A HAPPY RE­TURN

Andy Burns was a near-celebrity dur­ing his two-year stint in Korea. That ex­pe­ri­ence be­hind him, he’s back with the Blue Jays and Bisons

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS - By Ja­son Wolf

With his wife half a world away in the United States, no room­mate, and a ten­u­ous grasp on the lo­cal lan­guage, Andy Burns had many nights to him­self dur­ing his two sea­sons in South Korea.

“Be­tween the video games and Net­flix, there’s a lot of down time to just think about some stuff,” Burns said, pleased to have re-signed with the Toronto Blue Jays and re-joined the Triple-A af­fil­i­ate Buf­falo Bisons. “I felt like I grew more in two years over there

than I had in a long time.”

Burns, 28, was se­lected by the Blue Jays in the 11th round of the 2011 draft out of the Uni­ver­sity of Ari­zona, and spent six sea­sons climb­ing the mi­nor league ranks be­fore mak­ing his ma­jor league de­but on May 9, 2016. The ver­sa­tile in­fielder was pro­moted and op­tioned back to Buf­falo four times that sea­son. In to­tal, he spent 10 games with Toronto, scor­ing twice but record­ing no hits in six at-bats.

But in early 2017, Burns re­quested and was granted his re­lease to sign a one-year con­tract with the Lotte Gi­ants of the Korean Base­ball Or­ga­ni­za­tion. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Burns re­port­edly re­ceived a $50,000 sign­ing bonus and $730,000 an­nual salary, and he en­joyed the ex­pe­ri­ence so much, he re-signed for 2018.

“You’re a full-blown rock star over there, be­cause ev­ery­one can rec­og­nize you,” Burns said. “It’s a lot dif­fer­ent than here, where there’s a lot more di­ver­sity. There, you’re Korean. A white per­son sticks out like a sore thumb. Just walk­ing into a restau­rant you get no­ticed by ev­ery­one, or Star­bucks or what­ever, and so that as­pect of it was a re­ally, re­ally cool ex­pe­ri­ence. Just to be al­most a celebrity fig­ure, as crazy as

that was — es­pe­cially from hav­ing a lit­tle bit of time in the big leagues and be­ing here in Buf­falo for two years, like, you don’t re­ally get no­ticed when you go places — to ev­ery­where you go, some­one rec­og­nizes you. That was a pretty in­ter­est­ing ad­just­ment. Big time.”

In two sea­sons over­seas, Burns pro­duced a .285 bat­ting av­er­age, 38 home runs, 151 runs, 121 RBIs and 15 stolen bases in 249 games.

The Gi­ants fin­ished in third place his first sea­son, but dropped to sev­enth in the league stand­ings last year.

KBO teams can sign up to three for­eign play­ers — two pitch­ers and one po­si­tion player — per sea­son, and when the Gi­ants de­cided against re-sign­ing Burns this sea­son, the Blue Jays wel­comed him back.

Bisons man­ager Bobby Meacham worked with Burns in Sin­gle A and Dou­ble A.

“I think he’s the same young man,” Meacham said, “but what I’ve no­ticed is he’s a lit­tle bit more re­laxed. He’s more re­as­sured. Some­times you’re hop­ing and grind­ing and try­ing to get (to the ma­jors), you’re try­ing to do ev­ery­thing just right, and that’s how he was, and ev­ery mis­take was mag­ni­fied, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I hurt my chances to move up or get to the big leagues.’

“Now, it feels like he still works hard, he’s still grind­ing away, but just with the ex­pec­ta­tion of play­ing in the big leagues, not just the hope.”

Burns cred­its the change in his dis­po­si­tion to his ex­pe­ri­ence over­seas.

The most jar­ring, im­me­di­ate is­sue was the lan­guage bar­rier. Burns didn’t speak Korean when he first ar­rived, but al­ways had ac­cess to a trans­la­tor.

“The lan­guage was def­i­nitely some­thing that was dif­fi­cult,” Burns said. “You start to just tune ev­ery­thing out, be­cause you have no idea what they’re talk­ing about. And I gained a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for the Latin play­ers that come here, es­pe­cially at a young age and not know­ing the lan­guage and how dif­fi­cult that is. I feel like I have a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion for guys com­ing here to the States now.”

The lan­guage bar­rier made non­ver­bal com­mu­ni­ca­tion more im­por­tant.

“One of the coolest things that I learned over there was how to smile ev­ery day,” Burns said. “Just be­cause if you want peo­ple to be around you and you don’t speak the lan­guage, they can only read your face. So just hav­ing a smile and a pos­i­tive at­ti­tude ev­ery day kind of made guys grav­i­tate to­ward you. And then you could, over time, de­velop that re­la­tion­ship.”

