When former Cuesta College baseball product Doug Bernier was called up to the Minnesota Twins this week, headlines detailed a career minor-leaguer getting a rare shot at the big leagues.
Bernier, 33, had played all of two Major League games in 12 seasons as a pro, and that single shot of espresso was five years ago with the Colorado Rockies.
Most players either give up on their dream or have it taken away from them by this stage, and the Santa Maria native had contemplated retirement when his career seemed stalled at Triple-A.
“There were times,” Bernier told The Tribune by phone Wednesday, “when I was like, ‘Am I wasting my time? Am I going to get there?’ I still believed I could make it. I still believed I could play at that level.
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“There definitely were doubts, but I feel like I just wanted to keep pushing.”
In four games with the Twins this season, Bernier is 3 for 9 with two doubles and two RBI. In his only other Major League action, two games with the Rockies in 2008, he was 0 for 4.
Based on projections, the 6-foot-1, 185-pound Bernier, isn’t supposed to be with Minnesota.
He wasn’t supposed to make it to Triple-A — or even Double-A for that matter. He wasn’t even drafted.
He wasn’t supposed to be in an NCAA Regional, and as a pitcher first coming out of St. Joseph High in the late 1990s, he didn’t have any scholarship offers from four-year schools.
But perhaps that’s why Bernier has pushed and persevered for so long and has made it everywhere he shouldn’t. Receiving the benefit of the doubt is kind of a foreign concept to him.
“Being undrafted,” Cal Poly head coach Larry Lee said, “there’s no investment in him, which is not a good thing when you enter professional baseball because there’s a lot of politics involved, especially in the minor leagues.”
Lee coached Cuesta for 16 seasons, leaving to join the Mustangs after the 2002 season, and there wasn’t much interest in Bernier back when he was a Cougars player from 1999-2000.
It’s the reason Lee is so proud of Bernier’s journey and his latest accomplishment. It’s one thing to say you started from the bottom. It’s another to make it from there.
“In a professional scout’s eye, there’s nothing that jumped out at you” about Bernier, Lee said. “Doug’s the type of guy that you need to see over an extended period of time, and he will grow on you. You see how steady he is and the value he brings to a team.”
Before finishing his collegiate career as an all-regional postseason performer for Oral Roberts, Bernier started every game at shortstop during his Cuesta career, helping lead the Cougars to the doorstep of the state final four.
Although he ranks in the top 10 on the program’s career list for runs scored, the most striking statistic is his 90 career walks, 14 more than the next closest Cuesta player. This past year, his single-season record of 47 walks was eclipsed.
So, when Bernier signed an undrafted free agent deal with the Rockies, he was only supposed to fill a roster spot for a couple of seasons and wash out after sitting on the bench behind the prospects.
Instead, he ran hard, played hard and tried to focus on all the little aspects of baseball that were within his control.
Coaches and managers began to take notice, and a slick fielding glove honed during his days at Cuesta helped Bernier methodically work his way through the minors, even when his hitting slumped.
“It wasn’t until I got to Cuesta with coach Lee when I started to get a lot better defensively,” said Bernier, who founded ProBaseballInsider.com, a website featuring free tips, drills and product reviews all done by professional players. “There were routines he had us do for defense. It really helped me out. I liked working and practicing. Going to Cuesta was one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
After being leapfrogged by a rising Troy Tulowitzki in the Rockies organization, Bernier signed with the Yankees and continued to pile up at-bats in the minors — until last season.
Bernier hit .201 in 58 games for Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. Though he had played all four infield positions nearly flawlessly during the span, it was the fourth straight season he’d hit under .250, and it looked like his amazing underdog run might finally be coming to an end.
A renaissance with the bat changed that trajectory.
In his first season in the Twins organization, Bernier learned a new approach from Rochester (N.Y.) Red Wings manager Gene Glynn: Instead of swinging harder, just barrel up the ball.
Bernier has been letting the pitchers provide the power ever since, and in addition to his typical .985 fielding percentage in Rochester, Bernier was hitting .295, his best average since hitting .310 with the Triple-A Colorado Springs Sky Sox in 2007.
Now, when plenty of MLB veterans are thinking about life after baseball, Bernier has a new one in baseball.
“I’ve seen guys in the past, late-rounders or undrafted free agents, and they don’t last very long,” Bernier said. “I’ve been fortunate to have played as long as I can let alone get a chance to get to the big leagues.”