BY ZACH HELFAND
Daily Sports Writer
Published April 26, 2011
The fans that descended upon the makeshift asphalt basketball court each Friday night and Sunday morning witnessed it all.
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The monster dunks and the alley oops. The fights, the sweat and the tears.
They each had their favorites. Maybe it was Josh, who towered over the others and threw down dunks with ease, charming the crowd with his quick-witted sarcasm. Or maybe it was Tyler, who once came close to blows with Michael, another crowd favorite.
Michael O’Neill. He dominated by sheer athleticism, swaggering through the court with poise and the quiet confidence that made him a three-sport star.
Whoever their favorites were, the neighborhood came back week after week just to see the skill, the competition and the pure childhood fun of it all.
But these games weren’t in Rucker Park, and it wasn’t New York or Chicago.
This was Powell, Ohio, and the crowd was gathered around a driveway court to watch members of the Olentangy Liberty High School baseball team play basketball on a hoop lowered to nine feet.
If their low-hoop basketball games attracted the neighborhood, their baseball games attracted a different crowd.
The professional scouts would make their way past Columbus, drive 15 minutes past the Ohio State campus and descend upon the small town of Powell, the town that accepted Michael when others wouldn’t, where every family in a neighborhood knew the others and where every street seemed to end in a cul-de-sac.
The scouts would drive around the cul-de-sacs, past the golf course dotted with comfortable houses and past the high school toward the baseball field in a routine that had become like a pilgrimage.
During Michael’s sophomore year, a scout, maybe sporting a Reds or a Yankees cap, would occasionally make the journey to the small suburban town whose population has nearly doubled to over 11,000 in the past decade. It was the same place that Money magazine voted one of the top 20 best towns to live in back in 2005.
By Michael’s senior year, 10 scouts lined the fence each game. Their radar guns would light up as guys like Josh Dezse or Tyler Stage would unleash a fastball in the mid-90s. They would marvel over Josh’s frame, which at 6-foot-5 and over 200, pounds was still immature enough to have the scouts drool over its potential to fill out. And he had a head mature enough to remark a year later, without embarrassment, that he missed his best friend.
But for now his best friend was right next to him. Josh and Michael — along with the three other players in their class that would go Division I — together on both the field and the scouts’ clipboards.
The scouts would scribble superlatives on charts, words like “upside” and “five-tool,” to describe the five prospects. They took note of Michael’s speed or his arm in right field.
The more astute among them might have even noticed the bond connecting the five players, especially Josh, Michael and Tyler. The bond that meant next to nothing to the baseball scouts, but meant everything to the boys.
The bond, forged through baseball and national championships, that came to define the boys, that came to save Michael and that transcends baseball rivalries.
The fluorescent light bulbs and piped-in music gave Best Buy a feeling more sterile than glamorous despite the expensive electronics. Josh calmly browsed the aisles looking for a laptop for college.
Then came the million-dollar text.
“I kept getting texts, like ‘Congratulations,’ ” Josh said. “I’m like, ‘What? Congratulations on what?’ And I got on one of the computers there, and then I looked at the draft, the draft lineup. That’s when I first found out.”
What he saw on that computer screen in the Best Buy was his own name. Above it, under the heading that signified the 28th round of the MLB draft — the last pick of the second day of the draft — was a pinstriped navy blue banner with the most recognizable logo in baseball: the interlocking ‘NY’ of the New York Yankees.
Josh was officially a Yankee draftee, and Michael was among the first to congratulate him.
The next day, Josh sent a text to Michael. Only this time, Josh was the one sending congratulations.
Michael, too, was a Yankee draftee.
“We were both screaming,” Josh said. “Just like, ‘What? This is a dream!’ ”
But Michael wasn’t exactly in the ideal location to celebrate his selection. When he got the text from Josh, he was in Cincinatti with his uncle Paul O'Neill — himself a former Yankee — sitting in a surgeon’s office. Michael had been playing with a torn labrum and needed surgery the summer after his senior year of high school.
Josh had also been playing with a torn meniscus, and the injuries caused their draft stock to plummet and cast a shadow of doubt on their immediate professional prospects. Both were projected by some to be drafted in the top 10 rounds, but both fell out of day one. Michael was drafted on day three in the 42nd round.
The boys had a decision to make. Both had already committed to Big Ten schools, Josh to Ohio State and Michael to Michigan.
“I think (Michael is) Michigan’s best player,” said Mike Gibbons, the Yankees scout who scouted both players. “Unfortunately for him, the reason … we didn’t really make a strong run at him at the end was because he needed to have surgery. But it was certainly his athleticism and his tools and his ability (that drew us to him).
“With Josh, it was his body and his arm strength. You knew he was a little raw and crude up on the mound because he was more of a catcher growing up. And just recently started to pitch, but it was a good arm and he had a good fastball to go along with a good body.”
