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AN Exclusive: Nico Catches Up To Billy Burns

"The only base left to steal is 1B..."
"The only base left to steal is 1B..."

Which is not easy, as you know! Saturday morning, Billy Burns was kind enough to sit down with me for an interview to talk a bit about baseball and a bit about himself. I hope you enjoy and look forward to your comments in response to what you read...

Nico: I like to do some "human interest" as well as baseball, so maybe we'll just do it in chronological order starting when you were really young. When you were growing up, what kind of a kid were you? There's always the practical joker, the serious one...which one were you?

Burns: I was just a little shy, initially, in my childhood. I was never in trouble; I was always following the rules to the book and I was a good student, got decent grades. I had a 4.0 (GPA) through high school and a 3.8 finishing my junior year at college. Just kind of "to the book" and trying to do what I was supposed to do.

Nico: I can imagine that as you were getting into sports, you weren't one of the guys who people looked at and said, "Oh, he's gonna be on the high school baseball team," just because you didn't have that physical stature. So what was it like getting recognition, getting opportunities, early on in your career?

Burns: Early, you mean like through high school?

Nico: Yeah, before you were known to be a good prospect.

Burns: I never heard in high school that I was too short to play or anything. I don't why, but I played football and baseball and it was just kinda one of those things where I was treated pretty much like anybody else -- if I performed I was gonna play. I was never looked at as too short, because at that age I think a lot of people are still hitting their growth spurts and stuff like that. I was always small, even going through middle school I wasn't one of those bigger kids.

Nico: Did you always have blazing speed? Was that always a piece of (your game)?

Burns: It was always there, but I still work on it, I still try to maintain it as much as I can. I've always had the ability, but I've definitely kept up with it and work on it to try to maximize it.

Nico: That's an interesting concept to "work on speed," because usually what we hear about is people working on their swing, or people working on power. How do you work on speed?

Burns: I run quite a bit in the off-season. I like running, so for me I'll do my workout with my trainer and my weights and then honestly for fun I'll go run a trail. I like running trails, just get out by myself. It's a time for me to just be alone. It's very exhilarating for me to run, and just be alone, and just be to my thoughts, and honestly be able to pray -- that's what I like to do a lot. So I've run trails just for fun and then I'll bounce around doing that and then do some sprints, keep up with that way a lot, just try to always maintain it.

Nico: In terms of specifically things like base stealing, what are some of the tips, or tricks, or strategies that you've picked up just in terms of reading pitchers, and getting a good first step and all that?

Burns: I think one of the biggest things to me has always been the size of my lead. If I don't have a big lead I don't feel as comfortable over there stealing. So being able to expand my lead as much as I can give, knowing I can get back at any moment, I think that's one of the biggest things for me.

Nico: What is that lead for you, in terms of steps? How do you figure that out?

Burns: It's just kind of a feel thing for everybody. Some people do big steps; I kind of do a couple normal steps and then a few littler steps as I'm getting my lead so that in case they pickoff I'll get back real quick. It's just of something that's shifted over the years to where I am now and just kind of a feel thing, really.

Nico: Well, it must be a bit uncomfortable to move up to a new level where you don't know the pitchers, and you don't know their moves. How do you handle that, where everything is unknown to you?

Burns: You just kind of learn on the job --

Nico: -- the hard way?

Burns: (laughing) Yeah, it's definitely come back to bite me a couple times this spring, where I didn't know certain lefties had certain pickoff moves...They got me; I can't really say much about that! Yeah, it definitely helps when you know their moves, when you have the experience of seeing them beforehand, so that's one of the things that really does help in the long run.

Nico: While we're talking about stealing: Stealing 2B versus stealing 3B. I've heard very different perspectives from different base stealers on which is easier, which is harder, and why. What's your perspective on that?

Burns: Ahhh...I think stealing 3B is probably easier, just because people don't pay as much attention to you at 2B. And when I go to 3B, I usually have a pretty good jump and I'll never really go if I don't have a really good jump from 2B. So I think in that sense it ends up being easier.

Nico: So the thing that has really impressed me, just getting to know you on paper, and your history, is your ability to learn to switch-hit so quickly and so relatively late. Can you go back to when you first started? I can't honestly imagine - I'm left-handed and I'm just trying to imagine trying to hit from the left side, so what was that process like?

Burns: Oh it was brutal. See what happened was I hit in short season right-handed and after short-season the Nationals approached me -- actually, Bob Boone, and I just met his son, Bret Boone, yesterday -- Bob Boone approached me and said, "Would you be willing to try switch-hitting?" I said, "Of course, I'll try anything you guys want me to try." So I went from short-season to a week later I was in (the Instructional League) facing live pitching from the left side and it was, you can imagine: It was horrendous. But it was one of those things where if I put at least the ball in play I always had a chance to get to 1B. In my opinion I'm not a very good hitter left-handed, but I know that as long as I can put the ball in play on the ground I'll have a chance to get to 1B.

Nico: I think your on base percentage was pretty good, so you seemed to have pretty good pitch recognition fairly quickly from the left side.

Burns: Yeah, I mean I try to. But sometimes I'll foul pitches off that normally I would hit from the right side, so that helps me get deeper into counts. (4 hours later Burns had the epic 10 pitch at bat from the left side that culminated in him pulling a triple into the RF corner.) I don't know, I just kind of thought to myself, "I need to get on base, it doesn't matter how, so I'll just battle up there, work counts, try to get on base."

Nico: And "Keep it on the ground."

Burns: Yeah, keep it on the ground for sure!

Nico: So when you say that it was brutal, it was difficult...What was difficult about it, how did it feel in your body?

Burns: It just felt like all my muscles were disconnected from each other. Like I would swing and just be like running to 1B and I'll miss the ball completely, and I'll be out of the batter's box somehow in my swing. It was the ugliest thing you've ever seen. And it was just one of those things where I don't think I'll ever get comfortable until all my muscles, and all the coordination matches my right side. The strength is not there from that left-handed swing. I don't know, it's just one of those things that feels so awkward, so uncomfortable, you just kinda have to trust it, trust the process, and that's what I've been trying to do over the past couple years.

Nico: So let's say on a 0-100, let's say 100 is how you feel from the right side - maybe you're not the world's best hitter but you're totally comfortable with it. And let's say you started in Instructional at a 0 left-handed and maybe got to, I don't know - where were you two years ago, where are you now?

Burns: OK, so if I was at a 0 in Instructional League my first time hitting I'd say it increases every year -- throughout the season even it increases -- but I would say I'm somewhere around a 60 right now. It's steadily increasing, but obviously there's a huge gap between how I feel lefty and how I feel at 100 for right-handed.

Nico: And where do you think you were in your first season actually hitting left-handed, which was about 2 years ago?

Burns: Ahhh...

Nico: Was it anywhere close to 60?

Burns: No it was probably like a 20.

Nico: I haven't actually gotten, as of this moment, a chance to see you bat right-handed yet, but how similar or different, how symmetric, is your swing?

Burns: It's a little different. My finishes are different and I have a rhythm from the right-side. I don't really have one from the left side; I just kind of stand in there and try to get my hands moving and then go. But from the right side I'll have a little bit of a hand rhythm, so there's a lot of differences but at the same time I try to have the same approach -- but it doesn't always work out that way!

The A's have announced that Burns, against all odds, will stay with the team all the way through the Bay Bridge Series. So sometimes it does work out.