Michael O'Neill knows the shadow will probably never completely fade away and the Charleston RiverDogs outfielder is OK with that.
Season Opener: Thursday at Augusta.
Home Opener: Monday vs. Greenville
Time: 7:05 p.m.
Where: Riley Park
For as long as O'Neill's professional baseball career lasts, the former University of Michigan star understands that the comparisons with his famous uncle - former New York Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill - are unavoidable and will always linger somewhere in the background.
Instead of fighting the inevitable, however, the young O'Neill has decided to embrace his family's lineage.
"He's my uncle, he was a great player, so I know people are going to ask me about him," Michael O'Neill said Monday afternoon at Riley Park. "They've been asking me about him since I first started playing baseball and now that I'm in the Yankees organization I know it's going to come up more and more.
"I use him as a reference point, as a resource, because he's been through the same thing I'm going through right now. Instead of worrying about living up to what he did on the field, I'm going use his knowledge of the game so I can get to where he got to during his career."
Besides the same O'Neill last name, Michael and Paul, share the same unapologetic passion toward the game. Paul O'Neill was as renowned for his tirades and water-cooler busting tantrums as his home runs during his 17-season professional career. Michael has been known to wear his emotions on his shelve as well.
"I think that's the way you are supposed to play the game," Michael said. "Whoever said you can't play the game with emotion has never played it before. I love the game, so I'm passionate about it. I don't apologize for that."
Beyond their shared intensity for the game, the similarities between the two O'Neill's end. Paul O'Neill, who won five World Series titles, was known as a legitimate power hitter finishing his career with 281 home runs, while his nephew was taken in the third round of last summer's Major League draft for his speed and high batting average. Michael O'Neill stole 73 stolen bases in three seasons with the Wolverines, which ranks fourth all-time in school history. A goal of 20 stolen bases with the RiverDogs this season is realistic, said Charleston manager Luis Dorante.
"Michael has a little bit of power, but his speed is what makes him a good prospect," Dorante said. "I think he's capable of 20-plus stolen bases. He has that kind of speed and he's smart on the base paths."
Largely due to his uncle's influence, Michael O'Neill has been a lifelong Yankees fan. After his senior season at Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell, Ohio, the Yankees drafted O'Neill in the 42nd round in 2010. But O'Neill passed on the chance of playing for Yankees, deciding instead to enroll at Michigan.
"I don't think I was ready to play professionally right after high school," O'Neill said.
O'Neill made steady progress during his three seasons with Michigan, culminating by leading the Wolverines in seven offensive statistical categories his junior year, including hitting (.356) and stolen bases (23).
When he was taken by the Yankees last summer with the 103rd overall pick and received a $500,000 signing bonus, he couldn't pass on the chance to wear pinstripes for a second time.
"They are 30 other teams in the big leagues and the Yankees took me twice," O'Neill said. "I didn't want to risk it a third time."
In 64 games with Staten Island, O'Neill hit .219 with 14 runs batted in and nine stolen bases. Paul O'Neill works for the YES Network as a Yankees broadcaster and was able to see his nephew play a few times with Staten Island. Two of Paul O'Neill's children attend Furman, so Michael expects his uncle to make a trip or two to South Carolina this summer.
"He was able to get to a couple of games and it was great to have him watch me and give me some tips afterwards," Michael O'Neill said. "I'll probably see him in Greenville a few times when we play up there."
Manager Luis Dornate during RiverDogs media day Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at Joe Riley Park. Paul Zoeller/Staff×
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