The comparison is there, even if some Yankee fans are reticent to concede it. When you watch Kevin Youkilis moan about a close call, fling his bat or go into a dugout rage after an out, you should be reminded of another fiery player from the recent past. You should see shades of Paul O’Neill.
Before some of the O’Neill acolytes explode, relax. This doesn’t mean Youkilis and O’Neill are exactly the same player with the exact accomplishments. Of course, they’re not. What it means is that Youkilis and O’Neill share the same style for playing baseball with an intensity that’s visible to everyone and with an approach that chases perfection.
“He expects to get a hit every time up,” Joe Torre often said while trying to explain some of O’Neill’s tantrums.
When I asked Boston’s Dustin Pedroia about Youkilis for The New York Times in 2007, he used the same speechwriter as Torre.
“He thinks,” Pedroia said of Youkilis, “he should get a hit every time up.”
Since Youkilis has agreed to a one-year, $12 million deal with the Yankees and will be their third baseman to start the season, O’Neill will have ample opportunities to discuss Youkilis from his perch in the YES Network broadcast booth. He can mention how they were both born in Ohio, how they have seen each other at high school games, how they have the same agent and he might also mention how they play the game similarly. There was always a ton of emotion whenever O’Neill played, something that is true of Youkilis, too.
Five years ago, I asked Joe Bick, the agent for both players, if he saw similarities in the way that the ex-Yankee outfielder and the then Red Sox first baseman performed. Bick reacted as if I’d found the car keys that he’d been missing for a week.
“I’ve been waiting for someone to finally make that connection,” Bick said. “There are definitely similarities in the way they play. They both want to do so well.”
For Youkilis to do well as a Yankee, he needs to have a rebound season. In a season in which Youkilis was traded from the Red Sox to the White Sox in June, Youkilis hit .235 with a .336 on-base percentage, a .409 slugging percentage, 19 homers and 60 runs batted in. It was his worst offensive output since he became a full-time player in 2006.
Still, the Yankees are encouraged because Youkilis finished better with the White Sox than he started with the Red Sox. Youkilis also continued to show his ability to grind through at-bats and force pitchers to work as he was third in the Major Leagues while seeing 4.36 pitches per plate appearances. Youkilis’s statistics against left-handed pitchers were also stellar (.275 average, .386 on base and .492 slugging). Finally, the Yankees feel Youkilis, a former Gold Glover who has battled back injuries, will be a solid defensive replacement for Alex Rodriguez.
Back in 2007, O’Neill admitted that he rooted for Youkilis because of their Ohio connections. Even though Youkilis played for the team O’Neill hated as a Yankee, O’Neill, who retired after the 2001 season, still found himself cheering for a Red Sox player that debuted in 2004 and reminded people of him.
“I loved to compete and I loved to win,” O’Neill said. “He’s the same way. In Boston and New York, they really care about winning and losing. I think they appreciate that about you more than in other cities.”
Youkilis never understood why Joba Chamberlain targeted him with a handful of fastballs that made him uncomfortable and also wondered why the Yankee fans vilified him. While Youkilis was still with the Red Sox, he cited O’Neill’s style of play as a way of defending himself.
“They play ‘Yankeeography’ on Paul O’Neill every day,” Youkilis told The Boston Globe. “So what’s the problem?”
For the Yankee fans who say that they can’t or won’t accept Youkilis, they need to take a quick baseball history lesson. After the Yankees added Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and Johnny Damon, three players with deep roots in Boston, all three eventually won at least one World Series title in New York.
Youkilis is a Yankee because the Yankees needed him, needed someone reliable to fill in until Rodriguez returns from hip surgery. If you watch Youkilis play, you will see an ornery guy who doesn’t care if the other team dislikes him. Youkilis once told me that “other teams aren’t supposed to like you.” There’s something for Yankee fans to like about Youkilis now. Look closely. He’ll remind you of O’Neill.
“I really didn’t think I was like Paul O’Neill until someone mentioned it to me,” Youkilis said. “I have a lot of respect for him. I’ve always liked guys that played with a lot of fire.”
Follow Jack Curry on Twitter: @JackCurryYES