By Tammy Rainey
Probably not a lot of MLB fans, particularly outside the Blue Jays’ fanbase, are familiar with the name Andy Burns. That’s not really surprising. Burns, a shortstop on draft day, was drafted by Toronto in the 11th round of 2011. Taking a similar career path to current prospect Kevin Smith, Burns was in AA within the second full season after he was drafted, but with less attendant fanfare. While he played mostly 3B as a pro he proved his ability to play all over the field along with solid offensive skills. He got a couple of cups of coffee with the Jays in 2016 which turned out to be just the beginning of his baseball adventures.
Over the winter before the 2017 season Burns signed with the most popular team in the Korean League, the Lotte Giants. After two productive seasons in the KBO he’s now back with the Blue Jays having signed before the season as a minor league free agent. Now 28, and the second most senior hitter on the Buffalo Bisons squad, Burns has a rare perspective on the ongoing discussion of minor league pay rates, the Blue Jays leadership on increasing that pay (as well as other investments in the success of farm system players) along with the experience of going from minor league prospect to KBO star. Recently I ask him to discuss with me the insights he’s gained on his journey as a professional ballplayer here and abroad.
TR: Thanks for this, Andy. I want to set the stage by bringing up the larger conversation going on around MiLB at the moment. There's a lot of talk over the last couple of years about the gross inadequacy of the pay for minor league players, particularly given the Blue Jays decision to raise salaries across the board. In a lot of these conversations some fans argue that players do alright because they get nice signing bonuses but that, as you know, is actually rare. You were drafted in the 11th round by Toronto, were you one of the few who got more than the most basic signing bonus?
AB: I was an 11th rounder but I was fortunate to receive an above slot bonus. it was a solid amount of money but as a young man I wanted to do my best to live off the money I was making and try not to dip into my signing bonus. I was never scraping by as a player but I was also very conscious of how much money was coming in and how much was going out.
So I assume you have, or witnessed, some creative survival stories from your five plus years (the first time around) in the Blue Jays system?
I don't know if I personally had full blown survival stories, but I know a lot of my teammates through the years had much harder times than I did. I remember my first year in Lansing I decided I would spend the extra 150 dollars a month to have my own bedroom in a three bedroom, one bath apartment. We had up to five guys in that apartment at one point and while $150 a month doesn't sound like much, when your making $1200 before taxes $150 is a large chunk of that salary. You hear the stories of peanut butter sandwiches for dinner and such and those are real, I was just fortunate enough to not have to grind like that.
What did you do to supplement your baseball income during the off season?
in the off seasons I would always do some lessons to supplement income, but the real star was my wife. While we were struggling through the minor leagues she would always pick up an odd job in the season or offseason to help bring in money to pay for rent or food. She put her career on hold to allow me to follow my dreams, and be with me in the process and she always did what she could to help bring in money.
On the field you experienced the oft-discussed difficulty of making the transition to AA. Still, even though the on-base rate dropped, a player who could play all over the field with doubles power and usable speed on the basepaths who made it to AA by 23 was far from a disappointment. That earned you your first invitation to big league camp in 2014. What was that like?
As a kid you always dream of being a major league player and the first time you go to big league camp, not only do you have that moment where you realize you are getting close to your dreams but also there’s a little bit of that star struck moment. (Also) I feel like that first big league camp for a lot of players is a lot of figuring out how to do things the big league way and figuring out how to interact with major league players.
In 2016 you made your big league debut, but you only got as many as 2 plate appearance in the same game one time. I know that the excitement of being in the big leagues kind of trumps everything, but looking back did you feel some frustration that you didn't get more of a chance to prove you belonged?
To make my major league debut in 2016 and look around the clubhouse and see Donaldson, Bats, Tulo, Eddy, Pillar, Martin, Smoak and so on, and be a part of a team that went to the ALCS I am honored to have been there. That’s a tough lineup to crack so even to be apart of a big league roster like that I feel fortunate. Would it have been nice to get my feet wet a little more in the big leagues? Sure but to be a part of a team with that lineup I was fortunate to be there and the things I learned in my time there are priceless.
So jumping forward to the next off season, the official transaction says that the Bisons released you in the first days of 2017. I assume you ask for that release so you could sign with the Lotte Giants in Korea?
I was DFA'D in December and I had interest (from the Giants) to go over there a week later. It was one of the toughest decisions I had to make in my career but I had a lot of discussions with Toronto’s front office and the team in Korea was able to buy out my contract and I was released so I could sign in Korea.
What was that process like? Do players in your position tell their agents to explore a deal in Asia, or do those teams approach targeted players in the U.S. first?
I think a lot of players have interest to go overseas and make money so it’s more Korea and Japan that initiate conversation. As a position player there are only 10 of those jobs in the world, to be a position player in Korea, so the teams more so pick through their list to find their guy.
That status, knowing you were chosen for such a select group, must have been a tremendous confidence boost before you even took the field there?
I think it’s something you don’t realize until you’re over there to be honest. Once the season starts you look around the league and there are only 10 of you. Heading over there is so much unknown that you really have to take everything day by day and sometimes hour by hour but after awhile you get adjusted and things become normal.
