COMMENTARY : Not .400; .400 the Yankee Way

NEWSDAY

Far from the noise of Madison Square Garden this spring, way uptown from there at Yankee Stadium, has been the crack of Paul O'Neill's bat. He does not hear the cheers right now that Patrick Ewing hears, or Charles Oakley. Those cheers will come. The Yankees are at the top of the standings, and O'Neill has a batting average at the top of the world. Uptown from the Garden, on the Stadium's great baseball stage, Paul O'Neill sets the stage for summer.

Everyone wants to talk to O'Neill about his chance to hit .400 for the season, because after Wednesday night's game against Toronto, he is hitting .472. He does not want to talk about that because what is there to say with 119 games to go? The real news from O'Neill, the real noise, is the crack of the bat, almost every day. When he talks, it is about things that matter. Mostly he talks about winning a World Series for the Yankees, because O'Neill is one of the players in the room who knows how.

It is not only the batting average that makes O'Neill the quiet star of the New York spring. It is not only O'Neill's sweet swing. He has been a Yankee for 205 games, but there has been a quiet, old-Yankee grace about him from the start. O'Neill showed up from the Cincinnati Reds knowing how Yankees used to behave, and do again.

"I've always been intrigued with the history of the game," O'Neill says. "And just in that sense, Yankee Stadium is the only place to be. There are a lot of special ballparks in this game, at least the ones that aren't gone. I have a picture of myself when I was 4 or 5 years old that my dad took at Crosley Field. He always wanted me to appreciate history. So I appreciate Fenway Park, and I appreciate Wrigley Field. But you have to start here. I think about it every night, walking down the runway from the clubhouse to the dugout. I appreciate it every night."

He is sitting in front of his locker at 4:30 p.m., relaxed, relieved that he does not have to talk about his batting average. Before the season gets to June, O'Neill already feels talked out about that.

"I love coming here every day for the games," O'Neill says. "This is a place and a uniform you don't take for granted. And it's a manager and a group of players you don't take for granted, either. I look forward to coming to the ballpark because of them, too. There's a fraternity here, and you feel it as soon as you walk in the door."

"You're doing all right once you get outside the door," he is told.

"It's a good place to hit," O'Neill says, then talks about how he can't try to hit home runs, because the only way for a left-handed hitter to get a cheap home run there is to hook one down the right-field line, and that is not his style; he is better hitting the ball in the alleys. And he talks about the wonderful black background in center field, known as "the black" at Yankee Stadium.

"It looks very big out there," O'Neill says.

It is the big baseball place. O'Neill has filled it up with base hits in April and May. The batting average won't come down, and the reporters won't stay away. He is 1994's .400 boy, as John Olerud of the Toronto Blue Jays was last year. O'Neill doesn't want to talk about it. He wants the swing to tell the story, another ball hit hard somewhere.

Buck Showalter, his manager, says: "It's not just that he isn't comfortable talking about himself. If he thinks that all the attention on him detracts in any way from his teammates, he doesn't want to have any part of it."

O'Neill makes everyone else in the Yankee batting order better. That is how it goes when someone hits the ball this way. The pitcher knows O'Neill is waiting for him, fifth spot in the order. It changes innings and sometimes games. "It's not just the guys hitting before or after Paul that get help when he's going like this," Don Mattingly says. "It's eight or nine guys."

O'Neill says: "Everybody wants me to talk about myself, and I keep explaining that if the team wins, we all had a good year. And if we don't win, then it doesn't matter who had a good year." This was Tuesday afternoon, before he got one hit in three at-bats against the Blue Jays and actually saw his batting average drop a few points.

"Everybody wants to know if I'm going to hit this, or hit that," O'Neill says. "And I don't look at things that way. I feel like when I go out there tonight, I'm zero for zero. It doesn't matter what I did yesterday. The way I've been hitting doesn't mean anything to Dave Stewart (the Toronto starter Tuesday night). He doesn't care what I hit in April or May. We both start even. At 7:05 tonight, I start all over again."

But he is the best hitter on the best team right now. He is at the best ballpark, one made for big things. It is that kind of stage. O'Neill can be a free agent after this season and he is going to be expensive. Maybe he will be a Yankee in 1995 and maybe not. He says that no matter what happens, it matters to him that he wore Yankee pinstripes at least once in his life. He has heard there is no better place in the world to be a winner than New York. He would like to find out for himself.

"I'll be out there during a pitching change sometimes and I find myself staring," he says. "Or just listening to the crowd. The fans here are amazing. Sometimes you get more of a sense of the place just by listening."

He listens to them. They listen to the crack of his bat. Everyone waits for summer.

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