Tanner Burns always had advanced tools on the diamond. At one point, they were downright dangerous.
“I remember one time he was playing shortstop and he ran out to center field to be the cutoff [man], and he cut it off, and the little boy was running full and all of a sudden I see that ball going home, we're thinking ‘Oh, no!’ and it hit the little catcher right in the head,” Mike Burns, Tanner’s father, recalled. “Thank goodness he still had his mask on.”
The elder Burns, who played baseball at North Alabama before spending three seasons in the Houston Astros organization, knew that his son was talented. Parents routinely came up after games and complimented his son's ability, yet Burns didn’t want to let early success go to the boy's head.
“I didn't want to say, "Yeah, he's good and all,'” Burns said. “I would say, 'Some kids develop early. Some kids develop late. Some don't develop.' There were always little sparks there, little glimpses that he was better than everybody else, but we never told him that. His mama said I did a real good job of stepping on him. We kept him grounded pretty well.”
That approach paid off. On June 10, the younger Burns was selected out of Auburn University by the Cleveland Indians as the No. 36 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft. For the 6-foot right-hander, hearing his name called came with a sense of relief.
“I'm finally learning to sleep well now,” the hurler said. “I'd say last Monday, so about over a week, I'm starting to feel normal.”
The selection is the culmination of years of falling in love with the game. When he misbehaved or didn't do his homework, his parents punished him by not letting him go to the ballfield. His dad being a coach at Decatur (Ala.) High School (where Tanner later starred), then at Calhoun Community College gave Burns a chance to be around the game more than most kids.
“[Dad] went to Calhoun, which they're known for Jorge Posada,” he said. “And, I mean, really growing up my whole life, that's all I've really known, is baseball. I'd go to the field, hang out with the high schoolers. And then I remember in middle school, I'd go to Calhoun and hang around those college guys.”
A trip to Tuscaloosa sealed his fate.
“I remember going to an Alabama baseball game,” he said. “I was like, ‘Dang, I want to play college baseball.'”
Growing up in a family of Crimson Tide fans, Burns committed to Alabama and coach Mitch Gaspard as a high school freshman. Gaspard was fired following the 2016 season, and Burns' interest turned to an unlikely school: arch-rival Auburn.
“Coach Butch Thompson was at Auburn,” he said. “He recruited me at Mississippi State at the time, and I just felt like that was a fit for me because I saw his resume of putting guys in the big leagues. And that's the ultimate goal of going to college, was to pitch in the big leagues.”
It worked well for both parties. As a freshman, Burns posted a 7-4 record and 3.01 ERA over 86 2/3 innings. An injury-plagued season followed, but Burns was clutch for the Tigers during their run to the 2019 College World Series, finishing 4-4 with a 2.82 ERA. He gained buzz as a top prospect for the 2020 Draft. As the ace of the pitching staff his junior year, he was poised to have a platform for scouts. He was well prepared for that spotlight.
Scouts had been attending his starts for quite some time, dating back to his freshman year of high school. For Burns, who said, “Still, to this day, I really don't think I'm that good, because I know there's people better than me,” their attention was a sign that something he was doing was special.
“My freshman year when I was getting attention from big-time, SEC schools like Alabama, Vanderbilt, Florida, those schools and Auburn,” he said, “I was like, ‘Dang, maybe everybody's doing this.’ And then when I saw GMs and scouting directors come to my game my senior year, I was like, ‘OK, this is pretty cool.’”
His junior year as the Tigers' ace was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic, but Burns impressed in four starts, going 3-1 with a 2.42 ERA while striking out 32 over 22 1/3 innings.
If he'd been nervous leading up to the Draft, he wasn't the only one in the family.
“I think my wife described it best,” Mike Burns said. “It's like being pregnant for nine months: You're really excited, really excited, then that ninth month, you just want to get the baby out. That's kind of how I felt also. We were really excited, and then it's like the days started dragging the week before. You really don't know anything and you wait for your advisor to call and say, ‘Hey, so and so is going to take you.’ When they called and said ‘Get ready for the 36th pick.’ We caught that second wind and were ready to go again.”
The elder Burns signed with the Astros as a non-drafted free agent, so he was sure to share that perspective with his son.
“I said, ‘I know how the free agents look at you first-round Draft picks, and I know how the first-round Draft picks look at free agents,’” he explained. “'Let me just tell you, you're all about to be thrown in the same pot, and everybody's on an equal playing field. ... To make the big leagues, you're going to have to go out there and get outs. He understands that.
“The biggest thing I could tell him and what my junior college coach told me is, 'If you want to stay around the game, be a good person in the clubhouse, because you're really around those guys more than you are your own family.' That's the biggest thing, is to work hard, be on time. We only had one team rule when I played and it was basically be on time, because if you did anything stupid, you weren't going to be around there. So be on time, and be a good teammate. Those were the two best things I could tell him.”
The younger Burns soaked up the advice.
“I've been very lucky to have him as my father,” he said. “Always was there for me. He knew what it took, because he did have experience in pro ball and playing college baseball. So I did have a more advanced field than my friends because of him, the experience he had. I give him a lot of my credit. ... And now he's talked to me a little about pro ball and what to expect as a job. And there's always somebody there to take your spot.”
Burns has also learned the importance of keeping a level head. Have a bad outing? Don’t dwell on it. Have a great outing? Move onto the next one.
But there are some things about his father's playing days that Burns is only hearing about now.
“I remember he had the home run record at North Alabama, and I can't remember who told me the story, but at UNA there's a building out [past] left field, and they're saying that my dad cleared it,” he said. “I'm telling you, it's probably like a 440-foot... I mean, it's a long ways. And they said that he cleared it. And I asked him, he said, ‘Yeah, I hit it.’ I was like, ‘Dang, that's pretty impressive.'
“But he always said he is a pure pull hitter, that's why he didn't make it.”
They both have a different outcome in mind for the son.
Brian Stultz is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @brianjstultz.