The difference in the pittance that an average player makes in the minors over here and what the Giants ended up paying you must have been pretty breathtaking?
I think players become better players and learn a lot about themselves overseas but what drives them over there are the salaries. Few people know how much your able to make over there and once they hear they go “Ooooooo I get it now.” That though was probably one of the hardest decisions I've had to make in my life. I come off my first year in the big leagues and possibly have a chance the next year to get playing time there or provide for your wife and future family. Nobody dreams of growing up and going and playing in the KBO but at the end of the day there is a responsibility to make as much as you can in the short amount of time you have in the game and I'm very thankful the Blue Jays allowed me to pursue that and give me a chance to set my family up for financial stability in the future.
What was the Korean baseball experience like? On and off the field?
Playing in the KBO was one of the coolest environments that I've experienced. It’s the major leagues just in a different country. Korea is all about cheer songs and bat flips and until I show people what I'm talking about they don't really understand. I think an understated part of playing over there and why players have success when they come back is you go from wondering if you belong to (a situation where) you’re the guy. You’re the guy everyone looks at to get a big hit in front of 20k people when millions are watching on tv. You’re the person everyone recognizes when you go to Starbucks in the morning before the game and wants a picture. You're the person everyone blames when you lose a game. learning how to play with that in someone else's country makes you a much better player.
It sounds like you are a supporter of more expressive play in North America as well (bat flips and such).
Honestly the bat flips are the finish to their swing. You’ll see guys bat flip singles it’s just how they’ve finished forever. But I feel like the cheer songs is something that really keeps the fans engaged and having fun. I think that environment brings more than just baseball fans to the park and they enjoy their experience.
So after two very productive seasons there, what motivated you to return?
As I said earlier there are only 10 of those jobs in the world so they are hard to keep. our team over there didn't win last year and when a team doesn't win over there the first place they look is foreign players and coaching staff. The team decided they wanted to go a different direction and I'm very thankful to be back here with Toronto. I truly believe everything happens for a reason and I know Toronto has a far better player than they did before I left.
Is it happenstance that you ended up back in the Blue Jays system or did either of you make a specific outreach to the other?
I couldn't be happier than to be back with Toronto. They have treated me so well thru my entire career. When I knew I was coming back to the US I reached out to my scout who drafted me Blake Crosby. I'm very comfortable here and have a lot of great relationships with people in the organization and we were able to get something done. I think they knew the player who they let go to Korea but I think they are continuing to find out the player who they have now.
Now you find yourself surrounded by high profile young prospects like Bichette, Biggio, Alford and - for a little while at least - Vladdy, what's been your experience as the relative veteran teammate of such a heralded group? Do they look to you for clubhouse leadership? Was that part of what the Jays were buying when they brought you back?
The group of young payers we have coming up in our organization is extremely talented and it’s fun to go to work with them everyday. With that we have some older guys in our group headed by Sogard who's a great leader and a great player. I had a lot of older veterans help me when I was younger in Buffalo and teach me a lot about the game and I hope to be able to do the same for these guys. We have a great group of guys here in Buffalo and we are pushing each other today to get better.
Obviously, you're only 28. You probably wouldn't still be doing this if you didn't think you'll get another chance to prove yourself in the majors, but do you have ambitions in the game beyond whenever your playing days end?
I've really struggled with the question and I've only thrown around ideas. I truly believe the second I start thinking about a career after baseball that I've given up on my career in baseball. so have there been brief thoughts sure, but not serious thoughts. Do I think there is a chance that I'm a baseball lifer? Yes.
Finally, I want to circle back around to the pay issue. As a minor league free agent, the Blue Jays' choice to raise all the base rates presumably didn't directly affect your salary this year, but you are in a clubhouse and an organization that added very few such free agents last winter, so most of your teammates must be buzzing about it. Do they, or you, feel like this is (even though it is frankly still not enough pay for the work you guys put in) a real game changing choice for the organization in terms of perception of the team among minor leaguers, inside and outside the Toronto system?
The Blue Jays deciding to raise the minor league wages for its players is one of the coolest things I've seen an organization do. What they have invested in each and every player so they can get the most out of their ability both at the field and in their paychecks is astonishing. I think for a player to have a bedroom and money to eat during the season will make such a huge difference in player’s lives. I was very proud to be a part of this organization when I found out they were gonna do this.
Similarly to that, the current management team has had a great deal to say, and taken a lot of concrete steps, to move to the cutting edge of player development. Can you describe the difference you see in the way things are done now with, say, five years ago?
Well the fastest way to find out is walk into the lunch room now compared to four years ago. The minor league side is getting the quality of food they need to perform as much as the major league side which is amazing. I feel like the attention to detail in every players specific development is unmatched around baseball. The structures of workouts to every single players specific needs, and truly addressing the mental side of this game which is really hard to tap into. To look back at 2016 and see the early stages of where the organization wanted to go, to now close to fully executed, is really cool.
You can follow Tammy on Twitter @Tammy_Beth