NEW YORK -- Even as the New York Yankees stood on the threshold of their third world championship in four years, another tragedy had shaken the club. They've felt these tremors before. All they can do is hold on tight.
Charles O'Neill, the father of Yankees right fielder Paul O'Neill, died yesterday morning of heart failure after a lengthy illness. He was 79. The news came less than a week after infielder Luis Sojo had returned to Venezuela to make funeral arrangements for his father.
Sojo missed the first two games of the World Series, with the Yankees keeping their roster at 24 players, but O'Neill wanted to play last night.
He occupied his usual spot in the lineup, batting third, and even joked with a few acquaintances while wading through a group of reporters and photographers to reach the outfield during batting practice.
O'Neill went 0-for-3 with a walk in the Yankees' series-clinching 4-1 victory over the Atlanta Braves.
With players spilling from the dugout after the last out, O'Neill never smiled as he exchanged hugs near the mound. Finally, overcome with emotion, he burst into tears and was surrounded by teammates who tried to shield him from the television cameras. O'Neill put a hand to his face as he ran off the field, then struggled through an interview in front of his locker.
"There's a lot of accomplishment here, and I'm proud to be a part of this team," he said, his voice cracking. "But believe me, I lost somebody special." No longer able to speak, O'Neill walked to the trainer's room.
"I told Paul, 'Your dad got to watch this one,' " Torre said. "Paulie's been carrying a heavy heart for a while. His dad's been suffering, and they're not surprised by his passing because he was in that type of shape in the hospital. It's a very sorrowful time for him, but he's been going through this for a few weeks."
The Yankees have been experiencing periods of sadness all season. Though their record doesn't reflect it, they've been dealing with adversity since spring training.
Torre missed the first 36 games while being treated for prostate cancer, returning to the club May 18. Darryl Strawberry was suspended for 120 days for violating baseball's drug policy and his after-care program after an April arrest in Tampa, Fla. Third baseman Scott Brosius, last year's Most Valuable Player in the Series, lost his father to colon cancer Sept. 12. And second baseman Chuck Knoblauch's father is in the most serious stages of Alzheimer's disease.
The organization also has mourned the deaths of Hall of Famers Joe DiMaggio in March and Catfish Hunter in September. To honor them, the Yankee Clipper's number and a black band are worn on the uniform sleeves.
Not forgetting that O'Neill wasn't the only player dealing with personal issues, Torre sought out Brosius and Sojo on the field after the last out. "They were both sobbing," he said.
"I hope no other team has to go through this for a long time," Sojo said.
O'Neill's father had been placed on a respirator shortly before his death at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
"He's had heart problems for a number of years and it's been one thing or another," Torre said. "Paul thought they lost him earlier this year and he was able to fight his way back."
Torre never consulted with O'Neill before making out the lineup. "I just assumed when he showed up, that's what he was there for."
Understanding better than most what O'Neill was experiencing yesterday, Sojo offered his condolences upon seeing his teammate enter the clubhouse, then gave him some space.
"I think at that particular moment you don't want to talk," Sojo said. "It's going to be a very emotional night for him."
General manager Brian Cashman had asked O'Neill before the game if there was anything he could do. "Paul said, 'Just win,' " Cashman said. "I just told him my prayers were with him."