When the white limousine arrived at Writer Square in downtown
Denver at noon a few weeks ago, Dante Bichette, the Colorado
Rockies leftfielder and one of the National League's best
hitters, emerged with one hand raised like a star at the Academy
Awards and was quickly swallowed up by a crowd of adoring fans.
It had to be the grandest entrance ever made at a bake sale, but
then it had to be the first time people made cookies and sold
them to raise money to help keep a professional athlete in town.
While baseball fans in many other cities this summer have jeered
players and thrown things at them, the ones in Denver bake
brownies for Bichette.
And there he stood -- on a park bench, swatting autographed beach
balls with a miniature plastic bat into a crowd of roughly 200.
"This is so weird," said Atlanta Brave outfielder Ryan Klesko,
who was in town to play the Rockies and stumbled onto the rally.
Most major leaguers wouldn't bother to show up for an affair
this corny, but Bichette loved it. He started tossing signed
Frisbees to the horde.
"Sign your underwear and throw it," yelled a female admirer.
Bichette stopped short of doing that, but he autographed most
everything else, including $10 bills. Some people asked his
2-1/2-year-old son, Danny, for his autograph, so the toddler
scribbled something. After about an hour Bichette climbed back
into the limo and was driven away, chased by several fans.
"The guys back home will never believe this," said Tom Down, a
boyhood friend whom Bichette had flown in from Florida for a
visit. "I'm here, and I don't believe it."
Believe it. There is heartfelt affection between the Rockies'
fans and the 31-year-old Bichette -- a charming innocent in a game
plagued this season by impassive fans, petulant players and
"We wanted to do something for Dante because he's such a class
guy," says Dom Testa, a disk jockey for KIMN-FM radio who
organized the rally to raise money that would be applied to
Bichette's contract in 1996. "When some people told me, 'But
he's making $3 million a year!' I said, 'Get a sense of humor.'
When I told my general manager I wanted to do this, there was
dead silence. Then he said, 'Get out of my office.' We did it
anyway. We were hoping to raise a hundred bucks."
In truth, the money went to charity, but that wasn't the only
purpose of the event. Local celebrities and media outlets
participated in order to bolster support for Bichette, whom the
Rockies almost let go last spring because of financial
differences. Citizens of Denver don't want another scare like
"I love these people," Bichette says. "They're the reason I'm
Colorado manager Don Baylor says Bichette "drops in from Venus"
every afternoon to let everyone play in his world for a few
hours. In fact, Bichette is from Jupiter -- the city on the east
coast of Florida where he grew up. Still a goofy kid by nature,
Bichette likes to play Foosball, pinball or Nintendo deep into
the night. Then he sleeps deep into the day.
At Coors Field, Bichette has an ongoing dialogue with fans in
the leftfield stands, and a vendor outside the ballpark sells
T-shirts that read BICHETTE HAPPENS. (Bichette often wears one
under his uniform.) Testa's station recently asked listeners to
use the word Bichette in a sentence but not as his name. Of the
250 faxes received in a few hours, the best response was, "If I
don't win, Bichette hits the fan.''
But the Rockies' fans also love him because he can hit. At
week's end he was second in the National League in average
(.341), tied for first in hits (76), third in total bases (124)
and had had the longest hitting streak in the major leagues this
year (23 games, between May 22 and June 18). He also had nine
home runs, five bunt hits, 19 doubles and 35 RBIs.
But such production has been the norm for Bichette since he
began playing in Denver's thin air and hitter-friendly ballparks
as a member of the original Rockies in 1993. Only three big
league outfielders hit at least .300 with 20 homers and 80 RBIs
in both the '93 and '94 seasons: Barry Bonds of the San
Francisco Giants, Ken Griffey Jr. of the Seattle Mariners and
Bichette, whose heroes are Minnesota Twin outfielder Kirby
Puckett and Toronto Blue Jay DH Paul Molitor.
There's a huge poster of Puckett taped inside Bichette's locker,
which also houses several Puckett and Molitor baseball cards.
"Kirby swings at everything and hits .330 -- like me," says
Bichette, who has never walked more than 28 times in a season
and, through Sunday, led the National League in fewest pitches
seen (3.38) per at bat this year. "Molitor's the best
first-pitch hitter in baseball. That's what I do." At week's end
Bichette was hitting .469 (23 for 49) when he swung at first
pitches this season.
Bichette's ultimate hero is Ted Williams, whose book The Science
of Hitting Bichette has read once a year for the last 10 years.
When Bichette made the National League All-Star team in 1994,
Williams called to congratulate him, but Bichette wasn't home.
"I didn't believe it at first," Bichette says of the message
Williams left on his answering machine. "He said maybe we could
have lunch one day. me and Ted Williams. I'd be hesitant. That
would be too unbelievable.''
There doesn't appear to be anything scientific about Bichette's
style of hitting: He's a guess hitter who usually hacks at the
first thing near the strike zone -- and rarely looks pretty doing
it. Yet his approach to hitting is fanatical; other than perhaps
the San Diego Padres' Tony Gwynn, no major leaguer studies more
videotape than Bichette. He has every at bat of his six-year
career on tape, and he can be found in the video room studying
footage of himself before each game. "For visualization," he
explains. "I can feel myself hitting the ball hard. I take so
many bad swings, I like to look at the positive things." After a
game he'll watch more tape and lift weights until the clubhouse
is empty. "If he hits a homer," says Colorado teammate Joe
Girardi, "he'll watch the tape 20 times. He lives for hitting. I
feel bad for his wife. He makes her wait two hours after games."
"I think he had a son," Baylor says, "just so he would have
someone to sit and watch tapes with him."
