TRENTON, NJ – Dante Bichette Jr won’t forget it anytime soon. August 22, 2014, an overcast day at Metro Bank Park in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, his Trenton Thunder taking on the hometown Senators. Facing a 3-1 count from Harrisburg pitcher Zach Kroenke, the young third baseman was looking for one to hit.
And, man oh man, did he get one.
“There was a lefty on the mound,” Bichette recalls. “I was just looking for something overt the plate. I got it and I didn’t miss it.”
The 22 year old Orlando native fondly remembers his noteworthy shot landing in Harrisburg’s right field Bud Light Lime-a-Rita Bar, where, ironically, a lucky fan dressed in a Derek Jeter shirt was the first to reach it.
“I remember hitting into a bar out there,” he says with a laugh. “It’s a fun park out there.”
The solo shot was the catalyst in a 7-0 Trenton victory, and was Bichette’s first home run since moving up to Double-A baseball. Despite the career milestone, Bichette never felt like it was a weight off his shoulders. Instead, he just sees it as a way to improve, and finds factors that can help him hit more.
“Homers come in streaks,” he says. “Maybe it was the start of a streak, but homers come with repetitions, strength and maturity, and this is a great place to learn all of that.”
After an 18 game cameo in the city known as The Turning Point of the Revolution last season, Bichette will start the year with the Thunder, who opened the season on Friday against the Erie Seawolves. He’s looking forward to the exciting challenges that 2015 promises to bring.
“My confidence is at an all-time high,” he said. “I had a great year last year, maybe even a rebound because of some tough years in Charleston. I was able to get myself out of it which isn’t easy.”
Time spent with the big club in Tampa helped him boost his confidence even more.
“Spring training was awesome,” he said. “I was able to tap into a little more power than I had before and I didn’t even try to. People told me it was going to happen so I guess it’s finally coming about.”
While last season featured just a brief appearance from the Florida kid, he much enjoyed the brief stay at Trenton’s Arm and Hammer Park, particularly praising the fans.
“The atmosphere is totally different (from playing in the South),” he said. “The fans are what make it an awesome game. They live and die for this stuff out here and its fun to play for them.”
Bichette was a roamer in 2014, spending a majority of the year in Single A Tampa before his Trenton call-up in August. Selected 51st overall by the Yankees in the 2011 Draft, Bichette set several career highs last season. Gone were his high marks in hits, home runs, and runs batted in. In their places were numbers, with Bichette tallying 124 hits, 10 dingers, 68 RBIs between the two Yankee farms. The changes he made were subtle, but Bichette felt them working throughout the course of the season, finding inspiration from a teammate.
“There will little tweaks here and there,” he said. “I worked with Greg Bird and tried to do what he did a bit.”
Bichette was also able to not only set a career high in walks in 2014, but also brought down his strikeout total, a skill many major leaguers would kill to have.
“I think walks come with confidence,” he said. “Just for the fact you’re more confident you can let a pitch go by and not freak out. The more success I had last year, the more confidence I had. I could wait for a perfect pitch.”
It’s never a quiet ride when you’re trying to make it to the biggest stage in baseball, and when you’re on the road to the New York Yankees, arguably the proudest organization in sports, it’s a downright circus. Add the fact that your father and namesake is former Silver Slugger winner and four time MLB All Star Dante Bichette, and even some of the toughest men to grace a baseball field would crack under the pressure. The young Bichette, however, isn’t letting that get to him, and instead of imitating his fan favorite father he instead intends the use the lessons his father learned over a 14 year MLB career that saw him drive in over 1,000 runs.
“In terms of what my dad’s taught me, there’s too many things to count,” he said. “One of the best as far as performance would be just to get after it every single day. The grind is no joke, it’s a real thing. Being able to stay level headed and be focused game-by-game, pitch-by-pitch, is something I really learned from working with him last year. It changed my game big time.”
Speaking of family, Bichette credits some of his recent success to Trenton Hitting Coach PJ Pilittere, who donned a Thunder uniform of his own from 2007-09. Pilittere worked with Bichette during the latter’s stays in Tampa and Charleston and has joined the Thunder to continue the progress. Bichette had nothing but high praise for the former Trenton hero.
“PJ’s awesome,” he said without hesitation. “He’s one of my favorite guys out here and is like an older brother to me. We all love working with him, he’s a lot of fun. All he brings to the table is extra confidence for us and obviously some extra knowledge. He’s good at what he does.”
Pilittere was honored by the compliment, and had nothing but positives to say about his pupil.
“I’ve had Dante the last two years,” said the returning Trenton star. “We were in Charleston and Tampa together and now, thankfully, we’ll be able to continue this year. He’s a kid that I root for. Obviously you root for everybody here but I really enjoy being around the guy. He’s a little eccentric and unique personality wise but I love that about him. He’s comfortable in his own skin and he’s maturing and developing very nicely.”
Though he says it was exciting to be called up to Trenton, Bichette knows that this isn’t the ultimate end goal. In due time, he’s hoping to move on from Jersey to Pennsylvania, Scranton to be exact, and eventually start at third base on East 161st Street.
“I’m super happy to be here in Trenton,” he said. “But obviously that’s not where any of us want to end up, we want to be in New York. That’s got to be your ultimate goal, without a doubt. You never know what opportunities are going to open up and what’s going to happen for you.”