As the Jays continue to do a whole lot of nothing this offseason, seemingly content to watch the Angels add difference-making players every two days, I’ve found myself looking in my idleness at previous Jays seasons. I was, after all, not around for most of them. Lately, I’ve been considering the 1997 Blue Jays season quite closely.
There are a few things that interest me about 1997. For starters, it was the year I was born, but it was also a season that in many respects was quite similar to the year the Blue Jays just had in 2017. Both teams finished 76-86, well out of division contention; both had a disproportionate amount of their value come from aging players while being simultaneously burdened by the underperformance of former stars. Both teams were also immensely disappointing—and therein lies the difference between the two. The 2017 Jays were underwhelming, sure, but they had nowhere near the kind of offseason hype that the 1997 Jays had. The 2017 Jays didn’t sign Roger Clemens while he was at his superhuman peak. They didn’t trade for two All-Star position players. And they certainly didn’t sign a contract that was, to that point, several orders of magnitude larger than the previous largest contract given to a Dominican prospect.
The beneficiary of this contract was 16-year-old Josephang Bernhardt, a Dominican Scott Boras client with a family baseball pedigree, and a name I had never heard before I started researching the 1997 Jays. The more I read, the more I was baffled as to how he could have flown so far under my radar. He was a record-breaker, the setter of a new precedent, a stunning talent who at 16 had already been the subject of contractual controversy. Bernhardt drew serious—even favorable—comparisons to Alex Rodriguez, and his signing was seen as not only a massive coup for the Jays, but a watershed moment in the always-contentious business of international prospect signings.
And yet, in 2017, I had never heard of him. He doesn’t have a Wikipedia page. He hadn’t been mentioned in a North American news publication since the year 2000. I set out to discover how that was possible.
Josephang Bernhardt was first the subject of media coverage at the age of 15, though for less than celebratory reasons: the nascent Tampa Bay Devil Rays organization, yet to play their inaugural season, were found to have signed the six-foot-one teenager from San Pedro de Macoris illegally—before he had reached the league-mandated signing-age cutoff of 16. By the time the league ruled on his case, Bernhardt had even attended the Devil Rays’ instructional camp; after the ruse had been discovered, he was once again available for signing, sparking a multiple-team bidding war that would last for months.
Such incidences as this were hardly anomalous in Major League Baseball’s contentious history of dealing with teenage prospects in the Caribbean and in South and Central America. In his essay “‘Latin Players on the Cheap’: Professional Baseball Recruitment in Latin America and the Neocolonialist Tradition,” Samuel O. Regalado outlines the history of professional baseball’s often very shady Latin American talent evaluation and procurement practices, which began as early as the 1910s and persisted essentially unregulated for more than a half-century. He opens with a quote from sports journalist Ray Fitzgerald about the recruitment practices of influential mid-20th century scout Joe Cambria: “Bonuses? Big-money promises? Uh-uh. Cambria’s carrot was the fame and glory that would come from playing beisbol in the big leagues” (9).
While we now conceive of contracts signed by top international prospects as being a big money game, with packages often ranging into the tens of millions of dollars, the reality for most of the history of Latin American scouting is that it wasn’t a money game at all—it was, in fact, a game of handing over as little money as possible. Regalado writes that most of the players approached by scouts—players who were inexperienced, young and largely very poor—were “no match for the shrewd and experienced MLB scouts, whose affiliations with major league clubs gave them the leverage they needed to attract young Latin American players for little or no cost” (11). With little leverage to speak of, being unfamiliar with the English language, and easily won over by promises of guaranteed fame, comfort and financial stability, these players were ideal signees for teams looking for cheap talent. And given that all of this business was undertaken far away from teams’ headquarters in the US, any rules that did exist were hardly well-enforced.
Once a player was signed under this system, they were lucky if they saw the money that they were promised, because paying the player was never the object: Cambria bragged that he could sign a Latin American player for less “than you would pay for a hat” (Kerrane 30). And, of course, the promises of certain success that took the place of monetary compensation almost never came to fruition. That is simply not the lot of a minor leaguer, particularly not a minor leaguer who is signed, as many Latin American players were, with absolutely no hope on the scout’s part that they would ever make the major leagues.
We know the stories of the ones who succeeded. Adrian Beltre, discovered and illegally signed as a slight 15-year-old; Mariano Rivera, whose home was so isolated that they didn’t have phone lines, whose signing bonus was a mere $2,500. Many of the players who make it profess gratitude to the scouts who discovered them and signed them, giving them a chance to achieve their dreams. Once you have major-league status and wealth, it all becomes part of the legend.
But there is no way to quantify the effects that this system had on all of the players who never made it: uneducated teenagers, with no grasp of English and given no resources to learn the language, with little to no money even if they were promised thousands, dropped into an entirely unfamiliar country and culture. What happened to them once their baseball dreams were inevitably dashed?