Burns at­tributes that les­son to for­mer Chicago Cubs pitcher Brooks Ra­ley, who has been with the Lotte Gi­ants since 2015.

“He kind of found his way there and it’s one thing he told me early on, ‘What­ever hap­pens, find a way to smile through it,’ ” Burns said. “And I think from a life side, that’s as im­por­tant as any­thing, just hav­ing that good en­ergy and good at­ti­tude ev­ery day when you show up to work, wher­ever that may be.”

The food took some get­ting used to as well.

Burns said his go-to meals were cold buck­wheat noo­dles with ei­ther pork or beef, and his go-to “home” meal was Domino’s Pizza.

“I thought it was re­ally good and re­ally sim­i­lar, but their piz­zas are more ex­trav­a­gant, like they’ll have a shrimp and some­thing pizza,” Burns said. “And I was like, no, don’t want that. Let’s stick to a ba­sic pep­per­oni.

“Their food is re­ally, re­ally good, but that’s all they eat all the time. So over the course of eight months be­ing over there, it got a lit­tle ex­haust­ing.”

The over­all ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing in the KBO, Burns said, of­fered him a great deal of per­spec­tive, help­ing to strip away the bur­den of wor­ry­ing about the next step in his ca­reer.

“An­other thing that I learned over in Korea, and it was the first time it re­ally hap­pened in my ca­reer, is how to ac­tu­ally be present,” Burns said. “Go­ing through the mi­nor leagues, it’s al­ways, ‘I want to get to the next level, I want to get to the next level,’ and I got to the big leagues and I was like, ‘I don’t want to get sent down.’ I got sent down and was like, ‘I want to go back up.’ And when you’re over there, you’re not go­ing any­where. You’re in the big leagues, your only job is to go out and play that night to help the team win and that’s all that re­ally matters.

“And by do­ing that on a daily ba­sis you per­form at a higher level, as op­posed to wor­ry­ing about out­side stuff. You just fo­cus on tonight and the game that you’ve got and the pitcher who’s out on the mound, and so you just learn how to re­ally be present and be fo­cused where you’re at, at that mo­ment, to win the game that you’re play­ing.

“I would say that’s one of the things I learned over there that I feel like I can help bring back to guys who have al­ways had that feel­ing, ‘Man, I want to get to the next level.’ Just be­ing present.”

This is the change the Meacham sensed, and the man­ager hopes that les­son trans­lates to younger play­ers.

“I think what he can bring to th­ese guys, now they can feed off the en­ergy he had be­fore, but not the neg­a­tive en­ergy that comes from wor­ry­ing,” Meacham said.

“He used to worry a lot about ev­ery­thing. But now, there’s no anx­i­ety. There’s no worry there. He be­lieves in him­self. He knows what he’s ac­com­plished and he knows the next step is the next thing he wants to ac­com­plish, and I think that can rub off on some of the guys.”

Burns is grate­ful for the ex­pe­ri­ence of play­ing over­seas, and to be back with the Blue Jays or­ga­ni­za­tion. He is off to a strong start, hit­ting .353 with a home run and four RBIs in the first five games of the Bisons’ sea­son.

“They’ve been great to me my whole ca­reer,” Burns said, “so to come back here it’s kind of been full cir­cle, and now to put back on the Bisons uni­form for the first time since 2016, you walk in and it’s al­most like you never left. I’m ex­cited for this sea­son. We’ve got a re­ally good group of guys, and I think we’re go­ing to win a lot of ball­games.

“Be­ing around Buf­falo and know­ing that they need a win­ner, I’m hop­ing that we’re go­ing to be the team that kind of busts through and makes that hap­pen.”

James P. McCoy/Buf­falo News

Andy Burns, right, greets team­mates pregame in­tro­duc­tions at Open­ing Day at Sahlen Field last Thurs­day.

Harry Scull Jr./Buf­falo News

Andy Burns learned while play­ing in Korea that smil­ing was a good way to com­mu­ni­cate through the lan­guage bar­rier.

Photo by Harry Scull Jr./ Buf­falo News

“I was 12 years old when my dad re­tired, and so I was around a lot. My fa­vorite times of my child­hood was go­ing to the ball­park with my dad, so I think be­ing around the game at the high­est level, I was able to pick up some things at an early age ver­sus the av­er­age base­ball play­ers. So I think ex­pe­ri­ence-wise, I had a lit­tle bit of an ad­van­tage from that stand­point.” – Bisons sec­ond base­man Ca­van Big­gio

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