O'Neill kick-starts Yankees

IN THE SPOTLIGHT

May 20, 1994|By Jeff Bradley | Jeff Bradley,Special to The Sun

MINNEAPOLIS -- It begins with the leg kick.

Paul O'Neill's right foot comes off the ground six inches or so, moving slightly back. O'Neill flicks the foot in the direction of the plate before it moves forward and back down to earth.

New York Yankees batting coach Rick Down calls the movement O'Neill's "gathering action," or his "timing mechanism." As many hitters have subtle mechanical reminders they carry into the batter's box -- Joe Morgan flapped his left elbow against his body, Mike Schmidt swiveled his hips -- O'Neill has found that the kick helps him keep his hands back until it's time to unleash or stop a swing.

When O'Neill has unleashed the bat, he has produced hits at an astonishing rate. He begins the weekend series with the Orioles at Yankee Stadium hitting .455, nearly 60 points better than anyone else in the American League.

O'Neill's groove goes beyond the numbers, though. Is it possible to hit a "hard" .455? O'Neill's line-drive outs far outweigh his cheap hits.

"He gets a hit every time up, doesn't he?" Yankees pitcher Jimmy Key asked the other day. "I'd give him four balls and move on to the next guy."

O'Neill has hit safely in all but five of his 33 games with 16 multiple-hit efforts. O'Neill led off the season with a line-drive single to left field, and his average has not dropped below .432 since.

"I'm not seeing any beach balls or anything," O'Neill said. "I swear, the ball is still small and white. I'm just trying to hit it hard. And it just so happens that right now, they've been falling in. There's nothing else to say."

It's difficult for O'Neill, a .268 career hitter coming into 1994, to comprehend that he is the biggest story on baseball's hottest team.

Even last year, when he was the AL's ninth-best hitter, with a .311 average, he lived in relative obscurity. He was much bigger news in his hometown of Cincinnati, even though he never hit higher than .276 in a full season for the Reds. After coming to New York in a trade for Roberto Kelly on Nov. 3, 1992, O'Neill was essentially a platoon player for Buck Showalter last season. By not exposing O'Neill (a .217 career hitter vs. lefties) to the tough left-handers, Showalter created a confident hitter.

This year, as O'Neill has blistered the ball, Showalter has dangled a carrot before O'Neill's eyes. The manager has spotted O'Neill against some left-handers and said, "Show me." Entering the weekend, O'Neill is 7-for-22 with two homers and seven walks against left-handers.

"I want to play every day," O'Neill said. "To me, the game is too specialized. Sometimes, it seems like a computer printout dictates the lineup."

Besides, it's evident that O'Neill is much improved from his days in Cincinnati, where manager Lou Piniella wanted the 6-foot-4 left-handed swinger to "let it go" and hit home runs. O'Neill put together only one big home run season, hitting 28 in 1991. His last season with the Reds, O'Neill hit .246 with 14 homers.

"I get myself in trouble when I try to do too much," O'Neill said. "I have to use the whole field and stay on top of the baseball to have results."

Off the field, O'Neill has a friendly Midwesterner's demeanor that belies his on-field persona. Watch O'Neill take a strike, and nine times out of 10, he'll jerk his head back, slough his shoulders and frown at the umpire. When he makes an out, be it a strikeout or a line shot at someone, O'Neill will fire his helmet and batting gloves in disgust.

Yet in the clubhouse, O'Neill is polite, friendly and without an attitude. The only time he will get annoyed is when someone asks him to talk about himself. This makes him more uncomfortable than an 0-2 count.

"Is it that big a deal?" O'Neill asked. "Can't I just go out every day and try to hit the ball hard? The game will even things out soon enough."

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