LEWISTON, N.Y. (WIVB) — They say that all roads lead home.
There’s parts of that saying that are true for Wynton Bernard.
Bernard, an alumnus of Niagara, is entering his 12th season in professional baseball, but made his major league debut just last August for the Colorado Rockies. It’s rare for players to be in the minor leagues that long, much less end up making it to the big leagues for the first time that late in their career.
“I’ve seen a lot of teammates and I’ve seen a lot of people get so frustrated about the game and give up,” Bernard said.
Bernard’s story starts in 2009, when he was a freshman at Niagara. From the jump, he was a star, hitting .293 his freshman season while hitting two home runs and stealing 23 bases, which at the time ranked him in the top five all time for the Purple Eagles and hit five triples, which is still tied for the most in a single season at Niagara.
However, after his freshman season, his father, Walter, fell ill. Bernard, who is from the San Diego area, transferred to Riverside City College for his sophomore season. Walter passed away a time later, and Bernard was faced with a choice: stay at home and be close to his family, or go back to Niagara to be with his baseball family.
“I always tell people, the toughest kid I’ve ever recruited was Wynton coming back as a junior. I called him religiously every week for months,” said Niagara coach Rob McCoy, who had taken over the team as interim head coach in 2009 before landing the permanent job a year later. “Family is big for him. He’s super tight with his family, so I think to a certain extent he felt like we were that.”
Niagara was a home for him.
“It was to stay on the west coast for my mom. I was going to go to San Diego State but I needed one more class during the summer and I couldn’t get in, so I said that if I was going to go to the east coast I was going to go to Niagara. That’s home,” Bernard said.
After two more seasons of being a star, Bernard heard his name called in the 35th round of the 2012 MLB Draft by none other than his hometown San Diego Padres.
He was only able to spend a year and a half in the organization before he was released, but found a home in the Detroit Tigers organization. After three years there and getting as high as Class AAA Toledo, it was off to the San Francisco Giants farm system, where he spent a year with Class AAA Sacramento. That was followed by a year and a half with the Chicago Cubs system, then a year and a half in the independent leagues, which included the COVID-impacted 2020 season.
He signed with the Colorado Rockies ahead of the 2021 season. After just over a year and a half at Class AAA Albuquerque, he earned his first major-league call-up to Colorado on Aug. 12 of last year after hitting .325 with 17 home runs and 26 stolen bases at the time. He played in his first game at baseball’s highest level that night and collected his first major league hit. At Coors Field in Denver that night, his cheering section featured over 20 people, including McCoy. Upon his call-up, a video of him on FaceTime telling his mother the good news went viral on social media.
“My family and my whole support system was very supportive of me. They saw my vision. I think it was rewarding for me too because at some point, a lot of people thought I should stop playing or I should give up,” Bernard said. “So that’s why I think the emotions were so high for me, I just persevered through everything.”
He got into 12 games with Colorado last season, averaging a hit per game and stealing three bases.
“A lot of people talk about, how did he do that, how did he grind, how did he last? The one thing that I want people to know is that this kid genuinely loves baseball. This isn’t a mechanical thing where he’s trying to prove somebody wrong,” McCoy said. “It’s just a goal that he is trying to accomplish. He loves playing baseball and he always has.”
Meanwhile, he has done his best to stay involved with the Niagara baseball program. He has helped talk a few of the team’s current players into coming to Niagara, and did a Zoom with the team at the onset of the pandemic about his career and to help motivate the current Purple Eagles. On Saturday, he will be the keynote speaker at the program’s annual beginning-of-season dinner.
“We have guys [who] decided to come here because of guys like him, because they got drafted and they have been successful and are still in pro ball,” McCoy said. “What it’s meant to the program has just been credibility, really. Credibility and mentorship.”
“I’ve said anytime they need anything to just let me know, because that’s what the game is all about, everybody has passed along such good information to me, it’s only right for me to pass it onto them,” Bernard said.
Now, another chance comes with a more local organization. Bernard recently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, with the Bisons as the top farm team in the organization.
“It’s like showing up for the first day of school. You’re going to see new faces, meet new people, you’re in a great organization. I think this organization is known to win a World Series here soon and that’s what you dream of as a kid, a World Series team.”
For Bernard, the goal is to be in Toronto, but the ultimate goal is to contribute in a positive way for an organization that has a goal of winning the World Series, while also improving himself any way he can.
“You just never know in life, I’m still growing in this game,’ Bernard said. “This off-season I’ve gotten better in all aspects of the game. I’m 32 years old, but it just goes to show you how much better you can get if you just keep working.”
Aidan Joly joined the News 4 staff in 2022. He is a graduate of Canisius College. You can see more of his work here.