By IAN WILSON
The unlikely return of the Toronto Blue Jays to the postseason this year will put the spotlight on several of the club’s rising stars.
Shortstop Bo Bichette is one of the players who will be counted on if the team hopes to advance past the top-seeded Tampa Bay Rays in the best-of-three Wild Card Round. But there is another Bichette with the organization who may prove just as valuable to the team – Bo’s father Dante, who serves as an assistant hitting coach on the Blue Jays.
The elder Bichette played 15 Major League Baseball (MLB) seasons between the late 1980s and early 2000s, with the pinnacle of his career happening in 1995 as an outfielder with the Colorado Rockies. Dante led the National League (NL) in home runs (40) and RBI (128) that season, and was the runner up to Barry Larkin in most-valuable player voting. He also made his only postseason appearance that year. It was the first playoff berth for the franchise. In four games and 18 playoff plate appearances against the Atlanta Braves, Bichette batted .588, with six runs, three doubles, a home run and three runs batted in.
While that campaign was a high-water mark, Dante’s 1996 season as a member of the Blake Street Bombers also saw him join elite company when his 31 long balls and 31 stolen bases entered him into the 30-30 club. The 114 runs he scored and the 141 RBI he registered that year were career bests.
Prior to his arrival as a regular in the majors, the Jupiter, Florida native suited up for three years as a member of the Edmonton Trappers. The entirety of his time in Triple-A – 285 Pacific Coast League (PCL) games – was with the Trappers. Those ball games in Alberta’s capital gave Dante a peek into MLB life and allowed him to refine a powerful swing that would earn him a lengthy tenure in the bigs. There were also other crucial lessons for the man in his mid-20s, things you don’t always pick up between the lines.
The 6-foot-3 slugger split the 1986 season at Single-A in Palm Springs and Double-A in Midland, smacking 22 homers and driving in 109 runs between both levels of baseball. That resulted in minor league player-of-the-year honours, which he shared with pitcher Willie Fraser, from the California Angels. It also made him a top-10 prospect within the organization.
Dante was still raw and rugged at that point.
“I was a good kid … I was not into drugs or anything like that,” Bichette told reporter Norm Cowley in the April 5th, 1987 edition of the Edmonton Journal.
“I was just real strong headed. I knew what I wanted to do and I did what I wanted to do.”
The article chronicled a brawling Bichette, who was kicked out of military school in his freshman year of high school, and a tardy, rule-breaking player who incurred numerous fines in his first two seasons of professional baseball.
“Last year, I wasn’t fined nothing,” said the 17th-round draft pick. “I’m glad I went through what I did in the minor leagues. It made me grow up real quick.”
Trapper Manager Tom Kotchman saw a lot of skill in his new outfielder, but he also identified a player in need of some fine-tuning.
“He’s very crude as far as talent goes, but it’s all coming together,” observed the Edmonton skipper. “There’s no telling what he can do because he is so strong, if he learns the strike zone a little better.”
Added Kotchman: “He’s a good enough athlete that he can play centre field if we need him to play there. He can play defence. He’s got a major league arm and he runs well for a big guy.”
Bichette was excited to see what he could do against Triple-A pitching. His only concern was his bat literally going cold.
“I’m from Florida. I’ve never seen snow,” he told the Journal. “I don’t like to hit in cold weather, but I don’t think it will be a factor. You’re just going to have to hit the ball on the nose or else it is going to sting.”
HITTING A WALL
Bichette felt a painful sting just 26 games into his rookie PCL campaign. After a few bad swings at the plate, and with minor league hitting instructor Joe Maddon at the ballpark to watch the game, he placed his right hand in his helmet and punched the dugout wall. Bichette hoped the cushioning in his head gear would protect his hand, but the helmet slipped before impact.
“I hardly ever lose my temper,” Dante told Cowley. “But it was frustrating. I just had the three worst hacks I had taken all year, and with the hitting instructor in town.”
To add insult to injury, Bichette was fined for the incident and forced to pay for his medical costs.
He did, however, show some grit before landing on the temporary inactive list (because the injury was deemed non-baseball related, the Trappers did not put him on the disabled list). During an at bat that followed his dugout outburst, the broken-handed batter managed to beat out a throw for an infield hit.
When he returned to the lineup several weeks later, Dante did not disappoint. He posted a batting average of .300 and his 13 home runs were the third most on the team in his first Triple-A season. Bichette also registered 50 RBI and 54 runs through 92 games.
