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ST. PETERSBURG — The motivational speech seemed a little out of place for a Saturday afternoon in Port Charlotte. Batting practice had just ended at the Rays’ alternate-training site when Triple-A manager Brady Williams gathered the team in the clubhouse.
He began by talking about resilience and hard work. He went into a spiel about never giving up on your dream, no matter how many obstacles were placed in your path. He talked of perseverance as a kind of virtue. All of this before a soon-to-be-rained-out minor-league exhibition game.
If his audience was wondering where this inspirational message was going, Williams finally delivered the killer line to pitcher Brent Honeywell.
“I said, ‘Honey, guess what? You’re going to the big leagues,’” Williams said. “Everybody went nuts.”
It was the perfect coda to a big-league quest more daunting than most have ever faced. Honeywell had gone from being a future star to a three-year journey through a baseball purgatory filled with surgeries, doubts and not a single meaningful game.
He once was on a Baseball America prospects list alongside players such as Ronald Acuna, Shohei Ohtani, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Fernando Tatis and Bo Bichette before a torn elbow ligament and a broken arm made his tale seem more tragic than transcendent.
“I can’t quantify or express the magnitude of what he’s dealt with,” Rays manager Kevin Cash said. “I do know there’s a lot of people that care about him in the organization.”
And so it was no minor feat that, on the afternoon of April 11, 2021, Brent Lee Honeywell Jr. finally reached the major leagues for the Rays in an afternoon game against the New York Yankees.
Major League medical coordinator and rehab specialist Paul Harker, who worked extensively with Honeywell, spent the first two innings of the game on the bench for a better view. Honeywell’s parents, who had spent the past week in Florida on vacation and had originally planned to drive home to Georgia on Saturday, were together in Section 206 of Tropicana Field.
“Best day of my life. I can literally say this is the best day of my life,” Brent Sr. said. “All you want for your kids is for them to do what they want to do. And from the time he’s been born, he’s wanted to be a big-league pitcher.
“When they showed the (pregame) video of him talking on the scoreboard, I broke down. This kid has always wanted to do this, and here he is. I’m overwhelmed. The feeling is indescribable.”
The journey, of course, is not yet complete. Honeywell still needs to be stretched out on the mound for lengthier appearances, and he was optioned back to the minor-league site immediately after Sunday’s 8-4 loss in 10 innings to the Yankees.
But for two glorious innings, the right-hander looked like the prospect that had once shot through Tampa Bay’s minor-league system like a pitching savant. He faced six New York hitters and set all six of them down, including strikeouts of Giancarlo Stanton and Gleyber Torres.
He has lost a tick or two off his fastball, topping out at 95 mph Sunday, but his slider seems to have more bite, and his changeup is still a premium pitch. Honeywell did not even break out the curveball or screwball during his brief 21-pitch appearance.
“It was a blast to be a part of,” said catcher Mike Zunino. “I remember watching him in the Futures Game and all the hype around him. What’s happened to him is unfortunate but, you know what, he’s resilient.”
If there was anything more recognizable than Honeywell’s arsenal of pitches in 2018, it was a matter-of-fact confidence that bordered on cockiness. The past three years have lent him a new maturity that has made him a little less expressive, if not still self-assured.
Even so, Honeywell was caught off guard by the weekend’s development. He apparently knew he was being promoted, even before Williams’ clubhouse speech, because the Rays had notified his agent, who then told his parents because they were preparing to drive home to Georgia.
When Honeywell called his dad to tell him he had mysteriously been scratched from a planned minor-league start on Saturday, his father thought he was purposefully being coy. The truth is, Williams had been waiting until BP ended so he could tell the whole team.
“I said, ‘Are you going to tell me, or aren’t you going to tell me?’ He said, ‘Tell you what?’” his father recalled. “I said, ‘C’mon, man, you aren’t fooling me.’ He said, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ I said, ‘You’re pitching against the Yankees tomorrow, dude.’
“He said, ‘Shut up!’ Except those aren’t the words he used.”
When it was all over Sunday, Honeywell was back to being his unimpressed self. Catching Stanton looking at a changeup for his first big-league strikeout? No big deal. Being sent down immediately after his debut? Just part of the game.
It took him a lot longer to get here than he ever expected, but Honeywell seemed neither resentful for his bad luck nor impressed by his own resilience. To him, it’s all part of a story that he knew would play out one way or another.
“You can’t feel too sorry for yourself. You get one or two days (for that) right at the beginning of it,” Honeywell said. “But you know, I always knew I would get here. My dad built me as a pitcher, and he always told me, ‘You’re going to pitch in the bigs for a long time.’
“Now I’m 26, and it’s just starting.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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