Both chose to pursue an education, but it was hard to shake the image of pinstripes — and the dreams and the dollar signs they represent — from the mind of a 17- or 18-year-old kid.
The boy with No. 21 on his back didn’t understand what his father was telling him.
Michael had worn 21 his whole life in honor of his uncle Paul, the great Yankee right fielder. Paul had taken Michael to games, had brought him on the field to run the bases and into the clubhouse to eat. Michael couldn’t understand why his father told him it was time for a change.
Maybe it was the time Michael was still in grade school when he struck out with the bases loaded in a close game, and the pitcher’s father ran up to Mike O’Neill, not knowing he was Michael’s father.
“My son just struck out Paul O’Neill’s nephew!” the man said.
“Yeah? Well, that and a dollar seventy-five will buy you a cup of coffee,” Mike said before walking away.
Or maybe Mike just knew his son was good enough that he didn’t need to play in anybody else’s shadow.
Either way, Mike sat Michael down and told him he needed a new number.
“Uncle Paul was 21,” Mike told him. “You need to have your own identity.”
Now Michael understands.
“Ever since then, I’ve wanted to be my own person,” Michael said. “When I got drafted, I didn’t want people to think my uncle got me drafted by the Yankees. I wanted my talent to get me drafted by the Yankees.”
Even so, when Paul went to New York shortly after the draft, he was peppered with questions from fans.
They asked him when Michael was going to sign, if he was going to wear 21 and play right field just like him.
They expected another Paul O'Neill.
But on the diamond, Michael wasn’t Paul. Sure, he played right field, but he was a righty. Paul batted left handed. Michael was a terror on the base paths. Paul wasn’t slow, but he averaged just 10 stolen bases per year in the major leagues.
“I used to throw my helmet and my batting gloves, and it was just a show just because my uncle did it,” Michael said. “My uncle has worked with me on the mental stuff. If you don’t get a hit in your first at bat, your day’s not over. Everybody I guess expects me to be a hothead or whatever, and I’m not at all.”
As Michael has grown into his own player, and as the years have passed since Paul’s retirement, he has gained respect in his own right. Opposing players don’t fear him because of his uncle. They fear him because he’s good.
Of course, it helps to have a family member who knows a thing or two about hitting a baseball.
Michael texts his uncle after almost every game, telling him about his at bats. And when Michael is in a slump — something that hasn’t happened often this year — Paul usually has some pointers.
“He actually watched our game on the Big Ten Network against Purdue, and he noticed that I was standing really close to the plate and that’s why I couldn’t hit the inside fastball,” Michael said. “He told me just to back off the plate, and I actually started hitting the inside fastball a lot harder.”
So now when future opponents see film of Michael O’Neill turning on those inside fastballs, the pitchers don’t cringe at the prospect of facing Michael O’Neill: Paul O’Neill’s nephew.
They cringe at the prospect of facing Michael O’Neill: the three hitter in the Michigan lineup.
As she struggled to find the words to ease the pain of her seventh-grade son, Sandy O’Neill could feel her heart breaking.
“Why doesn’t anybody at school like me,” he asked, warm tears welling up in eyes.
That question was tough to answer. Michael wasn’t exactly your typical bully victim.
After all, growing up in Worthington, Ohio he was smart and confident and had been a star in soccer, basketball and baseball from the time he could walk.
In tee ball, Mike used to throw Michael live batting practice. One time, young Michael hit the ball so hard that he drilled his friend, Christian, square on the nose at second base, causing a mixture of blood and tears to stream down Christian’s face.
“He was on a different athletic stratosphere than the kids of his age,” Mike said. “He’d be in fourth grade playing football at recess with all the kids who had played football their whole lives and score five touchdowns, and they were laughing at him because he was a soccer player.
“He dominated kids his age in sports. And I've got to tell you, it rubbed some people the wrong way, the jealousy factor.”
The older football players didn’t like the fact that this young soccer player was beating them at their own game. This was Ohio, after all, where football is king, and they weren’t going to let some soccer player show them up.
So if the football players couldn’t touch Michael on the field, they would harass him off it. The harassment turned into bullying, and the rest of the community did little to help. The only thing Michael did to deserve it was play sports better than anyone else.
When Michael came to his parents in seventh grade and asked why nobody liked him, they'd had enough.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘That’s it. We’re out of here,’ ” Mike said.
They didn’t even need to look for a new house. The situation was so bad that Michael, still in middle school, had already gone out by himself and found a plot of land for a new home.
As a contractor, Mike got to work building their new home in a town called Powell.
Two figures in a golf cart whizzed past the classrooms and offices of Olentangy Liberty High School in Powell. In hot pursuit was the teacher in charge of the cart which was supposed to be used as Grease Lightning in the spring play.
The chase ended when Michael and Josh steered the cart into a corner and found that the cart had no reverse, but the excitement from their joy ride remained for quite some time.
