Michael O'Neill (Paul's nephew) tries to make it in Yanks organization
Michael O'Neill always knew the shadow would linger. Growing up as a baseball star in Ohio, O'Neill has always been compared to his famous uncle, former Yankees star Paul O'Neill, who smacked 281 homers and racked up 1,269 RBI during his 17-year tenure in the majors.
"I'm never going to get rid of his shadow," the younger O'Neill says. "He won five championships in the majors. I'm going to get compared to him my whole career."
Michael O'Neill is doing his best to make a name for himself in the Yankees organization. After starring at the University of Michigan for three years, O'Neill was selected by the Yankees in the third round of last month's Major League draft. Through 32 games with the Class A Staten Island Yankees, O'Neill is hitting .265 and slugging .353.
"He hits the ball out of the park, has a plus arm and a good, strong body," Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees' vice president of amateur scouting, says of O'Neill. "He can play centerfield or the corner."
Aside from being his role model on the field, Paul O'Neill has been Michael's mentor since he started playing Little League. The two talk regularly, and whenever Michael is in a slump he has Paul to turn to for advice.
"He just has such a high baseball IQ," Michael says of his uncle. "If I need some help, I'll send him a video of my at-bats. He's been around the game so long that he doesn't even need to be there to tell what's going on."
Now that Michael O'Neill plays across the river from Yankee Stadium, where Paul works as a broadcaster for the YES Network, the two have been able to meet up in person. Paul visits Staten Island periodically to check on his nephew and help with his development.
"He's been to a few games already," Michael says, "and when he's busy, he keeps up with my progress through the front office's minor-league reports."
The two O'Neills approach the game in different ways, however. Paul's best asset was his power at the plate; Michael's is his speed on the basepaths. In three years at Michigan, Michael stole 72 bases -- fourth all-time at the university.
"He's one of those rare players that has technique and speed," says Michigan coach Erik Bakich. "But the scary part is that he's only scratching the surface. I can't wait to see how remarkable he is in a year or two."
Where the two O'Neills are similar, and where Michael welcomes the comparison, is in their passion for the game. Paul's on-field emotion seems to have rubbed off on the younger O'Neill. For better or worse, Michael brings energy to the game, and sometimes that energy turns to frustration.
"Anyone who says you should play the game emotionlessly is wrong," Michael says. "Baseball's a game of failure. And I expect to produce every time."
Michael O'Neill has always been physically gifted. In middle school, growing up in Worthington, Ohio, just outside of Columbus, he was as good at soccer as he was at baseball. With such raw athleticism and physicality, he could have succeeded at almost any sport.
"Growing up, I was never the biggest kid," O'Neill says. "But I've always been faster and more athletic than everybody."
When O'Neill tried his hand at football, showing up the older boys at their sport, he endured relentless bullying. In Ohio, where football is king, it's taboo for a soccer player to outplay the football players at football.
"It was heartbreaking," O'Neill's mother, Sandy, says when asked about the bullying. "It's the last thing you want to see happen to your child."
The bullying got so bad by the eighth grade that O'Neill went straight home after school one day and combed real estate classifieds on the Internet in search of a new home -- a place to start over, with new friends and a new environment.
He found a place in the small town of Powell, only a short car ride from Worthington. His parents, readily aware of the incessant bullying, had already contemplated moving prior to Michael's search.
"We didn't wait long to move there," his mother says. "Because of the bullying, his father and I didn't want him in Worthington for much longer."
Powell had been on O'Neill's mind since sixth grade, when he was recruited to join the town's travel baseball team. A group of parents who knew him through travel ball -- all their sons played with or against each other at one time or another -- had attempted to persuade him to join their team.
O'Neill quickly assimilated in Powell. Before even setting foot in his new house, he had "50 friends" in the community -- kids and parents all connected to travel ball in one way or another.
His two closest friends in town, Josh Dezse and Tyler Stage, he met playing travel baseball. The three shared a love for the game that sealed their bond. It only grew stronger as they progressed through the baseball hierarchy together -- from Little League travel to varsity high school baseball.
In their senior season, the trio led their high school team, the Olentangy Liberty Braves, to a 21-10 record and made it to the district championship, where they fell to Mount Vernon, 3-1. O'Neill hit 11 home runs that season and was selected first-team All-State.
