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Stealing home: Michael O'Neill's story of community, identity and baseball

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.

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.