By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

When you are a junior college baseball coach, the everlasting search for talent can take you down many different paths.

One path could be as simple as a pro scout calling about an unknown talent with the potential to be a well-known player one day.

Or the path can be something as simple as riding by a player’s house and noticing a batting cage in the backyard.

“I can remember driving by Mike’s house and seeing that batting cage in the backyard,” former Calhoun baseball coach Fred Frickie said. “I knew if he had a batting cage in his backyard, he had to be serious about hitting.

“Later I found out that some of the kids in his neighborhood were coming over to take hitting tips from Mike. I knew then that, if he knew that much about hitting, he was somebody I had to have at Calhoun.”

Frickie signed Burns out of Decatur High in 1986. That was the start of a relationship that has lasted long beyond the two years of coach and player.

Known as a great hitting coach, Frickie polished Burns’ skills to make him one of Calhoun’s best with the bat. Burns set a school record with three home runs in one game.

Burns carried his hitting talent to the University of North Alabama where he earned All-American honors while setting school records. He was inducted into the UNA Sports Hall of Fame in 2002.

After three seasons of pro baseball, Burns came home to be an assistant for Frickie at Calhoun, then later head coach at Decatur High and then head coach at Calhoun.

“When I got the batting cage, my Dad (Joe) told me that I didn’t need to go hunt a job for the summer,” Burns said. “He said this will be my summer job and we’ll see how it works out. I guess it worked out OK.”

Burns will be inducted into the Morgan County Sports Hall of Fame on May 6.

“I grew up playing every sport I could,” Burns said. “I played baseball, basketball and football at school. My Mom (Sue) taught me how to play tennis. I played golf with my Dad.

“My grandfather Hoss Burns was an athlete at Riverside High. My Dad played at Decatur. Getting to play for the same school they played for just made it all even more special.”

After his sophomore year in high school, Burns decided to narrow down his sports. He dropped football to concentrate on playing basketball for Decatur coach Wally Sanders.

“I was a sophomore and got to sit on the bench when Decatur went to the state tournament,” Burns said. “I decided that basketball was my sport. Baseball had never been my favorite. I just played it.”

In 1986, baseball gave Burns a lifeline that he badly needed. His mother died in an auto accident. That left him unsure about which direction to go.

“I wasn’t ready to move off and go to college,” Burns said. “I didn’t want to leave my Dad home alone. Then Coach Frickie offered me the opportunity to play at Calhoun. That was a perfect solution. I could stay home, be there for my Dad, go to school and play ball.”

For the first time in his life, Burns was concentrating on one sport. Baseball quickly became his favorite. He played second base for the Warhawks.

“There’s usually just one thing keeping someone from being a good hitter,” Burns said. “Coach Frickie saw my one thing, corrected it and I started hitting the ball with power.

“That helped develop my confidence and I got better. I was a never a great player. I had to work hard to get anywhere in baseball.”

After two big years at Calhoun, Burns was off the North Alabama. The hits kept coming. In his junior season, Burns hit .337 with 17 home runs, 69 RBIs and 59 runs scored. The All-American helped UNA to a Gulf South Conference championship.

Burns closed out his career at UNA with another great season. His total numbers in two seasons playing for the Lions were an 82-21 record while going 110-for-327 at the plate (.336) with 95 runs scored, 111 runs batted in, 30 doubles, one triple, 25 home runs and 28 stolen bases in 31 attempts.

Despite the big numbers, Burns received little interest from major league teams. Every team passed on him in that summer’s draft.

“I was playing summer ball that year for the Hartselle Expos and we had a pretty good team,” Burns said. “We qualified for the NBC Tournament in Kansas.”

The National Baseball Congress Tournament is an annual tradition in Wichita, Kansas, since 1935. It features amateur teams from around the country in a tournament that can last over several weeks.

“We sort of got to be the hometown favorite,” Burns said. “We played several games at 7 p.m. when the stadium was packed. That was really cool.

“We were there when the draft happened. When I didn’t get picked, Coach Frickie called an Astros scout he knew and told him to go watch me play. They offered me a contract and it didn’t take long for me to sign. I had a blast playing pro ball.”

Burns played three years in the Astros organization with stops at Asheville in the South Atlantic League, Burlington in the Midwest League and Osceola in the Florida State League. He was a man of many gloves. He could catch, play first and play third. He spent many nights being a bullpen catcher.

“There were many nights in those three years when I wondered what I was doing here,” Burns said. “The plan was to try and stick around for three years, learn as much as I could and then go home to coach. Calhoun was my dream job.”

In three seasons Burns hit .213 in 289 games with 20 home runs and 134 RBIs. The coaching career started in 1994 at Calhoun as an assistant for Frickie.

“He was such a good coach that I let him coach from the third base box,” Frickie said. “I never let anyone else do that in all my years at Calhoun.”

In 1997, Burns returned to Decatur High to lead the baseball program. He would stay for 12 years and lead the Red Raiders to some big seasons while coaching several All-State players. One of the best was infielder Cole Barthel, who was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2001 and drafted by the Atlanta Braves.

“Cole was a great player with a lot of talent.” Burns said. “What made him so special was how hard he worked. I don’t think people realize how hard even players with great talent have to work.”

Burns’ son Tanner was the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year in 2017.

In 2007, Burns returned to Calhoun as head coach. He retired after the 2017 season to have more time to follow the career of another Gatorade Player of the Year. That was his son Tanner, who played at Auburn before being drafted by the Cleveland Guardians in 2020.

“When I think about (the Morgan County Sports) Hall of Fame, I think of special people like Coach Frickie, Coach Sanders and Coach (Earl) Morris,” Burns said. “To be included in that group is pretty special honor.”

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