My love and admiration for the best pitcher of my generation – both as a baseball player and as a person – is well known, and one of the few things in this often uncertain world I’m sure of. Fully aware that we are witnessing history and becoming more aware of the passing of time in my 40’s, back in 2017 I wrote about how — if I could — I’d have saved time in a bottle that season, believing that what Clayton was treating us to as fans simply could not last forever.
In baseball as in life, seasons change, people come and go, lessons are learned, and memories are made. Of these memories, among the many I’ve been fortunate enough to make in my time as a Dodger fan, one of the most vivid is of my first trip to Dodger Stadium for the last homestand of September 2016…and the first time I saw Clayton Kershaw in person, warming up in the bullpen. And he wasn’t alone.
The casual spectator of a baseball game sees only nine defensive players on the field at once, as well as a first and third base coach to guide the hitter, but the man on the mound stands alone. Those who follow the game know casually don’t see or consider the work and guidance that goes on behind the scenes which serves as the support a major league pitcher often needs to keep his mechanics and workload in check.
But those of us who follow the Los Angeles Dodgers know differently; we’re fully aware – and have been for 12 seasons – that we have an exceptional pitching coach spending time in the bullpen and in the dugout, guiding one of the top pitching staffs in the majors… and his name is Rick Honeycutt.
On that Saturday evening back in September 2016, as Clayton went through his famous pre-game routine and I basked in the glory of being so close to not only the best pitcher in the universe, but to a man who had grown to become the most inspirational athlete of my lifetime, I observed the man affectionately known as Honey as he watched over his prodigy. Clad inconspicuously in blue t-shirt and shorts, without the standard ball cap we associate with players and coaches, he stood next to Clayton as threw, watching over him.
Kershaw would go on to win that night, and many times since then, with Honeycutt as his guide, undoubtedly learning invaluable lessons along the way from a former pitcher who had many to share, and a big responsibility in helping to form the most elite talent to come out of the Dodgers organization in many a decade, and certainly since he began his tenure as pitching coach.
Kershaw warms up in the bullpen with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt looking on: pic.twitter.com/8L7XKtdj0R
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) August 1, 2014
It is my belief that the best coaches make their mark is almost indiscernible ways, often behind the scenes out of the public eye, and that the most successful of coaching relationships grow out of mutual respect and trust formed over time. Never was the special bond that these two share more apparent than in a small glimpse into the post-NLDS loss Dodgers clubhouse back on October 9th provided by Sports Illustrated…
“I love you,” said Rick Honeycutt, who has guided Kershaw since he debuted at 20 in 2008. “You always give everything you’ve got. Sometimes it don’t work out.” Kershaw burst into tears. He carries each of his playoff failures with him, a sharp pain that occasionally catches him off-guard on the golf course or in the weight room.
Pitching coach Rick Honeycutt has coached Clayton Kershaw since his debut in 2008. When he hugged him and told him “I love you. You always give everything you’ve got. Sometimes it don’t work out," and Kershaw burst into tears, that broke me.
— Gabrielle Starr (@gfstarr1) October 10, 2019
Professional athletes throughout their careers will inevitably find themselves under the guidance of a plethora of coaches, each paid to help the player achieve his or her goals while being held accountable. Some find a way to make it work and can thrive under any coaching style, while others never quite find that person again who brings out the best in them. What takes place in 2020 and beyond with Clayton Kershaw working with a pitching coach not named Rick Honeycutt for the first time in his big-league career remains to be seen. Like most change, though, it could very well be for the best, even if it doesn’t seem that way initially.
I’ve come to learn that most individuals we encounter in our lifetimes become teachers – for better or for worse – whose lessons remain with us if we leave ourselves open to the possibilities that come with change. Once upon a time, Clayton Kershaw and Rick Honeycutt embarked on a relationship that benefited not only each other, but which also gave Dodgers fans the privilege of witnessing the best pitcher of the decade in his prime.
— Los Angeles Dodgers (@Dodgers) March 2, 2012
As we head into the next decade and Clayton embarks on a new journey with Mark Prior as his new pitching coach, Dodger fans will watch and see how this new relationship takes shape, and how the lessons learned from Honeycutt in the past shape the team’s future.