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 wadding 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 Atlanta.
"Paulie's been carrying a heavy heart for a while," manager Joe Torre said before Game 4. "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 on May 18. Darryl Strawberry was suspended for 120 days for violating baseball's drug policy and his after-care program following an April arrest in Tampa. Third baseman Scott Brosius, last year's Most Valuable Player in the Series, lost his father to colon cancer on 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 Jim "Catfish" Hunter in September. To honor them, the Yankee Clipper's number and a black band are worn on the uniform sleeves.
"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 passing 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.
"I talked to his wife [Nevalee] earlier today and it's something we have to get him through. I think the best way to do that is write his name in the lineup and give him maybe a couple hours away from the grieving. I know it's tough sitting there when you have time to think about it. We can occupy his time, hopefully, with a victory tonight. It will sort of ease some of it."
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."
Torre again recounted a banquet a few years ago when owner George Steinbrenner referred to O'Neill as "a warrior." The description seemed most appropriate yesterday.
"He knows the other guys count on him a lot and he's here even though I'm sure it's going to be tough to totally concentrate," Torre said.
If the Yankees had failed to complete their sweep of the Atlanta Braves last night, Torre didn't know if O'Neill would remain with the club or join his family.