Dante’s Paradiso

Toronto Blue Jays coach Dante Bichette looking over a sea of cardboard cutouts behnid the plate in the Jays’ temporary Buffalo home.

Whether one of the too-numerous young comers the Los Angeles/California/Anahiem/Los Angeles Angels let get away over the decades, or whether the wizened veteran who called it a career after a season and a half with the Boston Red Sox, one thing stood out especially about Dante Bichette. He looked at times like a mob enforcer.

Wide, wide eyebrows above narrow eyes, plus his muscular 6’3′ physique, often made Bichette look as though he’d break your legs on demand. Until he flashed his boyish, friendly smile. Pitchers who faced him in his prime probably thought they escaped with their lives when he tagged them for one of his 274 home runs.

At 56 today, Bichette remains a muscular specimen whose concurrent sporting of a clean-shaven head makes him resemble Mr. Clean’s tough but tender inner-city nephew. The Florida native also remains one of the friendliest men in the game and, since returning to the profession, one of its most enthusiastically attentive coaches.

The Buffalo Blue Jays of Toronto invited him to spring training as a guest instructor, perhaps because one of his two baseball-playing sons, Bo, has been raising eyebrows among teammates, team officials, and enemy pitchers with his howitzer of a bat. The lad came by it honestly; his father has coached him and his older brother, Dante, Jr. (now a Washington Nationals prospect), since boyhood.

The invitation turned into something the elder Bichette hadn’t felt since he last worked as a Rockies coach. He’d given that up on behalf of not missing valuable time working with his sons. But with Bo helping to make Blue Jays baseball fun again and Dante, Jr. settling into the Nats’ organisational picture (uneasily, with the minor league season mostly cancelled), Dad enjoyed working in the Jays’ “summer camp” so much he got what he called the itch to coach full time again.

Call it Dante’s Paradiso if you must. Even if Bichette wouldn’t necessarily know The Divine Comedy from a double play. “Should I put [my sons] in baseball and put that kind of pressure on them to be like the dad that played in the big leagues?” he once asked his wife, Mariana. “And she said, what else are you gonna teach them? And I was like, yeah, I don’t know anything else.” Then, he laughs.

All that is according to a pleasant profile by The Athletic‘s senior Blue Jays writer, John Lott. “The understanding was, let’s see how it goes, let’s see if I can really help,” Bichette told Lott about joining the Jays.

I was more sensitive with Bo on the team. I didn’t want to make it awkward at all, so I had a long talk with Bo. It was just, let’s try it out first and see how it goes down. Spring training just seemed to work real easy. I helped out where I could and all of a sudden you start to develop relationships with the kids. As a coach, you kind of fall for them. So that’s when I said, yeah, I gotta do this.

Because of the Show’s current pandemic-inspired restriction limiting teams to eight coaches in the dugout, Lott wrote, Bichette had to pick a spot in the ballpark to watch his co-charges (with hitting coach Guillermo Martinez) during Blue Jays games. He likes to station himself atop a section of seats behind and to the first base side of the plate.

From there, he watches to see Jays hitters exercise his counsel. Bichette isn’t big on the mechanics of the swing but he’s huge on encouraging players to step up to the plate with a plan. He teaches or reminds them to take advantage of the reams of information now available about enemy pitchers, and he teaches and reminds them likewise—and especially—to think hard about hitting with two strikes.

Bichette as a Rockies player with his Hall of Fame teammate Larry Walker. He still has the smile that turns his expression from enforcer to big kid.

Much like the Rockies teams for whom Bichette himself played, these Blue Jays have power to burn, think of bases on balls as castor oil, and love to swing their bats. Bichette tries to get them to swing intelligently especially after that second strike is rung up. Since the Show’s overall batting average on two strikes is about .169, Bichette probably had his work more than cut out for him.

“I also point out that every count without two strikes, the whole league mashes,” he told Lott. “So turn (all) those counts into two different counts, not a bunch of different counts. You have a two-strike count and an I’m-looking-to-do-damage count, period. That’s two approaches.

