Oct. 24, 2010
By Matt Winkeljohn
Heath Honeycutt was an under-the-radar guy when he arrived at Georgia Tech, even if his goal dating back as far as he can remember was to be a Major Leaguer.
He didn’t make it, but now that his minor league baseball career is over, his new goal in baseball is to help youngsters realize their dreams in the sport, whether they want to be Major Leaguers, or simply be better.
With a hard-work-will-get-you-there theme, Honeycutt and a band of Tech brothers-turned-instructors that includes Yellow Jacket Hall of Famers J.J. Thomas, Chuck Crowder and several others, he is trying to do it with the opening of Ninth Inning Baseball (ninthinningbaseball.com), an 8,000-square foot instructional facility in Chamblee.
“The idea was to make something a little more intimate,” Honeycutt says. “You could run kids in here all day long and make a buck, but the idea is more to . . . make it a better product. [Instructors include former Tech players] Jeremy Slayden, Wally Crancer, Deck McGuire, Jase Wrigley, J.J., Chuck, Andrew Kown, Simon Young, Danny Payne.
Ninth Inning opened about five months ago, and it was never a slam dunk.
After Honeycutt’s baseball career ended in 2003 when a string of injuries wore him down, he steered away from the sport he loved, and he went into home construction. Fate, his high school coach, and his wife brought him back.
“What kind of got me back into it was [Chattahoochee High coach] Tim Lemon asking me if I wanted to come coach his fall ball varsity team. I told him no a couple times and he kept at it and finally got me back in the game,” Honeycutt said. “With my wife’s blessing . . . I started doing lessons again.
“I was building houses at the time, and with the housing market the way it is it was time to try something different.”
It took help from several, including Miles Whitlock, president and CEO of Display Fixture Warehouse, to get Ninth Inning started. Whitlock plays adult baseball, and went to Honeycutt for lessons in a minor league offseason years ago.
Now, Honeycutt works for Whitlock running a new flooring division in his company.
“When I was playing professionally, he was playing men’s league and wanted lessons how to hit a little better, and we’ve been friends ever since,” he said. “Miles is a big baseball guy, and he thought this was a great idea and he gives me the leeway to continue to run this while I work for his business.
“It’s worked out beautifully, and I appreciate everything he’s done.”
McGuire, drafted in the first round by the Blue Jays last June, will help out sparingly in the offseason, and not all the former Tech players are full-time instructors.
Leonida like McGuire may help in addition to working out at the fancy facility off Peachtree Industrial Blvd, during his offseason from minor league ball.
While there’s a clear Tech vibe about the staff, there are others on hand to help like Seth LaFera, who played at Sprayberry High in Marietta and Kennesaw State before playing on two Italian Olympic squads.
LaFera is close with former Tech player and Sprayberry star Marlon Byrd, and a former summer teammate of Thomas and Wrigley.
Former Tech player Victor Menocal, now a player agent (representing the Braves’ Jason Heyward among others), helped Payne get involved with Ninth Inning.
There are Tech connections everywhere.
They were also teammates on The Flats.
Hall asked Honeycutt to work with his two sons last summer.
“Any time you have somebody working with a child of your own . . . you hope that they’re kind of inspirational to your son or daughter,” the Tech coach said. “I think that the guys that are working with them played in a pretty good program, and we like to think that we do a pretty good job of developing them as baseball players and as people.”
Honeycutt qualifies as inspirational.
The former third baseman who played at Tech from 1996-’98 (he earned a management degree from Tech in 2004) before being drafted in the fourth round by Tampa Bay in ’98, was not born to play baseball. He had to work at it.
“I’ll be coaching a 14-year-old travel team and I’ll ask how many kids want to play at the next level, and not every hand goes up,” he said. “It was a shock to me because for me it was all about playing pro ball. It was the only thing I wanted to do. As an instructor, you have to pull that back and ask, `What do you want to do in baseball?’
“Some of these kids just want to get out there and play with their buddies and be good enough to enjoy the game. It’s not always about being a professional. There are exceptions, guys who work half as hard but are twice as good, but the rest of us – myself included – we’ve got to put in the time and work.”
The Tech coach confirmed Honeycutt’s assessment of himself.
“I wouldn’t say we recruited him as an afterthought, but he wasn’t he wasn’t the most highly sought-after guy in his recruiting class,” Hall said. “He quickly became one of the best players not only in his class, but in the country. He was a guy who had to work hard.
“I think those guys are going to help kids develop. Baseball has so many skills, a high skill requirement so the more somebody is willing to pay the price and work at it to get better.”
Once a long-shot as a player, there was a time when Honeycutt also would have been considered a long-shot to be an instructor. He burned out on baseball after a back injury, a rotator cuff injury, a foul ball off his face that broke a bone, and a serious hand injury. But here he is, hoping with the help of his band of Tech brothers to help others do as he did and overcome odds.
Honeycutt has written on the grease board in his Ninth Inning office something he heard earlier this year from former Tech football player and coach Bill Curry.
It summarizes why he’s doing what he’s doing, and the theme he preaches in doing it.
“It would have been a waste for me to have put 26 or 27 years of my life in this game, and then retire and say, `I’m going to forget about it,’ ” Honeycutt said. “I listened to Bill Curry speak . . . and I wrote down something he said: `The pain of discipline does not compare to the pain of regret.
“The only thing that I would like the kids to never have is the pain of regret because I know when you get to a certain age, and you look back and regret not putting in that extra 20 minutes in whatever you do . . . that’s not just for baseball, that’s part of life and that’s part of this. We want you to understand that if you work hard at something, you can accomplish it.”
Ninth Inning baseball has three batting cages, complete with pitching machines (including Iron Mike and Hack Attack machines) and the Right View Pro video system common in Major League Baseball. Ninth Inning plans to offer softball instruction for girls as well, and there is free weight and machine training available as well. You can contact Honeycutt and his comrades at email@example.com or 678-691-5917.