The two best friends and teammates were always pulling little jokes and tricks, boxing in their friends in the school parking lot or flipping each other the bird if they passed on the roads. Because both were generally good students on good terms with their teachers, the faculty normally let their pranks slide.
“Everything’s a joke with us,” Josh said.
Everything, that is, except their low-hoop basketball games.
Starting their junior year, they organized low-hoop tournaments with their baseball team. The games got fiercely competitive; Michael and Josh were the best players.
“Nobody would let us be on the same team,” Michael said. “So we would just get all mad and leave or petition it until they let us play on the same team. And once we got it, we’d beat teams by like 20 points, and then we’d have to go play on separate teams just because nobody would let us play together.”
The Powell community was the polar opposite of Worthington. On those cul-de-sacs that circled around homes like a warm hug, strong neighborhood bonds formed. Michael knew pretty much every one of the 30 families in his own neighborhood.
“Michael lived in a somewhat smaller neighborhood, so people would always come over and watch us play,” Tyler said. “It was the most competitive driveway basketball game you’ve ever seen. People losing shirts and screaming and yelling.”
The larger Powell community was quick to embrace Michael, too. In Worthington, Michael was ostracized for his athletic ability. In Powell, he was celebrated for it.
In fact, a group of men even recruited him to move to Powell because they knew of his talents on the diamond.
During the summer league in his younger years, Michael was a member of the Columbus Cobras and played against the Olentangy Braves, the team Tyler and Josh played for. After Michael moved to Powell, all three graduated up to the Central Ohio Sharks, where they found instant success both on the field and off.
They forged a friendship strengthened by long trips en route to winning two summer national championships.
“We hung out with each other twenty-four seven,” Tyler said. “We were spending the night at Michael’s house one night, then at Josh’s house one night, then my house next.”
Even when Josh wasn’t with Michael, they were never too far apart. Usually, Josh would be at his girlfriend’s house — Michael’s neighbor.
“They’ve always kept a small, tight group around them that they really trust and they really believe in,” the boys’ high school coach Matthew Lattig said.
In high school, the three — along with teammates Zach Michael, who now plays for Toledo, and Stephen Crea, who walked on at Miami (Ohio) — led the team to two straight district finals appearances, ending in two crushing losses.
During their senior year, Olentangy Liberty, the team some had picked as state champions, lost to Mt. Vernon, a lower seed in the district finals.
It would be the last time all five players would be on the same field together.
“It was a shock to me and Michael,” Josh said. “We were pretty upset. If you bring it up to him, he’ll say the same thing. We wish he could have that day back.”
But the pain was eased for the three by the knowledge that they would still have the whole summer to play together.
Turns out, they didn’t.
One by one, the outs started ticking away.
As the sixth inning rolled around and quickly turned into the seventh, the seventh into the eighth, the realization that he had six, no five, now four outs left to play with his best friends dawned on Michael.
Each out brought the game and a childhood closer to a close.
Michael tried to savor the last fleeting seconds he had with his childhood pals. The summer season had just started, but his time had been cut short by his torn labrum that required surgery.
Josh and Michael knew they would have to decline the Yankees offer of fame and dollar signs.
Both had dreamt about going pro. Both had dreamt about coming up through the same organization together — they’d even fight and argue until they were on the same team in pickup basketball games — and now here it was, both dreams suddenly sitting there right in front of them.
But now that the dream was finally here, they found they could do nothing with it, like the dog that finally caught its tail, only to realize it had nothing left to do but just drop it and start the chase again.
Michael never even had a choice. Josh, picked 14 rounds earlier and finding he didn’t need surgery to repair his meniscus, had to decide between Ohio State and the Yankees.
In the end, the chance to be able to hit as well as pitch — and to fulfill the lifelong dream of putting on the Buckeye uniform — was too much to turn down.
Michael, on the other hand, must have known the day he got drafted, sitting in the surgeon’s office, that he would be at Michigan the next year. With his labrum and his family’s emphasis on education — his dad has a business degree and his mom is a teacher — he had an easy decision.
But sill, it was hard to leave his friends.
The final out ticked away.
The stadium lights started to turn off one by one, filling the field with that “snap,” the sound that echoed through the stadium like a heavy door being shut in an empty warehouse.
In the stands, Josh and Michael’s moms cried together, as Michael said his goodbyes to childhood friends and coaches, then turned to the parking lot. His surgery was early in the next the morning, June 18th — Josh’s birthday.
The sounds of the spectators mulling about grew quieter. Those fans — the ones who embraced Michael when he moved to Powell, the ones who stood around a driveway to watch a bunch of teenagers dunk on a low hoop — began to trickle away from the field.
Michael took his bag and walked towards his car with the Michigan bumper sticker. Tyler and Josh walked to their own.
One by one, they shut the doors and drove toward home.