By: Brian Frank
New Bisons outfielder Wynton Bernard already had ties to Western New York before stepping on the field for the Herd. The San Diego native played three seasons of college baseball at Niagara University.
How does a southern California kid wind up going to college in Lewiston, New York?
“Coach Rob McCoy, he called me, I think in June of my senior year,” Bernard explained in a recent interview with The Herd Chronicles. “There was a coach from Duquesne University who recommended me. He’d never seen me play in person but it’s funny, he watched a couple of my basketball (???) clips online and he always tells me, ‘The worst you could be is the best athlete we’ve ever had here.’ He called me in June and he offered me a scholarship, so I took it.”
Bernard put up big numbers in his time with the Purple Eagles. During his senior season he slashed .314/.381/.459 and stole 32 bases.
“My freshman year I had a couple home runs in some pretty big situations,” he said of his personal highlights playing college baseball. “Then obviously my senior year, we had a really, really good team. There was one game where, it was early on in the season, when I really felt my swing coming together, against the University of Richmond. I wish we won more games that year because we had a really good offensive team. But it was just fun being around the guys and learning as much as I could from Coach (Rob) McCoy and Coach (Jeff) Ziemecki and Spatz (assistant coach Matt Spatafora). All those guys helped me out a lot.”
Bernard batting during his first week with the Herd. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
He ended up being selected in the 35th round of the 2012 Major League Baseball June Amateur Draft by his hometown San Diego Padres.
“They were the only team that let me go to their pre-draft workout and at that workout I ran a 6.40 (in a 60-yard dash),” he said. “I remember slipping and I asked them if I could run it again and the guy was like, ‘No, you’re fine, you just ran a 6.40, you don’t need to run it again.’”
“I was just super grateful because a lot of people were like – oh nobody gets drafted from Niagara University. It’s a small school. People would say, ‘What are you going to do next year?’ I was like, ‘Well I want to play baseball.’ And they started laughing at me like ‘yeah, right.’”
“I broke my hamate bone too. So the Padres drafted me with a broken hamate bone and everybody saying that I wasn’t going to get drafted. I was just super, super happy and excited to get my career started. At that point it all felt surreal.”
Bernard played ten seasons in the minor leagues among five different organizations before finally getting his chance in the major leagues. Last season, he was starring for the Colorado Rockies Triple-A affiliate, the Albuquerque Isotopes, when he learned he was about to fulfill his lifelong dream.
“I was napping before the game and our manager, Warren Schaeffer, he brought us in and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a meeting.’ We’d just had a meeting 30 minutes before that. I was like – man, I’m not going to get my nap in. He said, ‘Everybody come over here. Boys, I just wanted to let you know that after ten years in the minors, Wynton Bernard is going to the show.’ Everybody erupted. Guys were crying. Everybody was happy for me, giving me hugs. I felt like I was dreaming – because I was taking a nap, so I felt like I was still dreaming. It was pretty cool.”
Shortly after came a FaceTime call with his mom that would make him a viral sensation. Bernard went outside the Isotopes’ facilities and called his mom to tell her he’d finally be going to the big leagues.
“She obviously was my first call,” he said. “I remember people asking me, ‘If you ever get called up, who will the first person be that you call?’ I said, ‘It’s got to be my mom.’ So I called her right away – and that’s when I just lost it.”
The emotional video was shared all over Twitter, putting the eyes of the baseball world on Bernard as he was about to make his major-league debut.
“I didn’t realize the impact it had on other people too, which is pretty incredible,” he said. “There’s still people reaching out to me today saying that they’re never going to give up on a lot of things – and that parents are everything. That’s what life is all about.”
In his first major-league game, at Denver’s Coors Field against the Arizona Diamondbacks, Bernard recorded his first big-league hit. It came in the seventh inning with a runner at second base and nobody out in a 3-3 game.
“There was a runner on second base and basically I was just trying to get him over,” Bernard remembered.
Rather than hitting the ball to the right side, Bernard hit a slow roller toward Diamondbacks third baseman Josh Rojas.
“I hit a little dribbler to third base,” he said. “Right when I hit it, I thought – oh, I’ve got to beat this out, or else I’m going to get in trouble. I was running down the line and they called me out at first base, unfortunately.”
