Nov. 22, 2011
By Joanne C. Gerstner
Michael O'Neill didn't purposefully set out to possibly alienate a lot of residents of southeastern Michigan.
But he's discovered being a native of Columbus, Ohio, who also openly professes loyalty to the New York Yankees, is not going to win many friends amongst Michigan and Tigers fans.
O'Neill is not a lost cause, however. The star Michigan sophomore outfielder does indeed love the Yankees but can pacify the masses by not being a big Buckeyes fan. And he definitely is a Michigan fan at heart too.
"Ohio State has a good baseball program, but they never really recruited me, so that was it -- not going to Ohio State," O'Neill said, adding a laugh. "Michigan was the best place for me because of the strength of the program, it's only a few hours from home, and the academics are so good. That won me over."
O'Neill wanted to be close enough to home so his parents, Mike and Sandy, could come to his games. Playing down south or out west would have strained that connection.
"I can count on one hand how many games my parents have missed, which is awesome," O'Neill said. "They love to see me play, and I love seeing them in the stands."
O'Neill has no love lost for Ohio State's football team, after witnessing it dominate Columbus during his childhood. He notices a difference at Michigan, where a lot of fans have different sporting passions in addition to the Wolverines, such as the Lions, Red Wings and Tigers.
"It's awful. It's obnoxious with Ohio State football down there, it gets thrown in your face by the media and everybody," O'Neill said. "I'm okay with the basketball team, as they seem to fly under the radar because of football. But they get none of the support football does. It's crazy down there."
O'Neill, the nephew of former Yankees star right fielder Paul O'Neill, is starting to grasp the differences between growing up in Columbus and being in Ann Arbor. He only knew of the rivalry with Michigan as a kid.
And he grew up getting to know the late Yankees owner George Steinbrenner a bit, thanks to his uncle. Steinbrenner, a huge Ohio State fan and native of Cleveland, invited the O'Neill family to see a few Buckeyes football games from his private box. Steinbrenner never tried to steer O'Neill to the Buckeyes, despite their ties.
After coming to Ann Arbor, O'Neill discovered Michigan wasn't only locked in a rivalry with Ohio State, but with Michigan State and Notre Dame, too.
"You never realize that, because all you hear is Michigan, Michigan, Michigan as the only team to beat down there," O'Neill said. "All they care about, if they lose every game, is if they beat Michigan -- then it's a good season. Here, it's a good season if you beat Michigan State and Ohio State and Notre Dame too. It's interesting how there's more going on here."
O'Neill also recently got a lesson on some other big rivalries not to be messed with in the state of Michigan.
In Columbus, people don't mind Yankees hats, as the Columbus Clippers Triple-A team was a farm affiliate of the Bronx Bombers for nearly three decades until 2006.
He learned that in Michigan, especially during American League Divisional Series between the Tigers and Yankees, it's not a good idea to be sporting Yankees gear.
"People up here got really riled up over that, almost as mad as Ohio State fans get at Michigan fans," O'Neill said. "The Tigers stuff got pretty serious. I respect that though. But obviously, I've got to root for the Yankees, both for my uncle and because they're my team.
"I'm sticking with the Yankees. And I'll take the abuse around here. It's worth it."
Michigan/Ohio State Rivalry
Leisa Rosen: From Wasilla to Columbus to Ann Arbor
Cheryl Stacy: Trading in the Scarlet & Gray for the Maize & Blue