the top of the batter’s box. There was no real reason for doing that, but again, it was a way of slowing me down. On the television broadcast, Tim McCarver, the analyst, said, “O’Neill has not caught up with a fastball during this at bat. Benítez has blown it right by him.” McCarver was right. And then came another Benítez fastball and another soft foul ball down the left-field line.
“Defensive swings this entire at bat by Paul O’Neill,” said Joe Buck, the play-by-play announcer. Buck was right, too. I shook my head, wandered around the box, and hoped I could get on base. Although I’ve always been told the hitter has the advantage when the at bat stretches longer, I didn’t feel that way. If Benítez threw one more powerful fastball, I was going to be another strikeout victim.
The ninth pitch was a 98-mile-per-hour fastball and I stayed alive again and flicked it into the seats along the left-field line. It was the fourth foul ball off Benítez, the fourth time I had managed to prolong the at bat. I licked my lips and looked toward left, trying to unearth a way to dump a hit in that direction. Did I even have enough bat speed to do that?
Staring in for his next sign, I thought Benítez looked stoic, even confident. That probably meant he was preparing to throw me another fastball. And he did. He threw a 3-2 fastball and it tailed outside for ball four, ending the 10-pitch duel. I had a walk, a precious walk. Because it had been such a long at bat, I felt like I had blasted a homer when I heard the umpire say. “Ball four.” If Benítez had known how lost I felt, he would have zoomed three fastballs down the middle and dispatched me. It was a draining experience for both of us, but all of a sudden, we had a baserunner and the hint of a potential rally.
“That at bat,” said Manager Joe Torre, “was miraculous.”
Pinch-hitters Luis Polonia and José Vizcaíno followed with singles to load the bases, and Chuck Knoblauch’s sacrifice fly tied the game, 3-3. Benítez blew the save and blew the chance to help the Mets win the opener. Vizcaíno’s two-out, bases-loaded single off Turk Wendell lifted us to a 4-3 win in 12 innings, but we gave ourselves the chance to win because of what we did in the ninth. “With Paul’s hitting style, I think it was apropos that he had that at bat and he was able to do what he did,” said Al Leiter, who started the game for the Mets. “Paul was capable of doing that, of fouling off pitches, and he did that. And he passed the baton to the next guy.”
We still had to play many more innings of inspired baseball to beat a resilient Mets team in five games, but that first game was significant. Mariano Rivera, our infallible closer, was one of many players who called my ninth-inning walk a defining moment. So did Leiter: “Hell, yeah, it changed things,” Leiter said. “I’ve always said, and it sounds like I’m being bitter, but that Game One was huge. Knowing how George Steinbrenner was and everything else. The Yankees had everything to lose and nothing to gain playing us in that series. I think that was the message from ownership and on down. I know Joe Torre felt it.” Then Al added, “If Paul doesn’t get that walk there, I think the Mets are high-fiving as we’re walking off the field that night.”
Obviously, I remember the big hits and the big homers I had in my career. But, sometimes, when a team is down to its last few outs, a walk can be critical to seizing the momentum and frustrating a pitcher. When I reflect on how we won that game, that was no ordinary walk. I kept hitting foul balls to potentially get a mistake pitch or to outlast Benítez and grab a base.
I felt powerless against Benitez. But, even in my most feeble moments, I always focused on the value of making contact and not swinging and missing. Striking out was embarrassing to me, something that has changed in today’s game because it’s accepted for power hitters to whiff about 200 times a year. In my career, I only exceeded 100 strikeouts three times, and my highest strikeout total was 107, a number that still irritates me. That’s too many empty at bats. Avoiding strikeouts requires making adjustments with two strikes, which doesn’t happen as often today. I see so many players who still take their home-run swing with two strikes, which is one reason there are so many strikeouts. Obviously, the proliferation of flamethrowers—each team seemingly boasts several pitchers who throw 100 miles per hour—has a lot to do with all of the strikeouts, too. But, especially as a young player, I felt my job was to connect with the baseball and put pressure on the defense. I despised strikeouts and still do.
My walk against Benítez receives a lot of attention because it happened in the Subway Series, but making pitchers work and generating walks was a hallmark of our Yankee lineups as we won four championships between 1996 and 2000. With so many potent hitters in our lineup, free passes could bury a pitcher because one of us was bound to produce a run-scoring hit. There were countless instances when I was facing a left-handed reliever and I was especially desperate to get on base, even with a walk, because Bernie Williams was on deck and he crushed lefties. If I could reach base, I was thrilled because that out me in a perfect position to watch Big Bernie do damage.
“Paul might have been the poster boy for those Yankee teams in the 90s that were so hard to pitch to,” Leiter said. “They took a lot of pitches and they passed the baton. Paul epitomized that. That’s what he did. He also had the ability, because he was such a good hitter, to charge one, too. It wasn’t just ‘Throw one on the outer third and let him hit a lazy fly ball to center field.’ He would stay on it and hit a line drive to left field.”
I didn’t hit a line drive to left against Benitez, but I made enough contact to slap some pitches toward left, to keep the at bat alive and to eventually become a baserunner. It was one walk, a walk that would have become innocuous if Benitez had secured two more outs. But he didn’t. We prevailed and, ever since, that walk has been a forever talking point. I’m cool with that. Actually, I’m more than cool with that. I’m proud of that walk, a feisty 10-pitch skirmish that helped us inch closer to winning a Subway Series.
(Top photo: Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)