‘If you can play ball, you can play ball’
You must forgive Dante Bichette for perhaps being just a little bit jealous of the players on the 10 teams he’ll address as the featured speaker at the Alpine Bank Junior College World Series banquet. You see, he was one good swing away from sitting in the audience at Two Rivers Convention Center in 1984.
“I actually struck out with the bases loaded in the regional championship game to go to Grand Junction,” the four-time All-Star with the Colorado Rockies said. “I finally get to come. It’s still the only at-bat that I will wake out of a dead sleep and be a little pissed, you know?”
Middle Georgia defeated Bichette’s Palm Beach Junior College team to qualify for JUCO that year. Middle Georgia went 3-2 in Grand Junction, reaching the final four before losing to eventual champion College of Southern Idaho.
“The guy that stuck me out, I don’t remember who it was, but I ended up facing him in my pro career and beat him up pretty good,” Bichette said. “So I got my revenge on him.”
Bichette, who hit a 14th-inning walk-off home run in 1995 to win the Colorado Rockies’ first game at Coors Field, formed the “Blake Street Bombers,” along with Larry Walker, Andres Galarraga and Vinny Castilla, leading the Rockies to the 1995 National League playoffs.
Last month, he joined the other Bombers as a member of the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame.
“I just saw Vinny (at the Rockies’ home opener) and I see Larry once in awhile; I see him at Fantasy Camp,” Bichette said. “Big Cat, I hear he’s playing golf somewhere. He plays golf and he’s supposed to be pretty good at it, so I don’t see him at many events. Walker and Galarraga live in my hometown, which is Jupiter, Florida, but I never get back to my hometown, so I don’t see them that much.”
When the Blake Street Bombers do get together, though, the stories flow, and they’re still fan favorites in Denver.
Much of Bichette’s time nowadays centers on bouncing around minor league ballparks watching his two sons, Dante Jr., and Bo. Dante Jr. is a first baseman in the New York Yankees’ system, playing Double-A ball in Trenton, New Jersey. Bo is a shortstop in Toronto’s system, at Class-A Lansing, Michigan.
He gets more nervous for his sons than he ever did standing in the batter’s box at Coors Field.
“Absolutely. It’s crazy,” he said. “You can’t do anything about it. Being a big-league ballplayer, you kind of know what should be going on, but you remember when you’re 19, 20 years old, you didn’t know. You can’t help. They have to do it themselves, they’ve got to make all those mistakes. That’s how you learn, and as long as you’re learning from the mistakes … it can be nerve-wracking. It gets real tough in pro ball. The talent is raised real quick and you have to become professionals real quick in this game. You give them as much positive feedback as you can and tell them to work hard.”
And that’s part of the message he’ll bring to Grand Junction.
“I kind of feel like I know where these kids are. They’re in junior college, maybe they were skipped over by D-Is or maybe they wanted to go to the draft,” he said. “There’s all different kinds of angles you get into junior college for, but it doesn’t matter. If you can play ball, you can play ball.
“That was my story. I had to walk on to a junior college. If you’re chasing your dream, to me, a junior college is the best way to go. Both of my boys were committed to D-I schools, but I think that was just for draft reasons. I think they were both going to go to junior colleges, also.”
Bichette met former JUCO Chairman Sam Suplizio when he was playing for Milwaukee and Suplizio was an outfield instructor for the Brewers.
“He came up to me and asked me, ‘You want to go out to dinner?’ He had no reason to … he was one of those guys who made you feel important and wanted to get to know you,” Bichette said. “He was just so genuine. It’s tough to find real, genuine people like that, who are just interested in you. I remember I ended up visiting him in his condo in Grand Junction one year and stayed with him a couple of nights. We miss him, but he made an impact on a lot of people, me for one.”
Bichette had hoped to stay in Grand Junction a day or two and watch some baseball, and no doubt will be pulling for Chipola College, the Gulf District champion from his home state.
Saturday, he’ll head off to a minor league ballpark to watch one of his sons, and will occasionally find his way to Coors Field, as he did for the home opener. And yes, he said, the hype is real.
“I think with the Rockies, they’re always going to hit a little bit. I don’t know if this is one of their better hitting teams, but they’re young, they’ve got some power,” said Bichette, who spent the 2013 season as Colorado’s hitting coach. “I think the big deal with the Rockies this year, and I talked to Darren Holmes, the (bullpen) pitching coach, a good buddy of mine, and he said the difference this year is they’re going to have a strong bullpen.
“In Colorado, you’re going to come back and teams can come back consistently in that ballpark, so you have to have a bullpen that can knock some of those comebacks down. They blew 25 saves last year. If they knock that in half or two-thirds, they’re in the playoffs last year. The bullpen is going to be key. It always was for them, even when we went to the playoffs, our bullpen was one of the best in the league.
“People don’t realize that, they always talked about the Bombers, but our bullpen was the difference the year we went. That will be big. Watch their bullpen; that’s how well they’ll do this year.”