Until 1984, there was no regulation pertaining to minimum signing age of Latin American prospects. It was the Blue Jays who precipitated that particular change: their signing of a 13-year-old was considered a bridge too far, at which point the age-16 benchmark was established. But the creation of a rule, once again, didn’t translate to the enforcement of said rule. As this New York Times piece details, there was incentive both for players to lie about their ages and for scouts not to notice. It was only when other teams raised a ruckus, feeling hard done by a particular signing, that such cases were exposed.
And so it was with Josephang Bernhardt, who had signed with the Devil Rays using a falsified birth certificate. He was a highly-touted prospect, and several teams who had lost out to the Devil Rays in their pursuit of him raised the alarm. When the dust settled, the now-16-year-old Bernhardt, whom the Devil Rays had signed for $30,000—in those days, a fairly steep price for a Dominican prospect—was once again available for signing.
He was a perfect target for the Blue Jays, who were looking to have an impactful offseason. The team was still only three seasons removed from the back-to-back championships, still drawing above-average attendance, but three consecutive losing seasons was beginning to test the patience of the fanbase—and, to make matters worse, the Yankee dynasty was on the ascent. They wanted to show fans that the team could still be a legitimate contender, both in the immediate and more distant future.
And they certainly made a splash in the offseason market. At the time when the Jays were finalizing their deal with Bernhardt, a Canadian Press article had them as having already spent $67.5 million on free agent contracts, which translates to around $106 million in present-day currency. The most important of these signings was, of course, the signing of Roger Clemens to a four-year contract. But Clemens was in his mid-thirties, and the Jays wanted to show that they had an eye towards championships through the next decade as well. And given his quality, Bernhardt was the hottest young prospect available.
The consensus was that Bernhardt, a shortstop, was only an average defender and had only average speed. It was the bat that had teams clamoring to sign him, a bat that the Jays’ then-director of Latin American scouting Herb Rivera described as “the best [he’d] ever seen at his age.” Scouts saw fearsome power in Bernhardt, who was 6’1” at 16 and who was expected to grow another four inches, and his bat was said to rival that of Alex Rodriguez, who had become a full-time player in 1996 and finished second in MVP voting. With that kind of potential, whether or not he could stick at shortstop was seen as almost immaterial. In the end, the pursuit of Bernhardt came down to three teams: the White Sox, the Orioles and the Jays. The Jays ultimately outbid Pat Gillick mere hours after he’d gone to the Bernhardts’ house to plead his case.
Bernhardt, as I mentioned before, had a family baseball pedigree: his father had been a minor leaguer in the Jays system, his uncle a major-league outfielder, and both now worked as scouts in the White Sox organization. It was thanks to their careers—the experience they had in the system, and the financial stability afforded by their jobs—that he got paid as much as he did, because his family was able to hire Scott Boras to represent him in free agency.
After the Devil Rays fiasco, Boras, Bernhardt and his family developed a clear, specific, uncompromising set of signing demands. And under Boras’s oversight, Bernhardt landed a dream package from the Jays. It was not only the amount of money in play—a full 20 times larger than the previous high for a Dominican player—that swayed Boras and the Bernhardts, that had the market in an uproar. In addition to the million dollars, the Jays promised English lessons, $100,000 for a college education, and funding for family visits from the Dominican four times a year. The social and cultural transition, the homesickness and isolation from family and friends, are often the hardest things for recently-signed Latin American prospects to handle, and the Blue Jays were acknowledging that difficulty. “We are not in exploitation mode,” said Jays GM Gord Ash. “We’re paying top international talent their equivalent on the current North American market.”
The deal was seen by everyone in baseball as something that could forever change the standard of scouting and signing in the Caribbean. And in his column in the Toronto Star, Richard Griffin wondered if baseball wouldn’t react against this change by absorbing it into the status quo. “Within two years, look for Dominicans to be included in the June draft,” he wrote. “They’ll call it the ‘Bernhardt Rule.’”
For his part, Bernhardt responded to the hubbub surrounding his signing with something resembling quiet resignation. Despite the fact that he was 16, a prime age for recklessness, he seemed remarkably disinclined to do anything reckless with his money. When a Canadian reporter asked him whether he was going to buy a car, he shrugged off the suggestion— he hadn’t even thought about it. “I don’t have my driver’s license,” he said by way of explanation.
This attitude gained Bernhardt favor with the media and with the coaching staff at Jays camp. In a Star report from spring 1997— “Phenom impresses at camp,” the title reads—minor league hitting instructor Larry Hisle and assistant general manager Bob Engle sang Bernhardt’s praises. He looked good in the field, he had the good face, he had all the tools to be a great major-league hitter. The Jays now not only had a major-league roster packed with top-end stars: they had what they believed to be a franchise player developing in the minor leagues.
And while Bernhardt, by all accounts, was a quiet, unassuming young man, he was in his quiet way just as confident as everyone else was. “I think I can be a power hitter in the majors,” he said. “I think maybe I can be ready in four years.”
