O’Neill Reflects on Yankees Retiring Number No. 21

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From right field, I could see Monument Park behind the old Yankee Stadium fence. It’s where Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle have monuments and plaques. When told in 1999 that my career could land me in Monument Park, I changed the subject.

In 2014, the Yankees called to honor me with a plaque in Monument Park. Wow. Baseball paradise. This kid from Ohio played alongside Yankees greats. I was grateful and humbled.

I learned there are different baseball heavens. In February 2022, I learned my place in that illustrious history would be elevated. Debbie Tymon, the Yankees’ tireless VP of marketing, called me with some news.

Give up my number 21 so I can become a Yankee legend? Shell-shocked. I dropped the phone and said “thank you” in a mumble, but I didn’t expect this. My wife Nevalee cried when I told her. What causes goose bumps? Do we believe someone had goose bumps on their arms when they said they were emotional or excited? True. Arms. Decades. I tried to understand the reward.

Debbie was the one who informed me of the news, and Hal Steinbrenner was the one who called to congratulate me. Hal praised my career and explained why my number should be retired. He also told me that his father was a fan of my fiery style of play. I tried to match Mr. Steinbrenner’s. I’m thankful to the entire Steinbrenner family for their support. I could gush about the organization’s generosity for days. Thanks for granting my wishes.

It’s an honor to have your high school or college number retired. It’s more impressive when it’s professional. But when I thought about the Yankees, the most successful and well-known baseball team of all time, taking away my number 21, I shook my head and thought about how rare and amazing that was.

The first retired numbers that came to mind were 3, 4, and 5, which belonged to Ruth, Gehrig, and DiMaggio, respectively. After that, my thoughts turned to the possibility of meeting Mantle (7), Whitey Ford (16), and Yogi Berra (8). Some of the names that come to mind are Roger Maris (9), Phil Rizzuto (10), Thurman Munson (15), Elston Howard (32), and Reggie Jackson (44), amongst others.It’s crazy to think I’m with these players. I told my family, “I’m on the bench for this team. No way am I starting. What? That’s the best team I’ve seen. I’m honored to join 22 Yankee players and managers in this group.

At the new Yankee Stadium, as I look at the retired numbers that are displayed on the blue wall that is located behind left center field, I am proud to say that I am in the same neighborhood as many of my contemporaries and friends. My time spent playing with Don Mattingly (23), Derek Jeter (2), Mariano Rivera (42), Andy Pettitte (46), Bernie Williams (51), and Jorge Posada (20), as well as Joe Torre (manager), is one of the highlights of my baseball career (6). The realization that my number will always be next to theirs strengthens the connection between us. We won four championships in the span of five years, so a lot of things happened very quickly. Donnie was the only exception. The retired numbers are recognitions of the contributors’ roles on such successful teams. The highest possible honor that can be bestowed upon a player.

Eternity. Your number is retired permanently. Nevalee, my three kids, and I talked about my place in the Yankees’ club. As we spoke through happy tears, thinking about my number being retired made the honor more meaningful. They told me, “No Yankee will ever be 21.” “Consider. What an honor!” It was meaningful because it reminded me to pass on my retired number 21 to future generations of my family. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren will look at the number 21 on the Stadium’s blue wall and be told how I did it. This legacy gives me chills.

After learning my number was retired, I woke up every morning wondering if I was dreaming. I may always wake up like this. I can’t find enough superlatives to describe how cool it is to receive such an honor.

Since my retirement, only LaTroy Hawkins wore 21 in the regular season. I respect and understand LaTroy’s decision to honor Roberto Clemente. Fans protested, and LaTroy switched to number 22. Even though the Yankees haven’t used 21 in a while, I didn’t think much about retiring it. The Yankees have always respected me, so I’ve never questioned their decisions. They gave me the highest honor. Wow. This 3-letter word says everything.

No Yankee will wear number 21 when I visit Yankee Stadium because it’s retired. Near Babe Ruth, Thurman, Jete, and Mariano. Never-ending. I’ve always smiled when fans wore my number 21 because it meant they were diehards. I’ll always smile at the Stadium because I’ll be staring at that 21. “Wow”

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