Published Date Written by Lloyd JonesCONWAY — It's the end of an era in the Kennett High sports annals. Coach Bob Burns, who retired at the end of this season after 42 years at Kennett High School, leaves the diamond as the current all-time leader in New Hampshire high school baseball victories. His teams went 511-312 since 1971. Aside from being perennially in the post-season, the Eagles won two state championships in the Burns era and reached the Final Four eight times.
Burns guided the Eagles into five decades. When he started as coach at Kennett, wooden bats were the norm — you could buy a dozen for $60; his first captain was Peter Ames, who has gone on to be the winningest coach in Kennett history when you combine his victories in boys' and girls' basketball and junior varsity baseball; and over 390 wins and four state championships in softball.
Burns has been at the helm of the Eagles during the terms of eight presidents. Heck, President Obama was just 9 when Burns first took his customary position in the third base coaches box at Kennett.
Coach or Burnsy as he's affectionately called by his former and current players and folks in the community, has enjoyed every inning he's been an Eagle. He recently turned 70 and said the timing is right for him to step down. "It's hard to believe it's been 41 years," he said. "Some days it seems like just yesterday."
Burns's final game at the helm was June 6, a 5-4 home loss in nine innings to visiting Merrimack Valley in the opening round of the Division II playoffs.
"It's been a great run," Burns said. "I'm very proud of the way we played. While I would have liked a different outcome I couldn't have hoped for a better game. The kids are bumming, but they gave it their best. There's no good way to lose but we didn't lose on a walk or an error, it was a legitimate hit."
Burns received a nice ovation from the Kennett faithful and hugs from his players and coaching staff following the game.
"To be able to coach a final ball game like this, the boys made me proud," he said. "I couldn't ask for anything more. I really appreciate all of the people who came out and everyone who has been so supportive of me over the years."
Last month, Burns had two honors bestowed upon him. He was selected as the Division II Coach of the Year by the New Hampshire High School Baseball Coaches Association.
Burns, who this spring guided the Eagles to an 11-6 mark and a home playoff game, was touched by the award.
"It was kind of a surprise, but a nice surprise," he said. "The coaches association is a good bunch of guys, it's an honor that they would recognize me one last time."
Earlier in May, Burns received another honor with the dedication of the Robert Burns Sr. Varsity Baseball Field on the campus of Kennett High School in Redstone. Over 200 players, ex-players, baseball fans, friends and family joined "Coach" behind the backstop for the unveiling of the artistic wooden sign.
Tom Underwood, the head coach at Plymouth for 40 years, was featured speaker at the dedication. He called his long-time friend a great family man, a leader and advocate for baseball, and extremely well respected throughout the state. Underwood presented Burns with an engraved glass crystal from the New Hampshire Baseball Coaches Association honoring his 42 years of service to Kennett, and leadership in the baseball community.
Burns called himself "the luckiest man alive" and added that "God, family and friends are top priorities in my life, but baseball certainly runs a close fourth."
In 1971, when Burns started as Kennett baseball coach, the cost of a new home was $28,300 while the median household income was $9,028.
Burns is thankful for his long-time junior varsity assistant Brian Day, who was his catcher in the early 1970s, and volunteer pitching coach Danny Quint, who was on the mound when the Eagles won their first state title in 1974.
"Danny and I have been together for almost 45 years," Burns said, smiling, "he's been a great help. Brian does so much for the program in the background. I had the good job over the years with just 14 kids while Brian did all the work with 40-plus kids.
Day, who captained the 1973 Eagles, said his friend and mentor kept things simple.
"Two things stand out about Bob," Day said. "He makes it real simple — he tells his pitchers to throw strikes, throw strikes, throw strikes and (his hitters to) swing the bat. I think that's been the emphasis of most of his teams, and his real good teams certainly did that very well."
Burns agrees with Day's assessment.
