ST. PETERSBURG — Bo Bichette is well aware of the privileged life he has led, growing up the son of a major-leaguer and playing travel ball with the best equipment, and now heading into the fifth season of his own stellar career as the Blue Jays’ slugging star shortstop.
He also has the desire to help those who don’t have the opportunities he did, especially involving baseball in the area he has called home since he started playing for Lakewood High as a home-schooled sophomore.
His latest act of kindness will be announced later this week, when he provides financial sponsorship for the Police Athletic League baseball program at St. Petersburg’s Jackson Recreation Center at Wildwood Park.
“Since I’ve been in high school it’s always been something I wanted to help with when I came back and had the opportunity to,” Bichette said. “So to just have this opportunity to allow kids to play baseball for free is just something that’s been on my mind.”
Bichette has been involved with PAL for several years, helping out with after-school programs and clinic-type instruction. When he heard the Wildwood baseball program “was kind of in trouble,” he wanted to step in.
His donation, for an undisclosed amount, will provide uniforms (including headbands like he wears in his famously flowing hair), equipment and gear, plus cover registration fees, coaching stipends and other costs for about 100 boys and girls ages 5-14, split among four baseball and four T-ball teams, PAL executive director Heather Robb said.
“It really will enable us to provide the kids with a really nice program at no charge,” she said.
And typically kids, from the neighborhood and PAL programs, who otherwise would not be exposed to the game.
“We’re kind of the grass roots, instructional, anti-travel ball team,” Robb said. “It’s basically kind of a pickup league. The kids come out, they practice once a week and then they play once a week. Whoever shows up, shows up. ... Baseball is getting to be a very expensive sport, especially for families who are making tough choices between rent and food and other things. So for the kids to still be able to have opportunity to get out and participate in recreational sports, that’s great.”
That Bichette is making this type of commitment at the age of 24, and before earning big bucks — though reportedly agreeing Tuesday night to an arbitration-avoiding three-year deal that could be worth around $30 million — is more impressive.
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“I’m sure it has to do with how I was raised,” Bichette said. “It really was just the experience that I had. I was always able to do every travel ball tournament. My family was well off. So I was able to do that stuff and it was never a thought.
“At Lakewood, I realized that not every single kid is able to do that stuff. And there’s a lot of kids that are super talented and if they were able to, might have better opportunity. So it was just something that when I left Lakewood, I really wanted to have the opportunity to help kids get into baseball and enjoy baseball like I was able to.”
Dante Bichette, who spent 2013 as the Rockies hitting coach after playing parts of 14 seasons in the majors, and wife Mariana moved the family from the Orlando area to Tierra Verde in 2014 to be near their their oldest son, Dante Jr., a 2011 first-round pick of the Yankees, who was playing then for the Class A team in Tampa.
Bo, already a rising pro prospect going into his sophomore season, had options. Rather than deal with driving each day to one of the Tampa Bay area private schools with a better baseball pedigree, he said he preferred to have fun playing for the nearby neighborhood Spartans. He liked coach Jayce Ganchou and, though he continued to be home schooled, enjoyed visits to the south St. Petersburg campus.
Those experiences shaped his mindset to help others, leading to his selection last season as the Blue Jays’ nominee for Major League Baseball’s prestigious Roberto Clemente award.
Bichette would accompany Mariana, who helped launch a program called Serve St. Pete, for Sunday trips to bring pizzas, supplies and conversation to homeless people at a shelter near downtown. He arranged for PAL and Lakewood kids to attend games at Dunedin and Tropicana Field, providing bus transportation, tickets, Jays gear and some face time on the field. He has done clinics and camps and sponsored a back-to-school shoe giveaway for kids at St. Pete rec centers.
Eventually he would like to expand his charitable involvement to additional cities and other areas of need, such as mental health programs.
His latest endeavor — which will be formally called PAL/Wildwood Baseball Powered by Bo Bichette — includes providing recognition for Rosevelt “Bubba” Swinton, the 83-year-old who has organized the program for about 60 years and still lines the fields.
“I’m super excited to meet him and just tell him that I’m looking forward to pushing along what he started and hopefully expand it as much as interest warrants,” Bichette said.
“I’ve been doing stuff but this is definitely really cool. It seems like something that can be kind of generational, so I’m excited about it.”
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