Even though he was called out, Bernard believed he was safe.
“I knew I was safe,” he said emphatically. “I was asking (Rockies manager) Buddy Black ‘Please, can you review it?’ Then I saw on the replay board that I looked safe. That’s when I knew – that was definitely a hit.”
He was correct, as replay overruled the original call and he was awarded his first major-league hit. Two pitches later, he took off for second and tallied his first big-league stolen base.
“Stealing bases is something I’ve done my whole life, especially at Niagara and in high school, obviously in pro ball too. I knew I wanted to go right there and they let me go. They gave me the green light.”
Both Bernard and the runner ahead of him eventually came around to score to put the Rockies in front 5-3 – which ended up being the final score.
Among a large contingent of family and friends in the crowd to witness his debut was Niagara baseball coach Rob McCoy.
“That was super special for me because he always believed in me since day one,” Bernard said. “He’s always been so supportive, especially with the mental side of the game. He’s helped out a lot. We’ll always be close.”
Bernard ended up hitting .286/.310/.595 with three stolen bases in twelve games for the Rockies. At the end of the season, he was rewarded for his excellent Triple-A season – in which he hit .333/.387/.590 with 21 home runs, 92 RBIs and 30 stolen bases – by being named the Isotopes team MVP.
Even after such a successful season, Bernard is still striving to improve all aspects of his game.
“I think that’s the whole goal in anything athletic,” he explained. “You just want to be the best in everything you do. That’s situational hitting, running balls out in the gap, stealing bases – you just want to improve on everything and be the best. I just want to be a complete player.”
“I kind of look at it as just trying to go day-by-day. In my head, I just tell myself to barrel the ball up every single at-bat. That puts everything so that it’s not a big goal for the season, but more that it all just takes care of itself. There have been years in the past where I set a specific goal and sometimes it just doesn’t happen. I think what works for me is just going day-by-day.”
Last offseason, he signed a minor-league contract with the Blue Jays organization. He now returns to Western New York, to play for the Bisons – a team he remembers watching when he attended Niagara.
“I think it was my junior year, we had a little team event and I can remember coming to a game,” he said.
“It’s funny, I don’t think anybody knows this but, it was either my junior or senior year, I remember the (Bisons) hitting coach was (Mike) Easler and I remember writing him on Twitter and asking him for advice and saying ‘Can you to come to one of my games?,’ I didn’t know how anything worked for getting drafted. I was like – I just really want to play professional baseball.”
“I think he did eventually message me back, but… he probably never saw me play,” he chuckled. “He was probably like – who is this kid from Niagara? Who does he think he is? But yeah, I think he did (message him back).”
Bernard dreamed of one day playing professional baseball at Sahlen Field. Photo Credit: Brian Frank, The Herd Chronicles
Bernard is excited to play in Buffalo this season and return to Sahlen Field, a place where he once gazed at the field and dreamed of playing professional baseball.
“It’s so cool just because I saw these guys play when I was in college and I was like – I really want to be here one day – I want to play professional baseball,” he said. “Just to be back in the city. I used to work at the dining hall in college – so people have come out to the games yesterday to see me. I have friends still in the area. So it’s been super cool.”
He’s impressed with the numerous upgrades to Sahlen Field since he last played here with the Toledo Mud Hens in 2016.
“This has got to be one of the nicest parks in the league,” he said. “I haven’t been in the International League in a long time. It looks really, really good. The cages are so nice.”
Like anyone who's moved away from Western New York, there are many local staples that Bernard can’t wait to experience again.
“I used to like getting the subs from Wegmans, the Buffalo Chicken Subs. And I love Buffalo Chicken Pizza. I love the wings over at Anchor Bar and Duff’s. Those are places I always used to go in college. I have to make my way down to Niagara – the Brickyard is where we always used to go for barbeque. It’s the best place in Lewiston.”
It’s easy to sense the excitement in his voice when he talks about Buffalo and his new team. He believes the Herd will be a force to reckon with this season in the International League.
“I think we’re going to be really good,” he said. “We’ve just got to put everything together and we’ll start winning some more games. But you can just tell that we have a really talented team – position by positon and all the pitchers. We have a lot of major league experience on the team, and the guys who haven’t had major league experience, they’re major leaguers anyway. So we just have to put it all together.”