"I think sometimes down at the lower levels, kids pick up bad habits," he said, "like take the first pitch. You should be ready to hit the first pitch because that's what the pitcher is trying to do is get up on you in the count. It's probably going to be the best pitch you're going to see. They get so selective. I think more signals are flashed in little league games than one of my entire seasons."
Quint believes Burns' greatest strength is his ability to teach the basics of the game.
"It's been teaching fundamentals as long as I've been with him," he said. "There's a basic way to play baseball, it hasn't changed in over 100 years — you get on the field; field the ball, step and throw; bunt the ball, don't attack the ball when you're bunting it, just fundamentals. Kids at the high school level can grasp that — that's how we won, we were fundamentally sound and I was able to pitch a lot.
"The other thing about him is we were always loose," Quint continued. "There wasn't a military atmosphere. When it became game time it was all serious, everyone was into the game while it was going on and when it was over we'd fool around a little, but when it was game time we went out to win. One thing that I was grateful for to Coach when I went on to play in Florida was he taught me how to act like a baseball player and how to carry myself. All of the guys who went on to play after high school will probably agree with me. He taught us how to be baseball players."
"Most of the credit goes to the kids themselves," Burns said. "Maybe I bring out the best in them, I'd like to think that, but basically I think kids are the same today as when Danny was playing. To be a good coach you have to get on a one-to-one basis with each kid. You don't handle them totally differently but have to know how to handle them a little differently. Certain kids don't react to tough love. Having been around professional baseball from my formative years from the time I was 6 until right up up through when my dad (Jack Burns, see related story) was third base coach for the Red Sox and seeing that professional way of handling people."
"I think the other thing," Burns said, "was knowing when to leave kids alone. Look at some of the great hitters, they held the bat up here or down there, had the open stance, nobody changes them because they hit. It's the same way with high school kids, maybe even more so. If a kid is having trouble and not hitting then maybe you might make a suggestion. A big key to coaching is to not over-coach or intervene when there's no need to intervene.
"Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night was the Song of the Year in 1971 while "All in the Family" was the top television show long before the FOX network with Homer Simpson was ever dreamed up. "The French Connection" was the top movie.
Town of Conway recreation director John Eastman was a three-year starter for Coach Burns and thinks the world of his former coach.
"I thought he was a great coach," Eastman, Class of 1982, said. "To me, I thought he showed a lot of confidence in me when he made me his No. 1 (starting) pitcher as a sophomore. I hadn't played a lot of varsity as a freshman, but sophomore year he told me it was my time. We beat Kingswood at home in the quarterfinals to go to Concord and play under the lights against Merrimack Valley. We lost 2-1 in the semis, but I'll never forget it. I had a great experience with Burnsy.
"I think one of (Burns's) greatest strengths was his ability to recognize talent at an early age," he continued. "He knew where to play people. Kennett was always known as a great hitting team, but I think his forte was knowing where to put people defensively. His defensive teams were always so much more fundamentally sound."
"I'd like to think some of that comes from dad," Burns said. "It helps to have some talent, too. My first year we had Peter (Ames) at second and Rick Luciano at shortstop and that's probably the best double-play combination you'll ever see in New Hampshire because they had played together," he said. "They had played tougher all the way through middle school and summer ball so they were able to turn a double play."
Danny Noyes, the head ski coach at Colby College, played four years for Burns and agrees with Eastman.
"Every once in awhile you come across someone who played such an influential role in your life and Coach Burns along with Coach Millen were two people in mine," Noyes, who graduated in 1998 from KHS, said. "They were both there for me at a time when I lost my father and helped to fill a void."
Noyes credits Burns with some of his coaching skill and technique at Colby.
"I'm a coach now and after 11 years of coaching beginning with my senior year at Colby, some of the things Coach Burns did are with me now," he said. "It's little things you might not necessarily have seen when you were playing for him that I appreciate so much more today.
"One of those things was a system; Coach Burns always had a system," Noyes continued. "Coach Burns always knew what was going on with the athletes in the community from the varsity to the JV on down to the middle school and he was able to make the transition to each level such a smooth one. I've thought about how I coach and it's been modeled by more former coaches and adjusted through my current athletes."
Noyes described Burns as "easy-going", "authoritative, but friendly" and a player's coach.
"He leaned on his horses when he could and developed the younger players when he needed to," he said. "I think the valley should be extremely pleased at the level (Burns) got the program to. I think probably the most important thing about Coach Burns is that he has such an eye for talent. It doesn't matter if you're a freshman or a sophomore or are in junior high, if you can play he'll play you. I have a lot of great memories thanks to Coach Burns.
In 1971, Joe Torre, who later managed the Yankees to three World Series titles, led the Major Leagues in batting average hitting .363 and RBI, 137, and was named the game's MVP while playing that year for the St. Louis Cardinals. Hank Aaron was second in baseball in home runs with 47, one behind Willie Stargell.
Eastman also recalled early spring practices. "(Laughing) Those weren't my fondest memories," he said smiling. "We used to practice in the Cranmore parking lot with its 12-inch potholes and Burnsy hit fungos at 100 miles an hour at us; he called it a good character builder."
Eastman also laughed when he talked about Coach Burns' unusual driving style. Burns had a knack for putting one leg in the back seat while driving and holding a perfect conversation without missing a beat.
"In that era," Burnsy would have been able to text, grade papers and still get us to the game safely," he said, smiling.
Eastman considers Burns one of the greatest coaches to ever wear black and white.
"He's right up there with Gary (Millen) and Peter (Ames)," he said. "He's one of the big reasons I do what I do. He's why I coach and why I want to give back to my community. He always had faith in me and I never wanted to let him down. He taught me to take what I've learned and to pay it forward; he taught me how to do it the right way. I learned an awful lot from Bob Burns."
Although the Eagles won two state championships under the direction of Burns, Eastman views the 1982 Eagles as the best team to never win a state crown. They went 19-1 his senior year and lost 5-4 in the state semifinals.
"To this day," he said, "I still say the '82 team was the best team that never won it all. Ask Coach, see what he thinks."
Mike Lane was also a three-year starter for Burns, playing third as a sophomore before moving behind the plate his final two years. It's a position he went on to play at New England College.
"It was an honor to play for Coach Burns and all of the tradition of his program," Lane, Class of 2000 and now assistant recreation director for Conway, said. "He was a pleasure to play for. I learned a lot from him and didn't realize how much until I got to college. We were playing in Fort Myers (Fla.) and people asked me where I was from and went to school. I'd tell them I was from Conway and they'd immediately say, 'Oh, you played for Burnsy.' That's how well respected he is around not only New Hampshire but around the country.
"Whoever fills his position is going to have some big shoes to fill," he continued. "He expects a lot of his players. He knows the game and taught us to play it the right way. His teams played hard and respected the game and I think that's a reflection of Coach Burns. He was so well respected that you wanted to play well for him and keep the Kennett tradition going."
Burns was 90-36 in his first seven seasons at Kennett, including winning the state championships in 1974. Asked how he got his start in baseball by a reporter in 1977, Burns replied:
"Well I guess baseball is in the Burns's blood; my father was Jack Burns, and he led the American League in fielding for four years. He had 51 years in the game. When I was growing up he was third base coach for the Boston Red Sox. So, you see, I met the pros — sometimes had a chance to be in their workouts."
Burns started his own playing career at St. Patrick High School in Warertown, Mass., which he represented an all Catholic team — playing first base like his dad — before graduating in 1959. He went on to Boston College, graduating in 1964 and later spent a year coaching Framingham State College.
Burns came to Conway in 1967-68 and taught at Kennett for a year and then headed back to Gloucester, Mass., where he worked as a social worker for a year. After that he returned to the Mount Washington Valley for good.
Believe it or not, Burns won his first game for Kennett while he was a Raider at Fryeburg Academy before becoming an Eagle. He spent a year at Fryeburg Academy teaching English. While at the academy he got a call that spring and was asked to fill in and coach a doubleheader when then KHS baseball coach Rick Doherty was sidelined. Burns led the Eagles to a sweep of Hanover and the next year was at Kennett teaching English and became the head baseball coach.
There have been a number of highlights over 42 years and among them was the time in 1974 when his father, who was in failing health at the time, surprised him by attending the state championship game which Kennett won 8-2 over Littleton.
"We played in Manchester and I had never thought to have him watch us, but just as the game started I looked up and there he was waving to us from the stand," he recalled. "He'd come in spite of his health problems by bus and taxi from down in Massachusetts. And that was a great thrill — particularly when Kennett won."
Burns believes he did what he was hired to do as a varsity coach — teach and win.
"If there was anything that I wasn't real good at in high school coaching," Burns said, "that was probably getting everyone in, but that's what I figure I'm supposed to be doing and that's winning games. This is a varsity sport and you're trying to win."
"I thought about that," Quint added, "and the thing is that should be done at the Little League level, at the junior high level, at the Babe Ruth level and at the freshman level. Once you're playing varsity baseball you're on a mission — you want to win the state championship — and it's unfortunate (if not everyone gets in). You don't go to college and say, 'Coach, why am I not playing?' It starts at varsity, you're playing for all the marbles then."
"Having seen the way my father managed and how he treated his players, I think a little of that rubbed off," Burns said. "If you treat high school kids like adults, not like kids, I think most of the time you're doing something right, the kids will respond to that. You have to adapt to a certain degree but you have to give them the benefit of the doubt. You've got to treat them like grown-ups, (laughing) otherwise they act like kids."
Cost of a gallon of regular gas in 1971 was just 36 cents; the cost of a first-class stamp was 6 cents; the cost of a dozen eggs was 53 cents; and the cost of a gallon of milk was $1.18.
Paul Luciano, who played for Burns and later went on to play for the prestigious University of Miami baseball program under Hall of Fame Coach Ron Frasier, said one of the things that paved his way onto the team was because his techniques were so fundamentally sound, and he credits Burns with that.
"Burnsy did it the right way," Luciano, who graduated in 1976 from KHS, said. "Bob's a pretty special guy to me, he's been there for pretty much every important event in my life."
Burns has been a reverend for 19 years and has performed wedding ceremonies for former players; baptized their children; and even presided over funerals of his players' family members.
"Bob loves the game and loves his former players," his wife Linda says. "I'm really not sure what I'll do next spring. My routine for the past 35 years has been to take my chair and my camera and go watch Kennett baseball."
Parker Roberts, the current recreation director for the Town of Tamworth, enjoyed playing for Burns.
"I think the thing that stood out foremost was, being from a surrounding town, he didn't care where you came from as long as you could play ball," he said. "If you could play you'd get a chance."
Roberts recalled a game the Eagles played in Gorham in the center of town and then-Gorham coach Jack Savage went over the ground rules with Burns, who wondered if the Kennett bus needed to be moved from out in right field because it was technically in the field of play.
"(Savage) said no one ever hits the ball out there," Roberts said, laughing. "That day, Jon Hill hit one over the bus; I hit one off the side off the bus; and Richard (Roberts, his brother) hit one inside the bus."
Roberts, like Eastman, recalled Coach Burns' driving skills and love of older cars.
"One of ones he had was an old Plymouth that had trees or plant life growing out of it," he said, laughing. "When we'd have a game down in Portsmouth or Manchester, Burnsy would pull into Bruce Knox's service station and ask Bruce if he had a couple of used tires to get him there and Bruce would come out with a couple of crappy looking things, but we always got there. I'll tell you the difference between now and back then. Graham Smith had a used Chevy Vega, which back then we could park in front of the school. At practice, three or four of us ran over the (hood of) the car and later Burnsy just said, 'Oh, by the way, stay off the cars.'"
