GOODYEAR, Ariz. -- Guardians pitching prospect Tanner Burns gets so locked in on the mound that he takes on a whole different persona than what he is in his everyday life. People often ask him why he’s so mean when he’s on the field. But don’t be so quick to judge a book by its cover.
Burns, ranked as Cleveland’s No. 11 prospect by MLB Pipeline, said he’s overtaken by intense competitiveness to win and fearlessness of attacking hitters. But when he steps outside of the white lines, he transforms back into the happy, positive guy everyone in his personal life knows him to be. But not everyone knows just how caring Burns truly is.
He was drafted by Cleveland in 2020 as a 21-year-old out of Auburn University. Despite his age, Burns displays tremendous maturity and understanding to know what his platform -- though he’s not fully established -- can already do. That same year, Burns decided to begin his own charity called "The 32 Foundation," to raise money for families who need help paying for medical bills at the Children’s Hospital of Alabama.
How did Burns come up with this idea? Well, it was largely inspired by his young friend, Hayden Qualls -- a cancer survivor.
During Burns' time at Auburn, making an off-the-field impact was prioritized just as much as what he could do on the field. Players would take turns making trips to the Children’s Hospital of Alabama. In 2018, a teammate of Burns was already set to visit the Qualls family and Burns decided to tag along. What he didn’t realize was he was about to meet a group of people who’d become an extended family of his own.
“The head coach at Auburn always took a few players before the game to go talk to people and just try to put a smile on their face,” Burns said. “I ran into Hayden and Bryan Qualls [Hayden’s father], and we hit it off just like the moment I walked into the hospital room."
"I thought, ‘This guy’s in college and he wants to stop by the hospital to see a sick kid,’” Bryan Qualls said. “That’s kind of rare nowadays. He’s a real genuine person.”
Hayden was diagnosed with leukemia when he was 8 years old. He beat it, but relapsed shortly after. He beat it again but relapsed once again. And after beating it a third time, he relapsed yet again. During the tail-end of what seemed like an endless battle, Burns popped into the Qualls family’s lives when Hayden was in fifth grade. Hayden was a huge Auburn fan and having a friend on the baseball team not only gave the two something to bond over, but provided a nice distraction from everyday life.
Because of Hayden’s treatments, the family never got to see their favorite Auburn baseball player in action. And by the time Hayden beat leukemia for the fourth time, the COVID-19 pandemic eliminated any chance of seeing Burns pitch before he’d leave their favorite university. But that certainly didn’t take away from their excitement to see him get drafted by Cleveland.
“Actually, they sent me a picture of Hayden wearing a Cleveland hat that night,” Burns said. “I thought that was cool.”
Maybe for most young players at this point, the biggest concern would be establishing themselves now that they’ve made it to the next level. While it’s clear that his drive and passion to get better on the field is off the charts, Burns also has been able to realize he doesn’t need to wait to make a difference in his community.
Inspired by what he’s watched the Qualls go through and all the other faces he interacted with in his trips to the Children’s Hospital of Alabama, Burns began his own charity to benefit these families the same year he was drafted.
“It just shows how genuine he is and how he really cares about other people above himself,” Bryan Qualls said. “People like to wait until they’re established until they give back. He was in college giving back.”
Hayden is now a freshman in high school and he has been in remission for three years, though he’s still dealing with a lot of medical issues due to the side effects from all the years of treatments and medications he endured. Through this journey, despite their distance from each other, Burns and the Qualls have not grown apart. They check in with each other nearly every other week and any time Burns is in town, he tries to visit the family at their house.
Burns couldn’t be more focused on finding a way to advance to the big leagues one day. But the 23-year-old is equally as determined to make a difference.
“I just feel like God has blessed me with so much talent and ability,” Burns said. “I can just use the platform he’s given me to give back. … Those medical bills are not cheap. I was like, 'If I just start a foundation and can just put a dent in their medical bills, I want to do it.'”