Saturday, May 5, 2012

Beyond the Box Score: An In-Depth Interview with Mariana Bichette

I had the pleasure of being able to speak with Mariana Bichette, mother of top Yankee prospect Dante Bichette Jr.  The following interview delves into how Dante turned into a highly coveted baseball prospect. I found myself reading over the answers to my questions over and over last night, and my initial thoughts on the younger Bichette were confirmed.  This kid is not only going to have a long, productive career in the bigs, but he is every bit the excellent person that we all have heard about.  Dante Bichette Jr is someone that Yankee (and all baseball) fans can be proud of, and that is a testament to his upbringing. 

Trevor Wolff: 
To your average Joe, one would assume that Dante has a leg up on other prospects considering he’s grown up around Major League Baseball.  How much do you think having the benefit of growing up with Dante Sr as a father and Uncle Joe (Girardi) has prepared him for life as a professional baseball player?

Mariana Bichette:
Our son Bo's middle name is in honor of Joe.  So my kids have grown up hearing about our respect for Joe and Kim, as people.  But, since we have been out of the game and they remain in it we have really hardly seen them.  Still, hearing stories of quality people who also had big league careers has given my kids the expectation that they be quality people while they go for the goal of becoming big leaguers.

The benefit of growing up with a big league dad seems obvious, but this conversation always leaves me conflicted.  I'll try to give some insight.  First, I always feel a little annoyed by the assumption because truthfully, it seems that people forget that there are countless sons of big leaguers that haven't been drafted, or even played in college, or even in high school.  Just like there are sons of doctors and lawyers and car mechanics that are in the Major Leagues.  So, right or wrong, I think the assumption is that big league genes = big league player is just not well thought out.  Also, my children were 8 and 3 when their dad retired; so much for growing up around the game.  There are kids of front office people who have much more experience growing up around the game than my kids do.  BUT, of course at the same time I see the countless benefits of having been raised by a father who actually retired TO teach his children the game.

When Dante J (hereafter referred to as D) was 9, he hit a home run in a league game.  I was with the boys in Orlando and Dante was in Spring Training in Vero Beach.  I told him and about eight hours later he called me and said "Come help me pack up, I retired.  If D has natural ability I better come teach him this game, and I do not want to miss another home run."  Done deal, he retired, and the work began.  Now, through the years I have seen a number of dedicated fathers, most of who had some baseball experience, work with, teach, and push their kids.  I absolutely think the fact of Dante having played in the big leagues with good success and for enough time that he was satisfied to walk away was a different and better situation for my boys, and will continue to be as they inevitably will struggle in this game.  So, I think that because my boys learned to listen to their father, and because they have been repeatedly told about  the work that it takes to survive a big league career, they will have a leg up on other prospects in that regard.  My kids are not going to chase something like draft day, planning for how much they need in order to buy a car, and then relax and expect to live the life.  No, they are going to learn to continuously adjust, and to battle and to be thankful every day they are still in this game.

From just the actual baseball perspective, Dante knows how to evaluate tools and he also knows that it’s the intangibles that end up determining someones career; he saw too many ultra-talented people not make it and too many sort of average people have careers.  So he knows what plays and what doesn't and could evaluate D objectively and help to make adjustments where necessary.  He knew D had exceptional bat speed, crazy hand eye coordination, a quick first step and great hands.  He also knew that D's arm would get big a little later, but he still knew it. He knew he could work with all that, regardless of what anyone else thought or understood about D's tools.  And I think his dad's vote of confidence goes a long way in helping D to believe in himself.

What I do not agree with at all is that a big leaguer's son would be drafted high because of his lineage ALONE.  And what I am saddened by is that implication.  It takes away from the way D has lived his life and from the work he has already put in.  But then I remember that most people, sometimes especially "experts" just really don't know whole lot about the process, so I just roll my eyes and let go of it.

Trevor Wolff:
What were you & your family’s thoughts/expectations on draft day? Did it come as a pleasant surprise that Dante was picked by the Yankees? Or were there hints by their staff that he was going to be their selection if he was available?

