“Swing and a Hit” by Paul O’Neill with Jack Curry (Grand Central Publishing)
By now, nearly ever starter on the New York Yankees dynasty that won four World Series titles in six years (1996, 1998-2000) has written a memoir. Paul O’Neill, the sweet-single leftie who over the course of his 17-year major league career in Cincinnati and New York rapped 2,107 hits, now has two.
“Me and My Dad” (2003) told the story of how O’Neill’s father fostered his love of the game. “Swing and a Hit” isn’t as heavy on the biography, but like a well-honed baseball swing, it repeats itself again and again.
“My best and most comfortable approach was to swing so that I connected with the top half of the baseball, not the lower half, and not trying to swing under the baseball,” he writes on page three. He repeats that fact countless more times in the next 239 pages, so that by the end there is no doubt how he feels about the current generation of power hitters who often either strike out or hit a home run.
As a broadcaster on the regional sports network owned by the Yankees (YES), he’s smart enough not to criticize current players, but it’s obvious that he finds all those uppercut swings if not offensive, then at least distasteful. Writing about former manager Lou Piniella’s criticism that he “didn’t have the temperament to be a 40-home-run hitter,” O’Neill says: “To even dream of bashing 40 homers, my average would have to suffer and that would have made me go ballistic.”
Ah, that O’Neill temper. Famous for smashing dugout water coolers and mumbling to himself in right field after an at-bat didn’t go the way he wanted, O’Neill shares a remarkable story from a random game against the Montreal Expos on June 5, 2000. After a swing that he fouled off his right foot dribbled the ball down the first base line, O’Neill stayed in the batter’s box while umpire Rich Rieker called it a fair ball and ruled him out at first. O’Neill argued on the field, but this was before replay review and the call stood. So what’s an ultra-competitive guy to do? As a result of the ball fouling off his foot, one of O’Neill’s toenails eventually cracked and fell off and he had it delivered in an envelope to the umpires’ room at Yankee Stadium. “I have no idea if they ever received the envelope,” O’Neill writes.
Subtitled “Nine Innings of What Baseball Taught Me,” the book doesn’t really impart nine distinct lessons, though there are nine chapters and a bonus one called “Extra Innings.” There’s hitting advice throughout and some bromides for young players at the end like “Be Yourself,” “Have a Plan,” and, ahem, “Hit Line Drives.” Instead, the chapters are a choppy mix of career highlights and O’Neill’s take on various baseball legends (Pete Rose, Ted Williams, and Yankees teammates Derek Jeter, to name just a few).
The best parts of the book are the behind-the-scenes stories, but there aren’t nearly enough. Here’s O’Neill writing about the indoor batting cage under the right-field stands in the old Yankee Stadium, where he and former Yankees captain Don Mattingly would go to practice their swings: “The blue paint seemed to peel off the walls in this room a little more each day. There were cracks in the ceiling… But for me and Cap, this modest, dingy place was our sanctuary.”
In the end, Yankees fans who are collecting the books written by anyone associated with the team’s last dynasty will probably buy this one. But it’s hard to imagine anyone who is not a diehard fan of the storied team in the Bronx dropping $29 on the hardcover.