‘It was a shot that I got’
Bichette shares his juco experience at JUCO banquet
Dante Bichette is a legend at Palm Beach Community College (Florida) — a titan with a mythical home run that jump-started a long career in professional baseball.
Before Bichette was a Blake Street Bomber blasting home runs for the Colorado Rockies, he was Danny Bichette, a high school senior with very few college prospects.
Bichette missed too many days of school and was booted off his high school baseball team. He had a letter from Vanderbilt University but, as Bichette put it Friday at the Alpine Back Junior College World Series banquet, “I wasn’t going to Vanderbilt. I wasn’t even going to class.”
It was his Little League coach from when he was 10 years old that drove Bichette to Palm Beach Community College in an effort to get Bichette on the team. They met with the team’s coach, only to find out that the roster was full, other than an opening for a catcher.
“He asked me if I could catch,” Bichette said. “And I’d never caught a day in my life. But my coach said ‘That’s what he is — he’s a catcher.’ “
The coach asked Bichette to show up at 4 a.m. the next morning for conditioning drills. It was “hell week” for the Panthers and Bichette spent two hours running. He got through that, then Bichette was slotted to catch a scrimmage.
As the future four-time MLB All-Star tells it, every other pitch rolled to the backstop. But amidst the out-of-position struggles, Bichette got two at-bats.
The first was a laser directly at the left fielder. The second was a home run that sailed into the night. It’s rumored to be the longest home run hit at the park, Bichette said, touching down in the racquetball courts well beyond the fence.
So started the legend of Dante Bichette, but definitely not as a catcher.
“I’m chasing every ball to the backstop and I know I’m getting cut because these guys can hit. They don’t need me,” Bichette said. “I can’t catch a ball. The coach comes up to me ... and he goes ‘Listen, you’re not really a catcher. But we like the way you hit and we’re gonna keep you anyways.’ “
Two swings and one long home run changed Bichette’s life, and it started with a junior college baseball team. That was the message he shared with the 10 teams, numerous players and hundreds of guests at Two Rivers Convention Center.
“If I don’t hit those two balls, I’m not standing here in front of you,” Bichette said. “It was a shot that I got and I hit ‘em.”
Bichette has a deep connection with junior college baseball, but there’s another reason he’s excited to be in Grand Junction.
Fast forward to the district tournament with Palm Beach and Bichette is up with the bases loaded, his team down by one run against a soft-tossing left-hander. He struck out on a curveball in the dirt as the Panthers were eliminated.
“I wake up at night, honestly, into my big-league career,” Bichette said. “I would wake up at night, having struck out with the bases loaded against Middle Georgia and a soft-tossing lefty. I feel like coming here, I’m kinda exorcising that demon.”
After that inglorious ending, he was drafted by the California Angels in the 17th round of the 1984 MLB Draft.
Bichette said he can’t remember the lefty’s name. He was too busy thinking about Shaun Hillegas — a future MLB journeyman — warming up in the bullpen. The two never faced until they met in the majors.
“I ended up facing Shaun Hillegas in the big leagues and through my professional career,” Bichette said. “And he’s probably waking up in dreams about me, all right? He was a really good pitcher and he probably has no idea why I hit him so hard but, man, I was determined.”
On top of Bichette’s keynote speech, three coaches were inducted into the NJCAA Baseball Coaches Association Hall of Fame: Former University of Connecticut-Avery Point coach Roger Bidwell, former Cochise College (Arizona) coach and current Cochise administrator James “Bo” Hall, and former Middle Georgia College coach Craig Young.
It was also the final banquet for longtime NJCAA Executive Director Mary Ellen Leicht, who is set to retire after a 28-year career with the NJCAA — eight as its executive director.