Mariana Bichette:
We knew he would be drafted and we knew it would be in the first two rounds. I kept a pretty well documented book of team interest, conversations, attendance, calls, emails, tests, etc.  I knew, by the level of evaluator that continued to touch base, where the strongest interest lied.  I don't know how far into the second round he would have gotten, but he absolutely wouldn't have gotten through that round.  There was money to be made by agreeing to ask for a large amount in order to have other teams pass him up so he could go later in the draft.  And I had all these conversations with D.  Because of the amount of time he would have had to sit out as per last year's CBA before being able to get going if he went over slot, holding out for money at a later pick was out of the question.  So his sign ability was slot money through compensation round and then “get me on the field.”  He planned to go to school if he couldn't start his career right away.  So, draft day was filled with anticipation.  We had EVERYONE praying for the RIGHT team to take him OR for it to be clear that he should go to school.  I fielded calls almost all the way to draft time, which just goes to reinforce what we knew- that anything could happen, that the clubs were thinking for themselves, that no one but the club decision makers knew what was going to happen.  So we just had some friends over, watched the draft, played pool, talked, and waited.  The friends we had over were the ones who would have been OK to be around if he wasn't taken day one.  It wasn't like a draft party, everyone come see me get drafted kind of thing.

By draft day I had bought into the Yankees.  I wanted the Yankees in a serious way.  I thought the amount of time they had invested in getting to know D was impressive. And I thought the variety of eyes they had on him was great.  Some may have taken it as a negative- like they weren't sure so they kept sending different people out- but I thought it was a tremendous positive.  Lots of clubs do psych tests, each geared to find the type of player they see as a fit.  There are eye tests, pitch selection tests, everything.  So it’s not to say that other clubs aren't thorough, I just thought that the Yankees were really good that spring.  It’s one thing to as a lot of questions and another to as the right ones.

Anyway, I remember looking at Dante before the draft and saying, "Oh my gosh, do you realize we have been raising a Yankee?"  Who knew if he'd be one at the beginning of his career, but I felt like he was one anyway, because of what he'd handled as a kid, the fishbowl sort of situations he'd been in and lived through, his natural love of pressure, his ability to deal with both constructive and ridiculous criticism.  When D came down the stairs in his Yankee hat and Jeter jersey all I could do is hope his heart wasn't about to be broken, or, that our draft video would not be of him frantically taking off his Yankee gear and trying to be excited to be something else.

There was a collective scream of whatever- relief, joy, fear, excitement, confusion- that came from our house at the moment we all heard his name and I am going to stop writing about it now so I don't get all choked up.

Trevor Wolff:
In my opinion, being a good person off the field is an underrated characteristic for prospects.  That certainly held true when he would organize trips to visit teammate Ravel Santana in the hospital last year. He was also one of the representatives for the RiverDogs on a trip to a Children’s Hospital earlier this season. As a parent, how do you feel to see your son excel as a player on the field but more importantly, as a person off of it

Mariana Bichette:
How do you know about the Ravel trips?  That was stomach wrenching and most of the Dominican players D knew would want to see Ravel didn't have cars in Tampa, so I think that would have been more stunning if he did not organize trips than it is great the fact he did, but I was not at all surprised when he did.  I have a great picture somewhere of them all by his bed side.

Back to your statement, I agree, wholeheartedly. Mostly because even though if you are going to be in the big leagues the entire first half of your life, and you can get away with being a severely sub par person if you are good, when you are done you have another half of your life and its quality is going to be directly related to who you are as a person off the field.  The reason off the field characteristics are underrated is because a 98mph fast ball or 40 home runs are what people pay to see, those things are what pay the bills.  But still, I agree, and I wish there was reason to put more emphasis on the quality of person. But you know it is Major League Baseball, not Major League Good Person.  So I get it.       

Obviously, doing well matters and doing extremely well is great, but I love the struggle too, because if you can persevere that's where you learn.  One hundred million percent though, my kids could be MVP 20 years straight and if they are crappy people I will not be proud.  Period.

Trevor Wolff:
I am sure that you’ve heard this question many times before, but it’s something the readers of Sliding Into Home would love to hear directly.  When Dante hit two homers against the Astros in Major League camp, what was going through yours & Dante Senior’s heads? It couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Mariana Bichette:
D has a knack for those moments.  And again, you are right.  I could not have made it any better in my mom dreamland, but I had no problem believing he pulled that off. That was so fun.  We were surrounded by Yankee fans and until D got in there and we started acting like crazy people, no one knew who we were, so we got the full Yankee fan experience, haha.  When they figured out obviously we had something to do with D, there was a lot of high fiving, beer buying, and twitter mentioning.  I am glad we have video because honestly I don't have my own memory.  I just was screaming and we were all hugging and saying thank you to people like we were the ones who hit the balls...SO FUN.  Unfortunately every time we watch the video I first sound like I fell off a building and then like I am imitating a train with the longest train whistle ever.  But oh well!

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