After graduating, O'Neill signed with Michigan, while Tyler and Josh chose to remain in their home state, playing baseball for Ohio University and Ohio State, respectively.
Now that O'Neill is in New York the three Powell boys still stay in touch, and they're always there for each other when one needs it.
"It's kind of a recurring theme with us," O'Neill says. "If I called Tyler to come out here tomorrow, he would be here. It's the same with Josh. They constantly have my back."
O'Neill's success in high school didn't come without a cost. Midway through his senior season, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder, requiring surgery. "I was reaching for a pitch, and when I swung, I felt my shoulder pop," he says.
If lucky, recovery from labrum surgery can be as quick as four months; otherwise it can take up to 12. "Initially, I thought, 'Now what?'" his mother says. "But after watching him play with the injury, I didn't feel as worried. He hit five home runs with his injured shoulder."
O'Neill underwent shoulder surgery in the June after his senior year. His recovery only required four months, but he took six to be cautious. After being drafted in the 42nd round by the Yankees in 2010, O'Neill had a monumental choice to make: forgo his college eligibility or go to Michigan and try the draft again in three years.
He said the decision was a no-brainer.
"When you consider that I was getting a scholarship to go to Michigan and I was unsure of my health after surgery, it was an easy choice to go to college," O'Neill says.
His father, Mike (Paul's brother), has a master's degree in business and his mother, Sandy, is a schoolteacher. Both put a premium on education, a major factor in Michael's decision to attend college.
It turned out to be a great decision. In three years at Michigan, he improved immensely as a hitter, employing a more methodical approach at the plate than he had in high school.
"We taught him how to wait for the pitch he wants to hit," Bakich says, "not the pitch opponents want him to hit."
By the start of the collegiate season in February 2011, O'Neill was more than ready. In his first year at Michigan, he led the team in hitting (.307) and stolen bases (30). He continued to improve his hitting in his sophomore season, leading the team in batting by hitting .329. But after his second year in Ann Arbor coach Rob Maloney and the university parted ways, unable to agree on a new contract. The uncertainty of such an abrupt coaching change caught O'Neill off guard.
"You're recruited by one coach -- who you like -- and you make your decision to play with him," O'Neill says. "Then it all changes."
New coach Erik Bakich came to Ann Arbor from the University of Maryland and fit right in. O'Neill meshed with Bakich's "egalitarian" approach. He put up the best numbers of his career in his junior season at Michigan: in 56 games, he hit .356, slugged .498, and stole 23 bases, placing him in a four-way tie for most stolen bases in the Big Ten that year.
"As far as my development, he was the best coach I've ever had," O'Neill says. "It was my best year playing baseball."
After increasing his production each year in Ann Arbor, O'Neill's draft stock hovered in the upper few rounds prior to the 2013 MLB draft. "A lot of players aren't prepared to play at the pro level, especially high school kids," Bakich says. "But I watched Michael develop. He was absolutely ready -- mentally and physically. He became a leader at Michigan."
On the day of the 2013 draft's first two rounds, the Yankees came to O'Neill and asked if he would be willing to take $100,000 less than his draft position allotted to be taken with the 66th overall pick in the second round. He said yes without hesitation.
The opportunity to go in the second round to the Yankees -- the team his uncle played for, the team he grew up watching and rooting for, the team he loved -- was more than enough.
"Just to be valued by an organization that highly speaks volumes," O'Neill remarks. "I didn't care about the money."
Unfortunately, it didn't work out as planned, as the Yankees took a high school prospect with their second-round pick.
"I was pretty pissed," O'Neill says. "I was thinking about going back to school. So I texted coach right away."
Bakich assured O'Neill that he would have a full ride if he came back to Michigan for his senior year.
"I texted back that it would be hard for me to sign in the fourth round," O'Neill says. "I wasn't trying to be greedy. I just felt that I was in the top 100 players in the country."
Ultimately the Yankees drafted O'Neill in the third round, 103rd overall. On top of his $500,000 signing bonus, they offered to pay for his final year of college, whenever he chooses to finish school.
"It's wonderful," his mother replies when asked about the Yankees setting aside money for her son to finish college. "We're very proud that he'll eventually get his degree."
After choosing college over the Yankees in 2010, O'Neill didn't think he would be taken by his favorite team again in 2013.
"I had a 1-in-30 chance at being drafted by the Yankees again," Michael says. "I was lucky that I was."