Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Sports

High school game's a fun break for MLB prospect Bo Bichette

ST. PETERSBURG — The right-centerfield fence on the west field at Lake Vista Park sits 365 feet from home plate. A trio of oak trees towers overhead. Just beyond the trees is a paved running track, then a 10-foot ditch and a 6-foot fence that divides the park from Lakewood High School.

Beyond that second fence is the practice field for the Spartans' football team. In a Lakewood baseball game against Dixie Hollins a few weeks ago, Lakewood senior Bo Bichette hit a ball so high and deep that it cleared both fences and the oak trees, and disappeared into the night.

"After the game I went behind the (rightfield) fence to look for the ball and couldn't find it," Lakewood coach Jayce Ganchou said. "The next day at school, I went out there again and found it on the football practice field. That's how far he hit it."

It was just another chapter in the growing legend of major-league baseball prospect Bo Bichette.

• • •

Bo, son of former major-leaguer Dante Bichette, wound up in St. Petersburg because of — what else? — baseball. The family moved from Orlando to Tierra Verde three years ago when Bo's older brother, Dante Jr., was assigned to the Class A Tampa Yankees.

"We wanted to be on the water," Dante Sr. said. "I grew up in Florida, but I had no idea how beautiful it was in this particular area."

Just before moving to the area, Dante Sr. was the hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies in 2013. Bo spent all summer at Coors Field in Denver.

"He pretty much lived in the clubhouse," Dante Sr. said. "He took batting practice on the field with the big-leaguers. He got his taste of it there."

Bo was a sophomore when he got to St. Petersburg and already a top prospect. He played for Florida Travel Ball, a team of elite players that competes in national tournaments. During high school baseball season, Florida Travel Ball takes a break.

Bo, who is home-schooled, thought he would try the prep game. He is zoned for Lakewood, not exactly known for its baseball prowess. That didn't matter.

"We came out here my sophomore year, and I had a lot of fun," Bo said. "Coach Ganchou is great. He kind of lets me do my thing. So we figured, why change it?"

That's not to say Bo didn't think about changing schools.

"We looked at all the hoity-toity baseball schools," Dante Sr. said. Bo tried out at IMG Academy in Bradenton for a week before his senior year but decided against transferring. And he could have gone to any private school in the area.

"I'm not wanting to chase a title," Bo said. "Once I'm on the field I chase a title, but I'm not one to think, 'Well, okay, this school is 40 minutes away but I could win a state championship.' That's not my ambition. It's more about finding somewhere where my coach will help me develop, where my teammates are fun. I'm only going to be 18 and playing high school ball once. I might as well have fun."

So there is Bo, a 6-foot, 200-pound shortstop who is projected to be a first- to third-round pick in the June draft, playing for the 8-7 Spartans. And there is Dante Sr., who has 274 major-league home runs, sitting in his folding chair right next to the Lakewood dugout on game days.

"We hear it all the time: 'Lakewood?' " Dante Sr. said. "But we're having fun. He's getting that good baseball (at Florida Travel Ball). He doesn't need that for high school. Although there is some good raw talent on this team. We were looking for a place that would be enjoyable and he could have fun with."

Bo has 10 home runs this season, second in the nation, MaxPreps says. He hit two Thursday in an 8-6 loss to Bearden (Tenn.), one of which went straight over the 380-foot sign in centerfield. The other dented the Pepsi logo on the leftfield scoreboard.

He is hitting .571 with 29 RBIs. He has been walked 17 times in 59 plate appearances.

When Bo is pitched to, it's usually a mistake. Tuesday's game against Sarasota Booker was one such example.

"First at-bat, he hits one so high into the fog that nobody can see it," Ganchou said. "Somebody said 'Where did that go?' I said, 'Don't even bother. It's gone.' Next four at-bats they don't even come close to pitching to him."

• • •

Bo fits right in with his teammates, though he doesn't attend the school during the day. It didn't take long for him to win over his peers.

"When we first heard he was coming out, we were all thinking, 'Ah, he probably (stinks),' " senior first baseman Sonny Neuman said. "First practice, he comes out here and he's crushing balls. We didn't even know what to say. We were joking with guys, 'Looks like you lost your position.' "

As a sophomore, Bo played second base. He hit .492 with seven home runs and 23 RBIs. Just seven games into his junior year, he was forced to stop when he injured his right elbow skateboarding. Bo, hitting .632 at the time, had surgery to remove a bone chip.

"I thought my world was over when it happened," Bo said. "But actually I'm better off from it. My arm is actually stronger."

This season he was moved to shortstop, his natural position. His soft hands and strong arm have impressed.

"He's phenomenal at short this year," Ganchou said. "(Tuesday) he went so deep in the hole and threw a bullet to Sonny. I thought he was going to hop it. I yelled so loud that I had to put my hand over my mouth. He's made plays like that all year."

Plays like that, as well as his home run prowess, have made him a player to watch not only by scouts, but opponents. In a game against winless Gibbs on Feb. 23, Ganchou said the Gladiators weren't afraid to pitch to Bo. Sure enough, he launched one out of the park in a 22-0 win.

"Ball was at his ankles, and he golfed it out,'' Ganchou said. "After the game, some Gibbs players took a selfie with him. They wanted to be able to say they played against Bo."

• • •

Bo has committed to Arizona State. Last summer he played in some marquee showcase tournaments, including the Area Code Games in California, the Metropolitan Games in New York and the Under Armour Game in Chicago, where he won the home run derby.

Those performances improved his draft stock. But just because he could go in the first round — he would be the first Pinellas County player to do so since 2003, when Dunedin's Ryan Harvey went sixth overall to the Cubs — does not mean he will immediately turn professional.

"I haven't really made a decision on that," Bo said. "But I do know that it won't have to do with the money. It will have to do with how I see my ability to advance in the system. If I get drafted late in the first round and that team is stocked with prospects, I may think that after three years in college I may have a better opportunity to get (to the major leagues) quicker.

"The thing I've realized is that the money is made in the big leagues. It's not made out of the draft. Obviously there is money in the draft, but it's really there once you make it."

And if he does make it, his Lakewood teammates will always be able to say they played with a big-leaguer. And they are documenting it just in case people don't believe them.

"I've got pictures," Neuman said. "I've got proof."

Contact Rodney Page at [email protected]. Follow @RodneyHomeTeam.

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