Remember Adam Bernero?
Didn’t think so.
It’s only when pitchers with extremely lopsided won-loss records get deep into the season that eminently forgettable names like Bernero’s pop up. This summer, California’s Jered Weaver carried a stunning 15-1 record into the second week of August before a pair of losses brought him back to earth. But while Weaver was flirting with Roy Face’s major-league record of most wins in a season with just one loss (the Pittsburgh reliever finished 18-1 in 1959), some contrarians (like me) were perversely combing the Baseball Encyclopedia to see what poor soul had finished a season with the most losses with just one victory. I mean, 18-1 looks cool in print. But for some reason, 1-18 looks even cooler.
Anyway, it wasn’t Bernero. But in 2003, the tall right-handed starter gave it it his best shot for a sad-sack Tigers team that set all kinds of new lows. In fact, if the Tigers hadn’t traded Bernero to Colorado at midseason, where he was turned into a middle reliever with considerably fewer opportunities to notch a decision, he may very well have shattered the longstanding one-victory/most-losses record for a season.
But let’s start at the beginning. Bernero, a studly looking Californian, was signed by Tigers scout Jeff Wetherby in May 1999, immediately following Bernero’s final game with Armstrong Atlantic State, a Georgia college with an impressive baseball program. Wetherby was in a hurry to sign Bernero, who also was being pursued by an Atlanta Braves scout. So, at a local Denny’s restaurant, Wetherby sketched out terms on a napkin and had the prospect ink his name—a legal document, regardless of any mustard or mayo that may have been inadvertently sopped up.
Despite the success Armstrong Atlantic State had long enjoyed under legendary coach Joe Roberts, the school had never sent someone to the majors. That changed on August 1, 2000, when the 23-year-old Bernero made his big-league debut, earning a no-decision at Anaheim in front of a rooting section that included his mother, two stepmothers, his old girlfriend and his new girlfriend. The newest Tiger’s climb from the minors to the bigs had taken all of 14 months, his rapid progress chiefly due to a 96-mph speedball.
Bernero carried a 4-8 lifetime record and a $314,000 salary into the 2003 season, one that would become unforgettable in Detroit for all the wrong reasons. The Tigers would lose a league-record 119 games, making them a national punchline and putting them in the company of such fabled losers as the 1899 Cleveland Spiders and Casey Stengel’s 1962 New York Mets. Only a spurt of wins in the final week of the season would stop the club from setting baseball’s all-time record for futility.
Bernero, who had been used principally in relief after his rookie season, was anointed a starter in 2003 by Detroit manager Alan Trammell. He gave up only two runs in his first outing, lasting seven innings in a 3-0 loss to Minnesota at Comerica Park. The Tigers were shut out again in Bernero’s second start, this time a 5-0 loss to the White Sox. More losses followed. Bernero lost his first six decisions before he finally got his first – and only – win of the season in a 4-2 victory over the Yankees. It was his best outing of the campaign: two earned runs and seven strikeouts in seven innings.
Then came a string of six more losses that ran his record to 1-12. Starting every fifth day, he was on a pace to lose 20 or more games, something no major-league hurler had done since Ronald Reagan was in the White House. Of course, Bernero wasn’t alone. Three other Detroit starters – Mike Maroth, Jerry Bonderman, and Nate Cornejo – were also dropping decisions at an alarming rate.
On July 2, Bernero didn’t make it out of the fourth inning as he was pounded for seven hits, including a couple home runs, in an 8-2 loss to Toronto. Four days later, Bernero made what turned out to be his final appearance as a Tiger, coming out of the bullpen for the first time after 17 straight starts. By now the Tigers had taken up permanent residency in the division basement. A week later Bernero was traded to Colorado for the equally undistinguished Ben Petrick, a catcher playing out his final big-league campaign in the outfield.
In Colorado, Bernero was used strictly in relief. He dropped a game in August and another in September, running his final record for 2003 to 1-14. Only six other single-victory pitchers in history have ever lost as many games, the best of the worst being Jack Neighbors, who went 1-20 for the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics.
As miserable as his season had been, Bernero could take some solace in the final won-lost records of the pitchers he had once shared a clubhouse with in Detroit. Maroth finished 9-21, Bonderman went 6-19, and Cornejo wound up 6-17. The trio of Detroit starters finished 1-2-3 in the majors in losses, something that has never happened before or since in the game’s long history.
Bernero bounced around a bit, ultimately compiling an 11-27 lifetime record with a 5.91 ERA while wearing five different major-league uniforms. On August 1, 2006, exactly six years to the day that he’d broken into the majors, he made his final big-league appearance, this time as a member of the Kansas City Royals. He signed with Boston in 2007 but shoulder surgery caused him to miss the season. The following year he started four games with Pittsburgh’s AAA affiliate, Indianapolis, his last fling as a professional on the mound.
Today Bernero works in the Pirates organization, his minor claim to fame the dozen losses – and solitary victory – he contributed to the Tigers’ sorriest summer.