Like a Torch that Melts Through Steel, the Burn are Force in Travel Baseball
Whether it’s the flame on top of a candle, adorning a cake, or the most ravaging blaze, an uncontrollable wildfire, every fire begins with a single spark. How that spark grows, whether it’s shortly lived to celebrate a birthday or one that causes great destruction, burning and melting any object in its way, depends on its environment.
For the Florida Burn, one of Florida’s premier travel baseball organization, there is a humble background. There was just one team of local high school kids coming together in 2011. But, just like the spark that leads to a forest fire, the environment created within the Burn has allowed the organization to grow into being one of the Sunshine State’s best, one that glows just as bright as any.
“With Craig Faulkner, who is the head coach at Venice High School, we had an unusual group of kids that fell into where they could play a similar age division category of summer and fall ball,” said Florida Burn General Manager Mark Guthrie on the program’s founding. “We had kids that were about to be juniors that were very young for their grade and we had a very good freshman class that was just entering the school that were some really talented kids.”
“Instead of doing our normal high school summer ball, we were able to put a very competitive group together and compete in the larger, national type tournaments.”
The collection of players did more than compete, the team found itself in quarterfinals of several premier tournaments. But as a team composed of talent from just one southwest Florida high school, Guthrie was unable to field a team with the pitching depth necessary to bring home titles. But more concerning, being viewed as just a high school team prevented the players from Venice from receiving a just level of exposure.
“The kids were beating good teams and competing very well, but it became difficult to get recruiters or any college coach to come watch our team because they knew it was just a high school team,” Guthrie said. “Craig and I still laugh at how we used to go out of the dugout and introduce ourselves to recruiters, tell them we had a lot of good players playing over on this field over here, hopefully you could come over and watch them.
“They would ask where are you from and we would say we're a high school team from southwest Florida. They kind of looked at us cross-eyed and said 'yeah, ok.' They wouldn't come. We would walk back in the dugout, look at each other and ask how'd it go. and kind of laugh, I can't believe it.”
Leading to Guthrie’s incredulous state is that initial team was talented. Guthrie knew what his team was capable of and along with Faulkner decided to transform Indians Baseball.
“We decided we thought we could do it our way and be a little more comfortable with starting an organization on our own…. We couldn't get anyone to come watch them, we had 14 Division I players on that team. Something was wrong. We said we either have to join another group and get better exposure for these guys or do it ourselves.”
With the initial flame of a fire, variables such as where the spark began, onto what surface, are there more flammable materials readily available to continue to breathe life into the fire, are there countering forces to extinguish it, determines the fate of a fire. In establishing a new travel baseball organization, there were many paths Guthrie and Faulkner, who is the organization’s director, could have led the Burn.
But the shared background of the two, where they were under the tutelage of one arguably the best coach amateur baseball has seen, allowed the Burn to grow.
Before a 15-year career in Major League Baseball, pitching for eight teams, including the 1991 World Champions Minnesota Twins, Guthrie was a standout at LSU. As a Tiger, the southpaw pitched under Hall of Fame coach Skip Bertman, owner of five College World Series championships.
“Craig and I are both educated similarly. We were fortunate enough to play for, in my mind, undoubtedly the great college baseball coach ever in Skip Bertman,” said Guthrie who grew up alongside Faulkner, played little league and high school together before being college roommates in Baton Rouge.
“We were able to learn his system. Learn not just how to coach on the field, but how to build an organization. We watched Skip do it, we were there his first year at LSU, and watched him do it from the ground floor.”
Thirty years after the Twins selected him in the seventh round of the 1987 MLB Draft, putting an end to his amateur career at LSU, what Bertman imparted on Guthrie is at the foundation of the Burn today.
“Skip was very good at covering all of the bases in that he left no stone unturned, he took nothing for granted,” Guthrie said. “Really, that's baseball to me…Bottom line, it's just respect for the game. The game is not easy, it owes us nothing. That's kind of the motto we go by.”
The Burn will field 13 teams for the 2017 summer, and have more than 200 kids in the organization. Across the teams, players have committed to the likes of Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Rice, TCU and Vanderbilt. Guthrie no longer has the problem of getting the kids the just exposure needed. But everything the Burn is today goes back to that initial team.
“We were very, very fortunate to have those kids at the outset of our organization… we've been able to create a lot of really, really high quality exposure for our guys going forward just by word of mouth it got out and grew.”
With leaders who sought to leave no stone unturned, founded in an area of talented players and a foundation that creates sustainable success, like a torch that melts through steel, the Burn are force in travel baseball, even if it did start with just one, unnoticed team. The spark was there.