From Chicken Soup for the Baseball Fan's Soul

A Game of Life

Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is a success.

Henry Ford

To everything, there is a season. That is baseball. That is life.

Which brings us to the tale of the 1999 New York Yankees—a team drawn together by a round baseball, but a team truly connected by the circle of life.

On October 27, 1999, they won their second straight World Series. They won it at Yankee Stadium, a place of legends, a place of triumph, a place where so many Yankees teams before them had rejoiced in victories much like this one.

Yet on this night, these Yankees did more than just celebrate together. They mourned together.

In front of their eyes, inside their souls, were the highest highs that life can bring and the lowest lows that life delivers.

They had just won a World Series, swept the great Atlanta Braves, listened as their hallowed stadium shook in the Bronx night. And life was beautiful.

But there, in the middle of this euphoric moment, tears flowed. And life was painful. Two men met on the infield grass—two men whose stories embodied these Yankees’ story.

One man was Joe Torre, the manager whose prostate cancer diagnosis in spring training had so powerfully delivered the message that victory is fleeting and baseball is trivial.

Joe Torre spent Opening Day worrying if he would live to see his four-year-old daughter grow up, worrying if those cancer treatments—treatments that had drawn his face and sapped his strength—would get him back to the game and the team that had fulfilled his life’s mission. The other man was Paul O’Neill, right fielder, number-three hitter and grieving son.

Nine hours earlier, he had answered the telephone and learned that his father, Charles, had died of heart trouble at age seventy-nine.

I lost my own father earlier in that same year. So I have no idea how Paul O’Neill managed to play a baseball game that night—even Game 4 of a World Series. But he did.

“My dad taught me how to play the game,” he said later that evening, his eyes moist. “I wanted to play.”

The essence of these Yankees is that they were a team in which every piece fit together. As baseball players, as human beings, as friends, they fit.

There may be more famous Yankees. But there is no piece more important than O’Neill, the epitome of the selfless mind-set that made the Yankees what they were.

So Paul O’Neill played. He played, Torre said, because “he knows the other guys count on him a lot.”

The game, O’Neill would say afterward, was “a blur.” He was there. But he wasn’t there. His body stood in right field. His brain was often somewhere else.

“It was pretty bittersweet,” he said. “My mind wandered off a few times.”

He was asked, at one point, how he had gotten through the night. “I don’t know,” he said with a slight chuckle. “Is it over yet?”

He has had more eventful nights on a baseball field. Yet he has had few more memorable nights. In four trips to the plate, he went 0 for 3 with a walk. He never scored a run, drove in a run or caught a fly ball. But this was the end of an important journey, an eight-month odyssey that had pointed forever toward this night.

So Paul O’Neill played. He played to find three hours of peace. He played because the Yankees’ puzzle needed his piece, just as he needed the rest of the puzzle.

“I just kept thinking what it meant to be part of this, with these twenty-four guys,” he said. “I didn’t want to take anything away from what happened on the field. But it just so happened that my dad had come to New York for a procedure, so my brothers were here—and my mom and some friends. They all knew what I was going through. And they knew why it was so important for me to be out there.”

At 11:22 P.M. on this emotional October night, the final out of the World Series settled into Chad Curtis’s glove. A 6.0 earthquake erupted on Yankee Stadium’s Richter scale. Two dozen players in those legendary pinstripes swarmed Mariano Rivera, the man who had thrown the final pitch. It looked like so many other celebrations that had busted out at Yankee Stadium in so many Octobers—until two men met on the infield grass: Joe Torre and Paul O’Neill.

Then the tears began, for both of them, until they had to escape to the safety of their clubhouse to gather their emotions.

“I just told Paulie, ‘Your dad was here to watch this one,’” Torre said. And with those words “all the stuff that had been bottled up inside me just came out,” O’Neill said. “It’s all his fault. I was doing fine until I got to Joe. I tried to avoid him, but he found me.”

That, however, is how it had to be, because the Yankees spent that ’99 season finding each other—on the field and off.

Joe DiMaggio, the greatest living Yankee, had died that summer. So had Catfish Hunter, the first big-name Yankees free agent.

The fathers of third baseman Scott Brosius and of utility infielder Luis Sojo passed away. And the man who holds it all together—Torre—left the club in March to battle cancer, then returned in May to battle the American League. How ironic—so many lows, all leading them up baseball’s highest mountain.

“Tragedy’s a part of life,” Torre said that night. “Just because you’re an athlete doesn’t mean you’re exempt.”

Funny, wasn’t it? For so many years in the twentieth century, the Yankees were so easy to hate. And then, in the final year of the 1900s, they were so hard to hate. For years and years, they seemed unfairly superhuman. And in the end, they seemed all too human.

Their season of baseball was over. Their season of life went on. And in the end, they taught us all that ultimately, as Joe Torre said, “baseball’s a game of life.”

Jayson Stark

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