It was easy to become enamored with Bo Bichette the baseball player simply looking at his stat line at A-Lansing before ever watching him play a game myself.
.384 batting average. 10 home runs. 51 runs batted in. 12 stolen bases.
When he arrived in Dunedin and hit .348 with 21 runs batted in and 10 stolen bases in his first 34 games against tougher competition, falling for Bichette the prospect became effortless.
It wasn't just the video-game stats that popped off the page and brought a steady stream of fans seeking autographs and national media seeking interviews to Florida Auto Exchange Stadium. The hits and home runs and stolen bases were fun, but it was smaller things that made Bichette stand out on a daily basis.
It was Bo and his father Dante, a former multi-time All-Star and National League home run champ, alone in the batting cage hours after an uncharacteristic oh-fer at the plate, hitting under a solitary light long after the stadium's went dark.
It was grace not often seen at this level at shortstop, ranging up the middle, spinning, throwing a strike to first, forcing me to pencil a star next to the 6-3 in my scorebook so I wouldn't forget to mention the great play our 19-year-old shortstop had just made in the game recap I'd write hours later.
It was the adjustments at the plate. The opposing pitchers thinking, finally, they had cracked the kid who simply keeps hitting as they throw another fastball high and tight to Bichette, believing they had found his weakness. The fastballs kept coming higher and tighter and harder, knocking Bichette off the plate, often leaving him sprawling out of the way. The pitchers were sent back to the drawing board when he stood up, dusted himself off, and deposited the next one he saw over the wall in left field.
Most of all, though, it was the fact that, despite all the attention, the awards, the top prospect lists, the All-Star games, the autograph seekers, the magazine covers, the television specials, Bo Bichette the person has not changed.
"Honestly, I just want to be remembered as someone who lived their life correctly," Bichette says, sitting at his locker in shorts and a t-shirt, his socks pulled up to his knees, waiting out a rain delay. I'd sat through interview after interview with Bichette over the past two months, hearing him get asked about his career goals as a player. I wanted to go a different direction. What were his career goals as a person? "All I can ask for is for people to look at me and say he lived his life the best he could and did everything he could to represent Jesus Christ."
When the rain passed and he took the field, Bichette stopped first to sign autographs for the flock of fans in the right field corner of Florida Auto Exchange Stadium before warming up, the crowd shouting his name from the minute he emerged from the clubhouse door.
"I think that it's the right thing to do. I know a lot of people come to see me play and come to get an autograph from me. The least I could do is stop and give them one," he says about the autograph seekers who show up at home, on the road, even at the team's hotel after games. "For me, I remember when I was a little kid, I would want autographs from players. It's a cool opportunity for me to help people out."
With Bichette and fellow top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr. on the roster, the amount of autograph seekers at home games has increased exponentially. Fans wait in the parking lot late at night after games hoping to catch a glimpse of the two young stars. On the road, they race the team bus back to the hotel after games.
"It's cool. It's something that definitely a year ago I didn't think would be happening. I knew I'd probably be getting asked for autographs, but people waiting at the hotel? The team makes a lot of fun of me for it, but it's definitely a good experience."
It doesn't take much looking to find where Bichette gets his humility from. The apple doesn't often fall far from the tree. At each Blue Jays home game, his father Dante and mother Mariana sit in the same seats near the top of the stands where the breeze is best at countering the August Florida heat. Dante smiles and shakes hands with the fans who approach him, signing his name with a flourish on the baseballs and cards offered to him. Mariana chats amicably with the regulars sitting nearby.
While his preternatural ability to barrel up a baseball and fan-friendliness come from his All-Star father, Bichette is quick to credit his mother's influence in shaping the person he has become.
"We were lucky to have her to set the example for us," Bo says, talking about the myriad of community service projects Mariana set up for the family while he was growing up. "I remember when we were younger, we used to go below this overhead highway where many homeless people were and my mom would set up and we would feed people."
He continues to cite examples of ways his mother has gone out of her way to help others and set an example for her sons.
"On Thanksgiving, instead of eating a ton ourselves, we go and help out at a local shelter. It's something that my mom really enjoys doing. It's really fun."
When asked what it all means to him and why he continues to seek out ways to help others, Bichette pauses and then continues, displaying self-awareness and humility not often found in someone so young or so famous.
"I've grown up pretty fortunate. I realize there's people out there who struggle and don't get the same things that I do and have the same resources I do. To help them out, it definitely feels good."
On the field that night, he goes 2-3. He drives in a run, scores one himself, and steals a base. It's not enough. Despite all his success this season, he's still looking for ways to change his game. When asked what he'd like to improve on, he doesn't hesitate before simply saying "I want to get better at everything".
Off the field for Bo Bichette, though, no change is needed.
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.