It was the first day of spring training in February of 2012. The New York Yankees clubhouse in Tampa was packed with players, coaches, and media. Derek Jeter stood in front of his locker talking to reporters, while Alex Rodriguez moved quickly in and out of the room because it had already been decided that he would speak to the media down the hall in a press conference rather than have people climbing on top of one another in the crowded clubhouse to hear what he had to say.
At a corner locker, near the door, was Doug Bernier. I had written his name down on a long list of players I thought might be worth interviewing for a book about life in minor-league baseball, specifically at the Triple-A level—one step from the glamour, bright lights, and big bucks of the major leagues.
Bernier had caught my eye for several reasons: He was a college graduate, specifically a graduate of Oral Roberts University—not exactly a baseball hotbed. He was about to begin his 11th season as a professional baseball player, and he had spent three days—three—in the major leagues.
Unlike Moonlight Graham, the character made famous by the movie Field of Dreams, Bernier had gotten an at bat in the majors—four of them, to be precise. But he had the same number of hits as Graham: zero.
Just the kind of story I was looking for if—and this was always the biggest if—he was willing and able to tell that story.
As most of my friends and colleagues turned their attention to Jeter and Andy Pettitte and Mariano Rivera, I walked over to Bernier. I could see the look of surprise on his face when he saw someone wearing a media credential approaching.
I introduced myself and explained what I was doing. I never said, “The book is about life in the minor leagues,” because any player sitting in a major-league clubhouse in February is holding out hope that he’s still going to be there in April. Even someone who has spent a grand total of three days in the majors. Instead, I just said the book was about guys who have been up and down during their careers.
Bernier grinned. “Lot more down than up in my career,” he said.
I liked him right away.
Then he added, “Let me see if I can squeeze you in with all these other guys”—he waved a hand at the completely empty space around his locker.
I liked him even more.
A reporter’s life is funny sometimes. Who would have thought that the very first person I introduced myself to during the process of researching a book would become as memorable as anyone I’ve met in 28 years as an author?
Bernier had grown up in California—his dad was an aerospace engineer at Lockheed Martin—and had always been a good athlete, even though he wasn’t very big. He is generously listed as six-foot-one and 185 pounds. Perhaps standing on tiptoes and holding several bricks in his hands he’s that big.
He was a pitcher in high school but figured out that a short right-hander who couldn’t throw 90 miles an hour wasn’t going to go very far, so he focused on being an infielder. He went to junior college for two years and then ended up at Oral Roberts.
“I had interest from some of the big-time baseball schools like Miami and Texas,” he said. “But I knew I probably wouldn’t play much there. I didn’t know a lot about Oral Roberts except they apparently had really good baseball facilities and a pretty good team, and the school wasn’t in California. I figured, Why not?”
Of course, when he arrived in Tulsa, he got some serious culture shock. He wasn’t prepared for the giant bronze hands formed in prayer in the middle of the campus. He was also caught off guard when he walked into his first class in a T-shirt and shorts and realized everyone else was wearing a shirt and tie. “Went to Walmart and bought a clip-on that afternoon,” he said. “Wore it every day for the next two years.”
He played well enough to believe he was going to be drafted by a major-league team when he graduated in June of 2002. The major-league baseball draft has 50 rounds, meaning at least 1,500 players are drafted (some teams are given bonus picks, which adds to the number each year). Bernier didn’t make the cut.
“It was disappointing, to say the least,” he said. “I had put all my eggs in the baseball basket. I wasn’t really sure what to do next.”
A week later, sitting at home, Bernier got a phone call: An infielder the Colorado Rockies had drafted out of high school had decided to go to college and hadn’t signed. Would Bernier be interested in going to Pasco, Washington, to play rookie-league ball for $850 a month?
“Where do I sign?” was his answer.
Bernier spent the next several years learning the realities of minor-league baseball: Almost every player carries one of two labels—prospect or organization player.
A prospect is almost always a high- or at least mid-level draft pick who the team believes has a chance to become a major-league player. An organization player is someone who is signed to help fill out minor-league rosters. Most major-league teams have seven minor-league teams—meaning they need between 175 and 200 players to fill their rosters. Only a handful will ever make it to the majors.
As an undrafted free agent, Bernier was never looked at as a prospect. In fact, he was never once an Opening Day starter at any level of the minors. But he worked his way steadily up the ladder to Triple-A and, in June of 2008, was surprised when Tom Runnells, his manager in Colorado Springs, called him into his office to “talk about some defensive adjustments.”
Bernier walked in and found Runnells and the coaching staff there but none of the other infielders. “For a split second, I thought, Oh God, I’m 27, they’re releasing me,” he said. “Organization guys are always expendable.”
That wasn’t it. “Dougie, Yorvit Torrealba just got suspended,” Runnells said. “The Rockies need an extra bat and glove for a few days. It’s you.”
Bernier wasn’t even sure he was hearing right or if he was going to wake up from the dream a few seconds later. Nope, he was going to the major leagues.
When he walked into the Rockies clubhouse, the first person to greet him was Todd Helton, a likely future Hall of Famer.
“Dougie!” he said, hugging him. “I’m so glad to see you here.”
Bernier was there for three days. Manager Clint Hurdle gave him a start at shortstop the last day, and he almost got a hit—a line drive headed to left field was snared by Indians shortstop Jhonny Peralta.
The next day, he was back in Colorado Springs. Even so, when his next paycheck arrived, he got another thrill. “I was making $2,100 a month at that point,” he said. “I’d made $2,400 a day in the majors playing for the big-league minimum [$432,000 a year back then]. The paycheck was the first one I’d ever gotten that had a comma in it.”
He grinned. “If I could have afforded it,” he said, “I’d have framed it.”
By the time I met Bernier, he was 31 and thrilled to be invited to the Yankees major-league training camp. In fact, that spring, when Derek Jeter was recovering from an injury, Bernier played shortstop for much of the preseason. The Yankees had an infield most days of Mark Teixeira ($22 million a year), Robinson Cano ($14 million), Alex Rodriguez ($25 million), and Bernier ($12,000 a month).
“It was a little intimidating,” he said, laughing. “But they all acted as if I were Jeter.”
He played like Jeter—hitting .361 for the spring. Of course, once Jeter was healthy, Bernier was back in Triple-A, where, for the first time in his career, he was a starter on Opening Day. But he was injured early in the season and wondered if he would get another chance to play in 2013.
He did. The Minnesota Twins signed him and, midway through the season, brought him back to the majors. On July 22, 2013, after playing 1,060 minor-league games in which he’d made 3,806 plate appearances, Bernier doubled to left field off Los Angeles Angels pitcher Joe Blanton for his first big-league hit and RBI. It had taken him 11 years and one month to get to that moment.
He spent the rest of the 2013 season with the Twins as a backup infielder and was invited to their training camp in 2014. In late March, he was sent back to Triple-A. There was still plenty of season ahead to try to get back to the majors. It would never occur to Bernier to give up or quit or whine about being sent back to the minor leagues. As much as he would love to live the “major-league life,” as the players call it, he still finds it thrilling to go to a ballpark and play baseball every day. His approach to the game remains as enthusiastic as when he was a boy. It reminds me of when I was a boy—loving just to play the game. Hope lives forever in guys like Doug Bernier.
John Feinstein is a bestselling author and sportswriter. He hosts a daily radio show on CBS Sports Radio Network.