“When you’re looking to do damage, you’re hunting a certain pitch and you’re committed to that pitch,” he continued. “When you’re hitting with two strikes, you have to handle all the pitches in all the parts of the zone. You have to let the ball get a little deeper, so if you are fooled by an off-speed pitch, then you still have some room for the bat to get through the zone and make contact.”

Bichette’s own idol was Hall of Famer Ted Williams, though he was born three years after Williams’s final major league game. Merely mention Teddy Ballgame, and Bichette will talk your ears off more than a politician given an excuse for a speech, if not a tweetstorm.

When he talks about all parts of the zone, he’ll point out happily enough how he read Williams’s book The Science of Hitting and paid scholarly attention to the charts that showed Williams’s batting averages on every pitch in every nook, cranny, and crevice of the zone.

(Fair disclosure: It’s also personal with Bichette. When he was named 1995’s Players Choice Award winner, he told Lott, Williams himself presented the award at a ceremony, leading to an evening’s discussion of hitting and a breakfast invitation for the following morning. “I’ve got it somewhere at home on a CD, the whole conversation,” Bichette said. “It’s the neatest thing I have.”)

Two-strike hitting is something Bichette learned about the hard way. As a player himself, a second strike usually meant he was dead meat. His OPS on two strikes, lifetime: .587. Once that second strike was on the clock, Bichette—who hit 63 of his lifetime home runs after two strikes—was swim-or-sink. His challenge with the Blue Jays’ hitters was helping their Rockies-like aggressiveness deliver instead of drop the packages.

“[T]o me, letting it get deep and getting on top is kind of an inside-out swing,” he continued. “You know, taking the air out of it. We live in an era of launch angle, but we gotta take the air out of it with two strikes. That’s where the pitchers are taking advantage of hitters with two strikes. The hitters are trying to get air and they throw the fastball over the bat.”

So just how much coaching does Bo Bichette now require from the father who first gave up professional coaching the better to make sure he didn’t lose invaluable time with his sons?

“Bo’s very self-sufficient now,” Dad told Lott, who got one of Dad’s 2013 Rockies charges, Michael Cuddyer, to talk about the kid being so attentive while seeming just to hang at the park with his old man that he’d pepper the Rockies’ hitters with serious questions about serious hitting, then take his own batting practise and hit balls into the mountains. At fifteen.

We talk at-bats. He’ll tell me what he was thinking, and most of the time, we’re so connected now that I can tell when he’s looking for a certain pitch or he’s trying to do a certain thing. So we’re pretty much in tune with each other. Now it’s more game plans. Very little swing stuff. We’ll talk about intent or conviction to the game plan . . .

It’s actually really neat because I feel like Bo is an old soul at this. I feel like I’m talking to a 38-year-old veteran when I talk to him about hitting because I’ve talked to him like that since he was six years old. That’s probably why he’s so advanced at hitting for his age.

So says the former Rockie bombardier who was only half kidding when he told Lott his wife raised two sons and a husband. (And, who was as relieved as the rest of Blue Jays fans and the game itself when Bo’s knee injury proved not terribly serious.)

The man who must have had questions and doubts when the Angels traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers for an ancient Dave Parker. Or, when the Brewers traded him to the Rockies for a fading Kevin Reimer. (Both after he’d been little enough used despite his potential, blooming somewhat late with the Rockies at 26.)

The man who quit after a decade plus as the Rockies’ hitting coach because the idea of missing his sons’ continuing development and learning any more than he already missed worried him. The man who now doesn’t mind when his senior Martinez sends him video at two in the morning asking for his takes on this player’s swing or that pitcher’s factoring in the next day’s game plan.

The man who only looked like a headbreaker at times in his playing youth, but whose geniality and intelligence have married to invite anyone who wants it to take a seminar in smart baseball and more than a few reminders that these Blue Jays made him fall in love with them. Not to mention more than a few recollections and lessons from Ted Williams.

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