In the middle of a pitching lesson the other day in Bourbonnais, a young boy turned the tables when he critiqued instructor Kris Honel.
"You look like Chris Sale,'' the kid told Honel.
Oh, how the White Sox wish that had been true on the mound.
"I've had people ask, 'Is that your brother?''' the 6-foot-5, 205-pound Honel said of Sale. "We're about the same size. They see some resemblances.''
It's the differences between Honel and Sale that make the comparison worthwhile in the wake of Thursday's amateur baseball draft in which the Sox selected North Carolina State left-hander Carlos Rodon with the third pick in the first round.
Nine years before the Sox took Sale at No. 13 overall in the 2010 draft, they invested hope and money in another tall, lanky starting pitcher — Honel — with the 16th pick. But instead of solidifying the Sox rotation, the pride of Providence Catholic in New Lenox encountered so much injury and inconsistency that he never threw a pitch in the majors. All of Honel's 135 pro starts came in the bushes.
Now 31 and waiting at home for his phone to ring, Honel never says never about a baseball odyssey that has taken him from the Sox minor league system to obscure independent league stops such as Edmonton and Maui. He stays fit and ready, volunteering as a coach at Kankakee Community College as he ponders the future. Honel planned to pitch this week for the Laredo (Texas) Lemurs of the American Association, but the deal hit a snag.
"I'm just waiting in the wings for the next opportunity to pop up,'' said Honel, whose last major league shot came at spring training with the Twins in 2009. "I feel pretty good. They say pitchers' primes are between 26 and 33. I have good genes and besides Tommy John surgery, I've had nothing major. I'm still throwing upper 80s and low 90s with good stuff. When you're still doing that, it's tough to stop wanting to pitch.''
Honel's cautionary tale should temper expectations, if not enthusiasm, over Rodon, considered this year's most polished pitcher. Not every first-round pick becomes Sale, no matter how promising the outlook on draft day.
When Honel received a $1.5 million signing bonus as an 18-year-old, he embraced all that came with the celebrity of being a local player chosen by his hometown team. He acknowledged being brash. He admitted expecting more. Something happened on Honel's way to stardom. Baseball happened.
The knuckle-curve that worked so well in high school stopped fooling hitters. His control came and went. Velocity mysteriously vanished. In September 2005, with the Sox on the verge of a World Series, Honel underwent Tommy John surgery at the age of 22 to address the nagging elbow problems that had interrupted his ascent. Everything changed.
"It's hard enough to throw right when you're healthy let alone coming back from that,'' Honel said. "After the surgery, it took me two or three years to really get my feet back under me and be comfortable on the mound.''
By then, Honel had allowed the unfamiliar adversity to affect his approach. When frustration outweighed confidence, he finally announced his retirement in 2007 after going 2-2 with a 5.79 ERA at Double-A Birmingham.
"I've known Kris since high school and in all his years as an athlete, he was never a guy who couldn't do whatever he wanted to do,'' Kankakee coach Todd Post said. "If he wanted to hit 91 (mph), he hit 91. Psychologically, when he couldn't do what he wanted, it became a challenge.''
The challenges mounted but the regrets never did. For a guy who symbolizes squandered potential, Honel maintains a healthy perspective about his unfulfilled but eventful career. It enabled him to meet Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan at a Phoenix nightclub. He raved about the thrill of taking batting practice with actor Charlie Sheen in California and playing for Garry Templeton in the Golden League, where Honel threw his only professional no-hitter for the Chico Outlaws. He feels more thankful than resentful, even now.
"I've had a very good run,'' Honel said. "There are times you get down about some things, but I'm not the type to be bitter.''
Asked what advice he would offer first-rounders such as Rodon, the aspiring coach sighed. In the momentary pause, Honel's mind raced back 13 long, difficult years.
"Enjoy the moment. Cherish it. It's one of the most exciting things that'll happen to you,'' Honel said. "Don't put pressure on yourself but realize it's time to go from one phase to the next. It can be scary and exciting. Make the most of it. Communicate. And listen to people.''
Optimistic in spite of everything, Honel keeps listening closely for the call he still believes is coming.