The process used to start with a letter.
When Tom Burns began scouting 30 years ago, his seasons would begin with handwritten notes mailed to local coaches asking them to recommend players he might want to take a look at. Then, Burns would write letters asking players to attend his tryout camps. At the time, scouting reports were also handwritten and sent through the mail to the department at the office.
A lot has changed over the last three decades -- in baseball, in scouting and in available technology -- but there’s still the odd time when Burns finds occasion to put pen to paper during his scouting process.
“Sometimes I’ll write a note to a player I’m scouting just to tell him it was good to see him play or something like that,” Burns said. “I remember a couple years ago I was talking to a player and he said he liked getting a letter from me; it was sort of like a throwback. I don’t do it that much anymore but if I see something and I want to reach out to a player to say, ‘Thanks,’ or ‘Good job,’ or something, it’s a way of furthering the relationship.”
There’s little that is more important than building and fostering relationships in amateur scouting, but among the many Burns has formed throughout his time in the baseball industry, one deserves more credit than the rest.
In 1991, Burns was the head coach of the Bishop McDevitt High School baseball team in Harrisburg, Pa., when Tony Lacava stopped by to take a look at a pitching prospect. Now, Lacava is the senior vice president of player personnel for the Blue Jays, but at the time he was a part-time scout for the Angels. The two hit it off and when Lacava was brought on full-time by Anaheim the following December, he asked Burns if he might be his associate, a position that later evolved into area scouting.
When Lacava moved to the Blue Jays, Burns followed and became a crosschecker. After a decade with Toronto, Burns then joined the Padres organization, and eventually landed with Major League Baseball’s Scouting Bureau where he also taught MLB’s Scout School for three years. When the bureau disbanded, the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Famer temporarily joined the Phillies before hearing from Lacava again in September 2018.
“And 30 years later, I’m fortunate to be working with Tony again,” Burns said. “He’s a great guy and a good friend.”
Now, Burns handles Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan for the club, but his best Blue Jays moments thus far began at the University of Maryland before the 2007 Draft.
“Brett Cecil’s probably the most famous Blue Jays player I signed,” he said. “He had a real good career with the Jays and the Cardinals. One of the highlights of my scouting career is getting to see Brett’s debut back in 2009 against Cleveland. I was fortunate to be there, and he pitched really well. That was a thrill. … He won 15 games as a starter [in 2010], and then he made the All-Star Game as a reliever [in 2013]. That was neat too -- I got a ticket to the All-Star Game. I went to see Brett and he came out of the bullpen at Citi Field and struck out Domonic Brown of the Phillies on three pitches. He only faced one hitter, but it was great to be at Citi Field and witness that.”
In addition to the many moments Burns will never forget are players who have stayed at the forefront of his memory over the years for their performances as amateurs. Two stand out above the rest -- Mike Trout and Justin Verlander.
“I scouted Mike when he was a senior at Millville High School in New Jersey,” Burns said. “I saw him several times that season. He showed all the tools that you want to see. He could run and throw, had power, and was just a down-to-earth kid. He was friendly and played the game the right way -- he played hard and had fun while he was playing.”
While Verlander stood out for all the right reasons, one anomaly from Burns’ visit to his home more than a decade-and-a-half ago has persisted as a differentiator over time.
“I remember seeing Justin at Old Dominion [University] on their scouts’ day in the fall of his junior year,” Burns said. “He looked like a first-rounder. Then I went to his first start that season, and it was a cold night in Norfolk, Virginia, in mid-February, but he threw a gem.
“And prior to his first start of the season, I remember I went down there in January to do my visit with him, and I was impressed with how professional he was. He’s the only player who ever met me wearing a tie. I do visits all the time and he’s the only player who ever showed up with a tie. Maybe he was coming from someplace, or maybe he was dressed up for our meeting. I’m not sure, but I was impressed with his professionalism, his demeanor, and he was personable as well.”
Standout players, stories, big moments and a lot of memories.
“It’s been a good 30 years,” Burns said.