The hard-hitting prospect padded his stats in 1988, when he played 132 games for Edmonton. His batting average dipped to .267, as he implemented changes to his stance, but his combination of power and speed was on full display. During 509 at bats, Bichette belted 14 homers and 29 doubles. His 81 RBI and 10 triples led the team, and he was 8-for-9 on the base paths. He was rewarded with a late-season callup and made his MLB debut with the California Angels on Sept. 5th. Bichette appeared in 21 games for the big club, registering one run, eight RBI and 12 hits, including a pair of doubles.
MAKING THE JUMP
Dante reported to camp the next season ready to put it all together and become an everyday MLB player. His introduction to Deron Johnson, the hitting coach for the Angels, helped him put the pieces into place. Bichette batted .388 and launched four long balls during 24 exhibition games, including a grand slam off Mark Langston, prompting the team to award him the outstanding rookie trophy at spring training.
“He turned my career around … this has probably been the best month of my career,” Bichette said of Johnson, who helped cure the heavy hitter of a tendency to lunge at pitches that were low and away.
“I’m excited right now. This is a dream come true for me. But I don’t want to stop right here, I need to keep on going.”
Noted Johnson of Dante’s transformation: “He’s a big league hitter. He’s hit the ball well every day this spring … when he first came down he jumped. He don’t jump no more.”
He did, however, make a different kind of jump by appearing on the 1989 Opening Day roster for the Angels.
Bichette got off to a decent start by collecting 10 hits in his first 26 MLB at bats that year, but then a 5-for-44 stretch – coupled with a pop up on a bad pitch with runners in scoring position – resulted in his demotion to the Trappers.
“It was no surprise. I told my family that it was certainly a possibility. It brings a certain amount of relief – I can get back in the lineup, play every day, and get out of this slump,” admitted the right fielder to Journal sports reporter Mark Spector in a June 23rd column.
Doug Rader, the manager of the Angels, said it was important to get Bichette more plate appearances.
“It just wasn’t fair to Dante. We couldn’t get him any at bats,” said Rader. “One of the criteria for keeping Dante was to get him enough at bats, but Claudell Washington came on in right field.”
After he made the drive from Anaheim to Edmonton with a trunk full of Dante Bichette-stamped Louisville Slugger bats, he took out his frustrations on the baseballs at John Ducey Park.
“Dante costs us $100 during batting practice,” Kotchman told Spector.
In Bichette’s first round of BP back in Edmonton, Kotchman delivered nine pitches. Five left the ballpark, three struck the outfield wall and the other reached the warning track. The display was impressive enough that his Trapper teammates stopped what they were doing to watch.
His confidence was growing, and the refinements to his game were evident.
“I hit a home run in the big leagues. That was a dream come true. I played in the big leagues. Now I need a career. I need to live,” said Bichette in the Journal.
In 48 contests with the Angels that year, he batted .210 with three home runs, three stolen bases and 15 RBI. His 61 games with the Trappers yielded another 11 round trippers, 40 RBI, 39 runs, 11 doubles and a .243 batting average. The stats weren’t necessarily eye popping, but the development Bichette required had taken place.
Over the next 13 years, the four-time All Star was a durable major leaguer who never played less than 107 games in a season. In addition to his time with the Angels and Rockies, Bichette played for the Milwaukee Brewers, Cincinnati Reds and Boston Red Sox. When his MLB career came to an end, the Silver Slugger award winner’s achievements included a lifetime batting average of .299, 274 home runs, 1,141 RBI, 401 doubles and 152 stolen bases.
Bichette later put in a 49-game tour with the Nashua Pride of the independent Atlantic League in 2004, where the 40-year-old smacked 18 homers and batted .312. After that, he focused on playing tennis and watching his sons Bo and Dante Jr. follow in his footsteps.
Baseball came calling in 2013, when the senior Bichette was hired as the hitting coach for the Rockies, but he opted for retirement at the end of the season so he could spend more time with his wife and sons.
This year, when the opportunity to mix baseball with family came along, the coaching position with the Blue Jays was too much for Bichette to pass up.
The fact that Toronto qualified for postseason play, and that several Blue Jay batters recognized Bichette for helping them out, bodes well for the former MLB star.
It remains to be seen what, if any, lessons that Bichette learned in Edmonton have been passed on to the current Blue Jays roster. Based on his own life experiences, Dante has wisdom to impart regarding conduct at the ballpark, as well as away from it. He also has first-hand knowledge about tinkering with a batting stance and what the pressures of playoff baseball are like.
We should know very soon what impact both Bo and Dante Bichette have on the Blue Jays and their postseason fortunes. Stay tuned for a peek into the future.