Seven years ago, Wynton Bernard was a freshman at Niagara University when his brother broke the news and summoned him home. Their father had suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on one side of his body. Bernard walked to the most peaceful place on campus, the baseball field, and broke down in tears.
Walter Bernard was a military man who gave his sons opportunities in sports that he never had. He taught them to give everything they had and exhaust all possibilities before walking away from sports. If the Bernard boys were going down, they were going down swinging.
“I think of him all the time,” Bernard said Monday. “My dad was always there, taking me to the batting cages or any time I needed lessons, anything. He got us into sports, piano lessons, everything. Every game, I’m playing for myself but also playing for him and the people that I love.”
Walter Jr. was a defensive back at New Mexico whose NFL career spanned one game with the Seattle Seahawks. Wayne was a point guard at Davidson College in the pre-Stephen Curry era before playing professionally in Europe. And then there was Wynton, the longest of the Bernard longshots.
He was barely recruited at Rancho Bernardo High in San Diego, the same school that produced Rangers lefty Cole Hamels, among others. Niagara offered him a partial scholarship despite never seeing him play in person. He accepted from the far corner of the Lower 48 despite never visiting the campus.
“It’s crazy,” Bernard said. “When my brother told me that my dad had a stroke, I remember going out to the baseball field and bawling and thinking, ‘I’m never coming back. Why would I ever come back?’ And when I left after my senior year, I was like, “I’m probably never coming back here again.’”
Bernard returned Monday, batting leadoff for the Toledo Mud Hens and adding another chapter in this strange but true baseball story. He laced Scott Diamond’s second pitch down the line for a double in the first inning while going 2 for 4 in a 4-1 loss.
Twenty-three miles separate Coca-Cola Field from Monteagle Ridge, but the distance Bernard covered over the past four seasons should be measured in light years. Already, he has overcome extraordinary odds in his ascent toward the big leagues.
If you don’t remember him from his days in the outfield for the Purple Eagles, you are hardly alone. His three seasons were mostly forgettable. The likelihood of him making a living in baseball was minimal. And yet there he was Monday in the series opener against the Bisons, one step away from playing for the Tigers.
“Unbelievable,” Niagara coach Rob McCoy said. “It gives me chills and honestly chokes me up every time I think about it. I just can’t believe where he’s gotten to. He just believes in something higher than himself. He’s very religious, very God-centered, and he plays every day for his dad and doing him proud. He’s a phenomenal kid.”
McCoy heard about Bernard through an assistant coach at Duquesne before it dropped its program. His freshman year was solid but unspectacular – .293 average, two homers, 28 RBIs in 46 games. He played a season at Riverside Community College while his father was ill and came back after his father died in 2010.
Over his final two seasons at Niagara, he batted .272 with four homers and 40 RBIs in 94 games. His statistics revealed just another player.
“Honestly, he just had an average career here,” McCoy said. “He was all projection and all potential. He wouldn’t have done anything that stuck out.
“Statistically, compared to other guys that have been drafted out of the area, it was nothing. It’s not a surprise that he slipped out of the area.”
San Diego took a flier on him in the 35th round (1,065th overall) after he batted .309 and had 32 stolen bases during his senior year. He was released after two seasons, leaving his chances of building a career in baseball at slightly better than none. In his mind, however, he still had a chance.
Bernard was home in March 2014, not ready to leave baseball and put his marketing degree into action, when he heard about the Tigers holding a tryout in Lakeland, Fla. He took a flight across the country, stayed in a cheap motel, rented a car and showed what the Padres missed if they kept him.
He was the only player signed among the 120 in the tryout. He kept his dream alive. He proved what others has suspected but never witnessed, that he was a late bloomer with untapped potential, that all he needed was more at-bats.
Bernard’s response was batting .323 with 30 doubles, six triples, six homers, 47 RBIs, 45 stolen bases and 91 runs scored for Single-A West Michigan. He was named Most Valuable Player in the Midwest League. Last year in Double-A Erie, he batted .301 and had 78 runs scored and 43 stolen bases.
The Tigers kept him on their 40-man roster after spring training and assigned him to Triple-A Toledo. He’s finding his way, batting .266 through 32 games. All this from a kid who four years ago wasn’t even the best player in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference. He may not have been the best player at Niagara.
“If you show you believe in that kid, he will shine for you,” McCoy said. “That’s what it boils down to. The minute he stepped on campus, he took some BP and I was like, ‘Holy cow. This kid has something special.’ He was trying to learn the game as a raw athlete.”
Before his senior year, Bernard formed a friendship with David Justice after meeting him through a friend in a restaurant. The two talked for more than three hours. Justice opened the doors of his mansion in the San Diego area to Bernard for private batting practice and passed along tips that he learned from the likes of Willie Mays.
“It was sweet,” Bernard said.
Once, after a rough series against Bucknell, he called Justice for help pulling him from a batting slump. Justice told him to shorten his swing and start hitting the ball the other way. Problem solved. It also was a lesson learned, one he carried with him for four years and counting.
He quickly built a bond with former big leaguer Phil Plantier, who volunteered extra time for batting practice after the Padres drafted him. Apparently, players who had succeeded at the highest level saw something special. Many wouldn’t waste their time with a 35th-round draft pick from the MAAC.
“All these people that came into my life, I feel like they’re miracles,” Bernard said. “I never expected that I would meet all these people, and all these people would be willing to help me out. I’m so thankful.”
Then again, it’s easy to appreciate guys who appreciate the help. Bernard is an eternal optimist with a pleasant, humble personality and million-dollar smile. He’s well aware that he already exceeded expectations. But he also insists his story is just beginning. He expects to reach the highest level and stay there.
“He continues to be beat the odds,” Toledo manager Lloyd McClendon said. “I would never say he can’t get it done. He continues to prove people wrong on all levels. Our goal is to get him playing as much as he can and see what happens. He wouldn’t be at this level if he wasn’t capable of getting to the big leagues.”
It’s incredible, really.
Bernard traveled 3,000 miles to play for the only school that offered him a scholarship, sight unseen. He has gone across the country and back numerous times, playing before sparse crowds in minor-league outposts. And he showed up Monday and played in the same ballpark that once seemed out of reach.
He’s not a freshman, anymore. He’s a man.
Look at him.
“Now, I’m coming back and playing professional baseball, the game I love,” he said. “It’s like, who would have thought? When I first got drafted, I texted Coach McCoy and said, ‘Coach McCoy, can you believe this? I’m getting paid to play baseball. Thank you so much.’ Nobody else wanted to give me a chance.”