When the white limousine arrived at Writer Square in downtown Denver at noon a few weeks ago, Dante Bichette, the Colorado Rockies leftfielder and one of the National League's best hitters, emerged with one hand raised like a star at the Academy Awards and was quickly swallowed up by a crowd of adoring fans. It had to be the grandest entrance ever made at a bake sale, but then it had to be the first time people made cookies and sold them to raise money to help keep a professional athlete in town. While baseball fans in many other cities this summer have jeered players and thrown things at them, the ones in Denver bake brownies for Bichette.
And there he stood—on a park bench, swatting autographed beach balls with a miniature plastic bat into a crowd of roughly 200. "This is so weird," said Atlanta Brave outfielder Ryan Klesko, who was in town to play the Rockies and stumbled onto the rally. Most major leaguers wouldn't bother to show up for an affair this corny, but Bichette loved it. He started tossing signed Frisbees to the horde.
"Sign your underwear and throw it," yelled a female admirer. Bichette stopped short of doing that, but he autographed most everything else, including $10 bills. Some people asked his 2½-year old son, Danny, for his autograph, so the toddler scribbled something. After about an hour Bichette climbed back into the limo and was driven away, chased by several fans.
"The guys back home will never believe this," said Tom Down, a boyhood friend whom Bichette had flown in from Florida for a visit. "I'm here, and I don't believe it."
Believe it. There is heartfelt affection between the Rockies' fans and the 31-year-old Bichette—a charming innocent in a game plagued this season by impassive fans, petulant players and stubborn owners.
"We wanted to do something for Dante because he's such a class guy," says Dom Testa, a disk jockey for KIMN-FM radio who organized the rally to raise money that would be applied to Bichette's contract in 1996. "When some people told me, 'But he's making $3 million a year!' I said, 'Get a sense of humor.' When I told my general manager I wanted to do this, there was dead silence. Then he said, 'Get out of my office.' We did it anyway. We were hoping to raise a hundred bucks."
In truth, the money went to charity, but that wasn't the only purpose of the event. Local celebrities and media outlets participated in order to bolster support for Bichette, whom the Rockies almost let go last spring because of financial differences. Citizens of Denver don't want another scare like that one.
"I love these people," Bichette says. "They're the reason I'm still here."
Colorado manager Don Baylor says Bichette "drops in from Venus" every afternoon to let everyone play in his world for a few hours. In fact, Bichette is from Jupiter—the city on the east coast of Florida where he grew up. Still a goofy kid by nature, Bichette likes to play Foosball, pinball or Nintendo deep into the night. Then he sleeps deep into the day.
At Coors Field, Bichette has an ongoing dialogue with fans in the leftfield stands, and a vendor outside the ballpark sells T-shirts that read BICHETTE HAPPENS. (Bichette often wears one under his uniform.) Testa's station recently asked listeners to use the word Bichette in a sentence but not as his name. Of the 250 faxes received in a few hours, the best response was, "If I don't win, Bichette hits the fan."