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Original Issue

Unsinkable Mariner

Seattle Pitcher Rick Honeycutt has an unbeaten record and unbeatable image

Last year, when Rick Honeycutt was just another thrower with a pretty face, a Seattle television station asked him to appear on a morning talk show. But Honeycutt wasn't supposed to talk, because, frankly, who'd care what a so-so-pitcher might have to say. Instead, he tied an apron around his waist and made a lemon pie. Recently the television station asked Honeycutt back and said he could leave his apron at home. And why not? After beating Detroit 4-3 last week, the lefthanded Honeycutt had a 6-0 record, equaling the best in the majors, and a 2.45 ERA. Clearly, he's doing his cooking on the mound these days.

Honeycutt, 25, is a young man in the Jack Armstrong tradition. He is tall, good-looking and ever polite. He married his high school sweetheart, Debbie, and they live in the suburbs with their cute-as-a-button daughter, Holli.

If Honeycutt seems straight out of the pages of a dime novel, that's O.K. with him. "When I hear about some of the things other players do, I get upset," he says. "When I was a kid I thought baseball players were the greatest people in the world. I want some kid to be able to feel the same way about me."

No problem. Especially if Honeycutt keeps on winning. Of course, this is no easy thing on a weak-hitting team like the Mariners. The first run a Seattle pitcher allows in a game may be one too many. But the Mariners always score enough—just enough—for Honeycutt. Four of his six wins have been by one run, the others by two.

Honeycutt's ambition to become a major-leaguer was inspired by a childhood of idolizing the Yankees, even though he lived in Georgia. "They were the only team I ever really cared about," he says. "Every day I would run home from school and check the box scores to see how they had done. I decided that the only way I was going to get up there with my heroes was to work at it every day."

That meant joining any team he could find beginning at age six. When he was in high school, Honeycutt changed his uniform in the car while his father drove him from one sandlot game to another. While waiting for a phone call from New York, Honeycutt also quarterbacked Lakeview High's football team and pitched and hit its baseball team to two state championships. Nonetheless, the Yankees never called. But the Orioles did wire in 1972, to say he had been selected in the 10th round of the amateur draft.

"I had worked my entire life to get to that point and then it didn't seem right," Honeycutt says. "Maybe it was an ego thing, but being drafted so low made it seem that the Orioles didn't care. They only talked to me one time. I had to become realistic about my chances and look at other options."

He chose to attend the University of Tennessee, where he studied health education. Well, sort of studied. It was more like Honeycutt pitched and hit and Debbie tutored. "I'm not saying Rick was dumb or anything, but he needed a lot of help," says Debbie. "He says he couldn't have made it through school without me, and he's right. In fact, I was really disappointed when he got his diploma and my name wasn't on it."

Honeycutt wasn't all that interested in a degree, anyway. His original plan was to play three years of college ball and then accept a hefty contract befitting a high draft choice. But the only prize he landed was Debbie's hand in marriage.

Even after setting a Tennessee record for career wins (21), batting over .400 and being named an All-America first baseman, Honeycutt was no better than a 17th-round selection by Pittsburgh following his senior season in 1976.

Because the Pirates wanted to develop his hitting as well as his pitching in the minors, they shuttled him from the mound to designated hitter. As it happened, he enjoyed considerable success wherever he played; he had a 2.52 ERA and a .293 batting average in the 1½ seasons he played in the Pittsburgh system before he was traded to Seattle. The Mariners ended Honeycutt's Jack-of-all-trades career by designating him a pitcher and immediately putting him on their major league roster. Nine days later, on Aug. 31,1977, he made his first big league start—in New York. "That was really a scary night," Honeycutt says. "I just sat there in the dugout before the game, wide-eyed."

Honeycutt composed himself enough to pitch seven creditable innings that evening. Although he wasn't the pitcher of record, he was on his way to learning a craft. "Before I got to the Mariners I could never focus my thoughts just on pitching," he says. "For a long time I had this caged-up feeling when I didn't pitch. I was used to playing somewhere in every game. But when I sat still long enough to watch what was going on out on the mound I learned more than I had in all the time before."

At first, Honeycutt had trouble putting his knowledge to good use. Bothered by a persistent case of tendinitis in his left elbow, he pitched erratically and finished 1978 with a 5-11 record. He opened last season in the bullpen, a move that Seattle hoped would ease Honeycutt's nerves as well as strengthen his arm. But it served only to put him on edge. "I was coming to the park every day not knowing if my equipment would still be in my locker," says Honeycutt. who feared—incorrectly—that the demotion to the bullpen might be followed by banishment to the minors.

It took a strong performance against—who else?—the Yankees to put Honeycutt back in the starting rotation. He responded by winning seven of his first 10 decisions in '79, including a two-hitter against—yep—New York. Honeycutt credits that game with teaching him what it takes to be successful. "My parents were in Seattle then, and my dad and I spent the morning painting the front porch," Honeycutt says. "Before I left for the park we had a big spaghetti dinner. I'm not sure whether it was the painting or the food that made me pitch that two-hitter, but since then I always eat spaghetti and try to work around the house on days I pitch."

Pitching Coach Wes Stock doesn't attribute Honeycutt's sudden success to pasta or good housekeeping. "You're talking about a guy who went from Double A ball to the majors only a year after getting out of college," Stock says. "Every time he pitched he had to be wondering, 'What am I doing out here?' Now he knows."

Honeycutt describes that knowledge as "pitching within myself," and he, too, considers it the key to his success. Although he is capable of an occasional 90-plus-mph fastball, Honeycutt is most effective when he keeps his pitches in the 80-to 85-mph range. His repertoire consists of a sinking and running fastball, a curve and a slider. His strategy is to nibble at the corners and around the batter's knees a la Tommy John, whose record is also 6-0.

When Honeycutt beat Detroit last week for his fourth complete-game victory, he didn't have good stuff. Even though the Tigers hit him hard, they only got six hits and had a 3-0 lead entering the bottom of the ninth. After the Mariners scored four runs to pull out the win—the key hit was Joe Simpson's two-run single—Honeycutt almost cracked his head on the dugout ceiling as he rushed out to congratulate his teammates.

In the clubhouse, Honeycutt's grin was wide as he received plaudits for his effort. "I just can't explain you," said one Mariner. "Every time you pitch you look like a loser but you never do."

"Just clean living, I guess," said Rick Honeycutt.