The man who manages Kershaw’s greatness
HOUSTON — The game didn’t count, and many of the names have escaped them. But the two senior citizens do remember the circumstances and the kid’s reaction.
“Spring training, 2008,” says Joe Torre, now MLB’s chief baseball officer but then the manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. “We’re playing the Red Sox in Vero Beach, and we brought this 19-year-old lefthander from Texas over from the minor league camp just to take a look. Prospect name of Clayton Kershaw. He gives up a homer to the first batter. Don’t remember the guy’s name who hit it, but I wasn’t looking at him. I was looking at Kershaw to see how he would respond. Calm as can be, he just called for the ball, like he’d been around for years. And then, I believe, he struck out the side.”
“Big Papi was one of the guys he struck out,” says Rick Honeycutt, the pitching coach then and the pitching coach now. “Sean Casey was another one, I think. Anyway, he comes back to the bench and sits next to me. Then he says, ‘That was fun.'”
Thus began the start of a beautiful friendship that continues to this day — this night, Game 5 of the 2017 World Series. The relationship between Kershaw and Honeycutt has yielded 151 victories (seven of them in the postseason), three Cy Young Awards and the 2014 National League MVP. But they’d never been in a World Series together, and now, with the Series tied at two games apiece, they have a chance to win a world title, a good chance given that Kershaw struck out 11 Astros and walked none in Game 1. With six more Ks tonight, Kershaw will set the Dodgers postseason record, and he also, no doubt, will be looking to join Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax as the only pitchers ever to have multiple 10-strikeout games in the World Series.
Despite their difference in age — 63 and 29 — “Honey” and “Kersh” have a few things in common. They’re both left-handers, they both played football and baseball in high school, they both believe deeply in charity, and they’ve both had their moments in the Fall Classic. Honeycutt won a World Series ring with the 1989 Oakland A’s, but his most memorable appearance came in Game 3 of the ’88 Series, the last time the Dodgers won the world championship. He got Oakland’s only victory with two innings of stellar relief in Game 3.
“Much too small a sample to use as a teaching tool,” he says.
The Tennessean pitched 21 (!) seasons in the majors before he got into coaching, and he has been with the Dodgers since 2001, becoming the full-time pitching coach in 2006. Given the demands of the job, and the managerial turntable, 12 years is a long time to be the pitching coach for one major league team. But, as Kershaw has said, “He is the best pitching coach in baseball.”
But if Honeycutt were a writer, they would be his short stories. Kershaw is his Great American Novel.
“When Kershaw came to us,” says Torre, “he was a fastball/curveball pitcher. I made the mistake of comparing him to Koufax because that’s what Sandy was. But Rick taught him a slider and refined his changeup and made him a thinking man’s pitcher. I have to tell you, even from afar, it’s been wonderful watching what the two of them have done.”
Once asked to describe Honeycutt’s knack for coaching, Kershaw told MLB.com’s Tracy Ringolsby, “He doesn’t micromanage. He sees something and points it out. It’s not like every moment, he is telling you something is wrong. He knows the mechanics really well, but he works on being competitive and mental focus. He isn’t one of those guys who the first day he sees you, he wants to change everything.”
For his part, Honeycutt says, “It’s really all Clayton. He’s a fabulous pupil, and it’s really his makeup that makes him so great. There have been some bumps in the road, but he’s worked through them. For all that he’s accomplished, my biggest joy has come from watching him become a great teammate and leader and a force for good. He’s just a fantastic human being, and he truly deserves his success.”
Given his career arc, Kershaw is likely headed to the Hall of Fame to complete the Dodgers rotation of Koufax, Don Drysdale and Don Sutton. As for Honeycutt, there is some speculation that Honeycutt may finally give up the day-to-day grind to serve as a consultant and spend more time with his family and on his Georgia ranch.
Honeycutt isn’t saying. But if he wants to continue as the pitching coach, the Dodgers would certainly be happy to have him. Says Farhan Zaidi, the general manager, “When we built this club, we recognized right away that two of our biggest assets were Kersh and Honey, Honey and Kersh. They’re not only great together, but they set a standard of professionalism and character for all of us. They’re the heart of this team.”
One look at Kershaw’s reaction at Cody Bellinger‘s go-ahead double in the ninth of the 6-2 victory last night, and you could tell how much winning the World Series would mean to him. He had one finger pointed in the air as he jumped for joy.
But it does take two fingers to make the V sign.