Bichette is nearly as much of a fanatic about Foosball, the
table-soccer game. Last off-season he toured the country playing
in Foosball tournaments, including some that lasted six days,
for as many as 10 hours a day. Bichette is a notch below the
professional-level players but has finished as high as second in
the country in his flight. This spring, at Foosball tables in
the vicinity of the Rockies' training camp in Tucson, he beat
all comers, taking home $2,000 in winnings one night. "He's
incredible," says Down. "He's great at everything he
touches -- except golf."
Bichette is a champ at Nintendo ("When he beats you, he rubs it
in," says his wife, Mariana) and pinball, too. He's probably the
best Ping-Pong player on the Rockies. In the off-season in Palm
Beach Gardens, Fla., Bichette jet skis and plays softball. "In
my heart, I'm a second baseman, but I outgrew the position,"
says Bichette, who stands 6'3" and weighs 235 pounds. "We can't
wait for him to retire," says Down, "so he can play for our
Born Alphonse Dante Bichette -- he was named after his father's
brother -- Bichette was known as Danny growing up, and he didn't
start calling himself Dante until his first year in pro ball
(1984). "Guys on my team thought Dante was a cool name," he
says. "So I started going by that. But all my friends from back
home still call me Danny."
A 17th-round pick by the California Angels in the 1984 amateur
draft, Bichette signed for $3,000 out of junior college and
worked his way up through the minors over the next six years. He
was the Opening Day leftfielder for the Angels in 1990 and
showed great potential. But he lost his starting job later that
season due to a lack of production, fell out of favor with
management because he was late to the ballpark several times
(mostly as a result of oversleeping) and wasn't disciplined
enough for the major leagues.
"He was a lovable kid, but that's what he was -- a kid," says
former Angel manager Doug Rader. "He had a good heart and a lot
of talent, but he was in his own little sphere. He wouldn't
accept the responsibility of being an every-day player."
"I wasn't grown up then," says Bichette. "There was an incident
where I posed for the team magazine. I did it with my shirt off,
did some poses. I don't think that went over too well with Doug."
Rader denies that, saying, "I wouldn't care if he posed with his
pants off. It had to do with his performance on the field. When
we traded him to Milwaukee [during spring training in 1991], he
was so happy because he thought he'd be playing centerfield
every day. He didn't know Robin Yount was there. That capsulizes
Dante. So sweet-hearted, so thick."
With deep-set eyes, which often appear to be in need of sleep,
Bichette looks like he's in a constant daze. But Baylor says
Bichette is a lot smarter than people think. Baylor, who was the
Brewers' batting coach in '91, told Bichette back then, "If you
ever learn the strike zone and become more disciplined as a
hitter, you can run this league."
"He didn't have a clue about the strike zone," Baylor says. "He
wanted to be like Molitor and Yount, but he had a reputation for
being a flake. Great body, good arm, never reached his potential."
But Baylor didn't give up on him. When he was named manager of
the expansion Rockies, Baylor helped engineer a trade that
brought Bichette to Colorado in return for DH-outfielder Kevin
Reimer (now in Japan). "Don Baylor believed in me before I
believed in myself," Bichette says. "I'm so happy here."
Bichette worked hard on improving his pitch selection, became
more limber by cutting back on his weight training and dedicated
himself to his job.
He also became more responsible off the field after he married
Mariana two years ago. They met in Boston when he was on a road
trip in 1991: He went to Gold's Gym to work out, and she had
just started a new job there. Later that day he told Baylor, "I
just met the girl I'm going to marry." He was too shy to ask her
out, but Baylor made him do it. They were married two years later.
Mariana doesn't allow Dante to sleep as late as he used to, and
she doesn't let him play Nintendo as late at night as he once
did. She has involved him in charitable activities around
Denver -- the city Bichette was afraid he would be forced to leave
Last November the Rockies offered him a three-year contract
worth $10 million, which Bichette's agent at the time, Tommy
Tanzer, rejected. There was no movement the rest of the winter,
so Colorado general manager Bob Gebhard considered Bichette
unsignable and signed free-agent rightfielder Larry Walker to a
four-year, $22.5 million deal in April.
Bichette figured he was gone, and when spring training began he
was still at home waiting to see where he would be playing next.
But Colorado owner Jerry McMorris, realizing Bichette's immense
popularity, freed up some money, and Bichette was offered a
one-year contract worth $3.2 million, with one day to take it or
leave via free agency. Bichette also had an enticing offer from
a Japanese team, but when Baylor called and told him how much he
was wanted in Denver, Bichette signed.
On Opening Day, in the first regular-season game at Coors Field,
Bichette hit a three-run homer in the 14th inning to beat the
New York Mets 11-9. He hasn't stopped hitting since.
It has been an enjoyable year for Bichette and for the Rockies,
who at week's end shared first place in the National League West
with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The day after the bake sale at
Writer Square, Bichette planned to take his family to Thornton,
Colo., for a Hot Wheels miniature race cars convention. "I got
him little cars for our anniversary," Mariana says, shrugging
her shoulders. "That's what he wanted. You've got to get used to
Dante, but when you get to know him, he's so lovable."
Just ask anyone in Denver.
COLOR PHOTO:V.J. LOVERO [Dante Bichette batting]
COLOR PHOTO:SCOTT CLARKE During a recent 23-game hitting streak, every pitch looked as fat as a beach ball to the big swinger. [Dante Bichette hitting beach ball with bat]TWO COLOR PHOTOS:SCOTT CLARKE (2) Bichette's fans cornered him at the bake sale and scored brownie points with their sweet offerings. [Dante Bichette and fan holding plates of baked items; Dante Bichette talking with woman]