Burns remembered that Plymouth. "I think it was a mold of some kind, fortunately no one had any allergies," he said, laughing.
Quint also spoke about his coach's skills behind the wheel. "He was notorious," Quint said, laughing, "We'd take cars to the games and Bob would be driving with his left foot working the gas and brake and his right leg would be in the backseat and he'd be talking to you."
Roberts, like so many former players, praised Burns for his commitment to the sport in this community.
"I really enjoyed him as a coach," Roberts continued. "Back then he was much younger and was incredibly involved in baseball throughout the valley. He coached Conway Babe Ruth, Legion ball, and when he was free he umped. He was always involved."
Top news stories in 1971 included astronauts driving a lunar buggy on the moon; there was a major earthquake in Los Angeles; and Jim Morrison died. Michael Jackson was 13; Michael Jordan was 8; Michael Phelps was 13 years away from being born.
Burns said there were a couple of comparisons between the '74 and '95 championship teams.
"They both had the dominating pitcher with Danny in '74 and Abe (Wrobleski) in '95," Burns said, "and good hitting. In the semis (in '95) we played Kingswood down in Concord. We beat them 14-1 and just pounded the ball. The last game was like 7-4."
In '74, Quint was a workhorse for the Eagles in the playoffs, pitching every inning. Kennett beat Pembroke Academy 1-0 in the quarterfinals; then beat Exeter 5-4 in 15 innings in the semis (Quint went the distance on the mound and doubled home the winning run); and then beat Littleton (current Kennett High teacher and Sports Hall of Fame inductee Jon Judge was a member of that team) 8-2 in the finals on the day Kennett High celebrated its 50th anniversary.
Quint has been a volunteer coach for the baseball team for the past six years. In that time, he's sure no two coaches have laughed as much as he and Burns, who share a love of the game and thousands of memories.
"What brought me back, the fun," Quint said. "I never told anyone this but when the two guys (Jeff Sires in 2010 and Nick Massa this year) threw no-hitters, I think I had more pressure on me than they had on them because I'm calling the pitches and if they get a hit it's my fault, it's on me. At the end of those two no-hitters I was mentally drained."
Burns said the game hasn't changed a great deal, but he's disappointed that he doesn't see more kids playing baseball in the summer.
"The fields are empty in July and August," he said. "It's almost like everything has to get done before the end of the school year. To me, that's what summer is for baseball. We always tried to play a 20-game schedule at the high school level and then in the summer we'd have boys playing all over the state. Summer ball is an opportunity to get another season of at-bats."
Burns also encourages athletes to play more than one sport at Kennett, but there was one special exception — Jeff Locke, the two-time New Hampshire Player of the Year, who made his Major League debut on the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates last fall.
"Every now and then, like once in my career, you get a kid like Jeffrey who is destined for greatness from the time he was 12," Burns said. "That's all he did was he pitched and threw the ball. I remember the first game he pitched for me it was down at Somersworth and he threw 148-149 pitches. It was rainy, cold and stuff like that but it didn't bother him because he never got out of shape, his arm was always ready. He'd pitched indoors over the winter; played summer ball and threw in the fall. Jeffrey was the exception because he could have been a great football player, he was they fastest kid on our team and he could have been a great basketball player because he could jump and was athletic but he focused all on the one (sport)."
Burns said he'll miss the game and the players.
"I'll miss some things more than others," he said. "(Laughing) I won't miss the bus rides as much."
Asked if could come up with an All-Time Burns Team, he had a quick response.
"I wouldn't even try," he said, smiling. "Some of the years that we didn't have as much success there were some guys who were among the best if not the best at their positions. Especially as you get to be 70 you know you're going to forget someone. I mean obviously you're going to have Brendan in there and Bobby in there (his two sons), that's a given. Don't forget my daughter Stacie was the first girl to get a hit in junior high (in baseball)."
In 1971, Coach Burns started to put Kennett baseball on the map and we all should thank him for that