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Bichette Still Struggling to Live Up to His Billing

May 25, 1993|JOHN WEYLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — "First you're a prospect. Later on, you become a suspect. Then, you're no longer here."

--Colorado Rockies' Manager Don Baylor

It's put-up-or-shut-up time for Dante Bichette. He knows it, and should he momentarily forget, Baylor will remind him.

When Bichette debuted with the Angels in 1988, potential was bursting the seams of his uniform. The body of an action-film hero. A bazooka of an arm with surgical accuracy. A mighty batting-practice swing that sent balls whistling into second decks. Man, could he hit 50-year-old pitching coaches.

After Bichette threw out seven runners from right field in his first seven big-league games, former Angel Manager Doug Rader said he could become baseball's first 40-40 man, as in 40 homers and 40 outfield assists.

Five years later, a few months shy of his 30th birthday, Bichette is still struggling to live up to the hype. But now, after five years of insisting all he needed was the chance to play every day, he's got it.

It's not just the thin air in Denver. Even in the sea-level visitors' clubhouse at San Diego's Jack Murphy Stadium, Bichette is finding it a bit difficult to breathe these days.

"I've always had the tendency to put a lot of pressure on myself," he said. "Maybe that's good, maybe it's not. But this year, I really want to go out and play the way I'm capable of playing and put up the kinds of numbers that leave no doubt that I'm an everyday player."

Bichette is hitting .271 with six home runs and 23 runs batted in,which projects to a 22-homer, 85-RBI season, but Baylor's not passing out any rave reviews.

"I've given him the opportunity to play every day and he's been sub-par on that," Baylor said. "Some days, he's played real well. Other days, he's kind of lapsed. Sure, I'd like to put him in the lineup every day, but production is the name of the game."

You have to understand that Baylor's idea of production goes beyond numbers in the box score.

"You have to be in tune with this game from the first pitch to the last pitch," Baylor said. "You can't lapse in and out. You have to know how many outs there are. Sure, he has great physical ability, but when will he put it all together? Five years from now? Six?

"Dante has a problem putting baseball first. But he has to make a total commitment because the thing about this game is there is always somebody to replace you. You never want to shortchange yourself and end up wishing you had worked harder.

"This is a great place for him. Here's his opportunity. Now make me write your name in the lineup every day."

Bichette realizes some of the responsibility for his problems rests on his considerable shoulders.

He got his first real chance in 1989, when he made the Angels' opening-day starting lineup after hitting almost .400 during spring training. But he was hovering around .200 by mid-June and was optioned back to the minors.

"Not every rookie comes out and wins the triple crown," he said. "My numbers weren't that bad."

After another big spring, Bichette was starting again at the beginning of the '90 season. In fact, he was hitting .295 with a team-leading 17 RBIs on May 11 when the Angels acquired Dave Winfield and Bichette became a part-timer.

"I still believe everything would have fallen into place for me if the Angels would have left me there as a rookie," he said. "Looking back on it, I guess I shouldn't have made such a fuss. But then maybe if I hadn't made the fuss, I wouldn't be where I am right now."

The Angels traded Bichette to Milwaukee for Dave Parker, and the Brewers gave him another shot at playing every day. But after hitting .236 in April and .209 in May, he was back on the bench.

Last season, Bichette shortened his swing and batted .287, but had only five homers and 41 RBIs.

"Five homers? There's just no way," said Baylor, who was a coach with the Brewers last year and was instrumental in working the trade that brought Bichette to the Rockies. "He should hit five home runs a year by accident. You can work on contact and still incorporate it together with your power. It doesn't have to be one or the other."

Bichette said he's working his way toward a happy medium at the plate.

"I don't want to be a one-dimensional hitter," he said. "Hopefully, I'm becoming a complete player."

Baylor sometimes wonders if Bichette has the drive to put it all together. But Bichette insists his work ethic shouldn't be an issue.

"Even when I was with the Angels, I worked very hard," he said. "I just didn't work right because I didn't know how. I didn't have people like Paul Molitor and Robin Yount to watch and learn from. Things were pretty negative with the Angels, but after being with those guys, I know how the game is supposed to be played.

"I've always given 100%, but now I know how to give 100% in the right direction. When you're young, you're so confident in your abilities that you don't think anything can knock you off course. But you get a little older and you realize you have to stay on line."

Bichette is already in the Colorado record book, having recorded the first run, first RBI and first home run when he hit a Bret Saberhagen delivery 418 feet April 7 at Shea Stadium.

"Really, I'm happy here," he said. "I couldn't ask for things to be going any better than they are right now."

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