The Blue Jays weren’t good in 1997. They were fine in 1998, but not nearly good enough to pose a threat to the historic Yankees. They did a little bit worse in 1999, and a little bit worse than that in 2000. It was a decline that wouldn’t end for a very long time.
The new millennium was supposed to mark the beginning of Bernhardt’s time as the Jays’ franchise player; instead, he was starting the season in Dunedin, yet to post a slugging percentage above .345. Dunedin was where he would end his career, too, after batting .118/.167/.147 through nine games. Through seven seasons as a professional baseball player, Bernhardt never reached double-A. He was the signing that was going to change the market, that was going to set the future of the Blue Jays, the guy everyone was talking about; by the time he finally faded out, no one was talking about him at all. Bernhardt’s quiet disposition and even quieter bat rendered him irrelevant to the point of oblivion, to the point where even the memory of his genuinely important signing was obscured by the fog of failure. Perhaps Blue Jays fans didn’t want to remember that their team had made a career .221 hitter the first Dominican prospect millionaire. Perhaps the media didn’t want to remember just how much they had hyped a prospect who never set foot on a major-league diamond. Today, Bernhardt isn’t even listed on Wikipedia as one of Boras’s clients.
I have a fascination with failed top prospects. I think it’s because I’m at a similar stage in my life as many of them are: on the early borderline of adulthood, trying to navigate the gap between the possibility of what I may someday be able to achieve and the reality of how limited my capabilities are now. These prospects, who had their greatness acclaimed by countless people and backed up by large amounts of money, reckon with failure of much higher stakes than I do as a random, average person. There is something to be learned, I think, from these experiences. Bernhardt’s signing was historic, the object of hot pursuit from multiple major-league teams, the name on the tongues of executives and super-agents and journalists and hopeful fans; nowadays, it takes a lot of research to find pretty much any of this information.
I could find only one article about Josephang Bernhardt post-playing career. It ran in the Dominican Diario Libre in 2016. The title, for those who don’t speak Spanish, reads: “First millionaire prospect from the DR failed as a baseball player, but aspires to the big leagues of the law.”
The interviewer met Bernhardt at his two-level house in his Dominican hometown, purchased with his signing money—he had, after all, told Canadian media back when he signed that his family wouldn’t let him touch the money until he turned 20, and his career ended at 22. He also had, as the article notes, “a disposition to relaunch his life” post-baseball. After being released by the Blue Jays (with whom he apparently didn’t have an entirely positive relationship—the article notes that a series of hand and thigh injuries were exacerbated by “various incidents with trainers”), Bernhardt’s uncle, working with the Orioles, had him come to a few practices, but Bernhardt quickly decided he was done. He left baseball and never came back: “so as not to embarrass myself.”
It was hard, Bernhardt says, to accept that he wasn’t going to make it as a baseball player. It was harder still to return to school, having spent so many of his formative years thinking of baseball and baseball only. Bernhardt began attending night school in 2004, and university the following year; he graduated with a degree in law in 2016, no small feat for someone who left high school at 15. At the time of the article’s writing, he was beginning at a law firm, with hopes of someday starting his own. The Jays’ investment in his college education went to good use.
Bernhardt had no further contact with baseball. “I don’t regret anything,” he said.
But though he may have left it behind entirely, Bernhardt did leave a mark on baseball, unremembered though it may be, and I think it deserves to be recognized. Twenty years after his signing, multi-million dollar contracts for top young Dominican prospects are commonplace, and though it may not be known as such, though there may be no “Bernhardt precedent” or “Bernhardt rule,” his signing changed the way scouts and teams approached and valued top Latin American prospects forever. While the recent case of John Coppollella demonstrated that teams still don’t always follow the letter of the law in their dealings with young Latin American players, the days of players given absolutely no assistance with the English language, given only enough money for bus fare and left to fend for themselves, are largely over. Our own Vladimir Guerrero Jr., a Dominican teenager like Bernhardt, signed for $3.9 million, a number that would have been utterly inconceivable before the Bernhardt signing broke the million-dollar mark.
There are other ways to make an impact in baseball, it would seem, than becoming a legend.
– Byers, Jim. “Only 16 – but a Superstar in the Making: How Jays Signed Big-Hitting Dominican Teen to $1.1 Million Contract.” Toronto Star, Jan 18 1997.
– Griffin, Richard. “Jays’ Signing of Dominican One really Big Deal.” Toronto Star, Jan 18 1997.
– Kerrane, Kevin. Dollar Sign on the Muscle: The World of Baseball Scouting. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.
– “Phenom impresses at camp.” Toronto Star, March 20 1997.
– Regalado, Samuel O. “‘Latin Players on the Cheap'”: Professional Baseball Recruitment in Latin America and the Neocolonialist Tradition.” Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 8, no. 2 (Fall 2000): 9-20. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20644754.
Lead Photo: Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports