'That's true strength': Bo Bichette leading Toronto Blue Jays with swagger -- and sincerity

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Watch Bo Bichette move through the clubhouse and across the field before games, and it's immediately apparent. The Toronto Blue Jays' 24-year-old shortstop walks around like he knows people think he's the man, but also like he knows he's the man.

"You want to have that," said Blue Jays reliever Jordan Romano. "How do I get to that spot? Mentally, physically, what do I need to do to get there?"

That confidence is carrying into the clubhouse, where the Blue Jays have been carving out more and more space in meetings for Bichette to address the team.

"He's always been the guy that kind of [lets] his play do the talking," Blue Jays bench coach John Schneider said. "But now he's really coming into his own, leading not just by example."

And while Vladimir Guerrero Jr. often helps loosen up the clubhouse through his combined positive attitude and work ethic -- described as the most active player in the team group chat through his frequent, upbeat texts -- Bichette sets the tone through his focus. He's described by members of the organization as much more serious, a homebody who spends most of his time off the field directing his energy toward becoming the best baseball player in the world. Bichette's idea of fun is being as serious about his job as possible.

"I've known Bo for a long time, and the one thing that's stayed the same with him is how bad he wants to be great," said infielder Cavan Biggio who, like Bichette, is the son of a former big leaguer, Hall of Famer Craig Biggio. "How bad he wants to win. That mindset has made him the person and leader that he is today."

It's an aura that can give the wrong impression: That Bichette is cut from the mold of athletes of the past, like Michael Jordan and Derek Jeter, who projected a different kind of leadership, based on stoicism under pressure, and keeping their thoughts and emotions close to the vest.

But those who get to know Bichette soon learn he isn't like that at all. Peeling back the layers reveals a young star learning how to become a leader by being more and more willing to talk about the pressures, stresses and anxieties that come with being a professional ballplayer. He's certainly not one to bury it inside and let it fester -- and he doesn't want that for his teammates, either.

"That's probably true strength," Bichette said. "It's definitely different this generation than last generation. It's definitely more acceptable to talk about your feelings. But I don't do that because of how this generation is. I just do it because that's who I am. What I go through doesn't define me. Things that I struggle with mentally do not define me."

Growing up with a supportive family and a famous father -- 14-year major leaguer Dante -- Bichette admits he didn't encounter much stress or anxiety until his first struggles as a professional. When he did need to face down the emotions that came alongside a rise in platform and fame, he thought back to the lessons his mom, Mariana, taught him about what can be gained from speaking out.

"You can learn from other people, learning how a lot of different people deal with those things," Bichette said. "You understand that you're not alone, which is huge."

Said Romano: "I [was] like, 'Man, he was just born to this, nothing fazes him.' And then I talked to him, and it was just not the case."

Bichette says he first felt the need to open up that way when he was playing for the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats in 2018. Through the first two months of the season, he was hitting .265/.340/.417 -- by no means terrible, but a far cry from the minor league career batting line of .321/.380/.515 that pegged him as a future All-Star.

"Going through struggles for the first time," Bichette said, "you either learn how to deal with it or you don't."

Bichette learned to deal by talking through the stress with his parents and with teammates he trusted. As he shared more about his feelings, his optimism rose, and his performance ticked upward, too.

Bichette leaned on those experiences in 2019, when Romano needed a hand. The Blue Jays called the two up to the major leagues around the same time in 2019. Romano struggled, posting a 7.63 ERA in 15.1 innings pitched across 17 appearances while Bichette flourished, hitting .338/.371/.632 after his first full month in the majors. As Romano floundered under the brighter lights of the big leagues, he let the stress get to him. A series of conversations between the two players made a huge difference.

"I just wouldn't talk about my struggles," Romano said. "Just kept it bottled up. And then I heard Bo say he has these feelings and talk about how he worked around them and I was like, 'God, this is normal.' I mean, it's okay to talk about these things."

Romano took that message to heart.

"The stress has gone down, the anxiety has gone down," Romano said.

Now in his fourth year in the big leagues, Bichette is making the transition from hot-shot prospect and son of a former big league star into a leader. Those around the Blue Jays say they see Bichette growing into that role a little more every day, and that it will be crucial for a young team facing major expectations.

Many fans and observers expect Toronto to rise out of an ultra-competitive American League East and make a push for a World Series title -- and Bichette entered the 2022 season as one of the team's foundational players. He finished sixth among all shortstops in fWAR in 2021, behind Trea Turner, Fernando Tatis Jr., Carlos Correa, Brandon Crawford and Xander Bogaerts. Alongside Guerrero, the AL MVP runner-up, Bichette sets the tone for Toronto. How he carries himself matters.

"When you have someone like Bo, our shortstop, showing up early to work on his game, you want to show up early and work on your game," said Blue Jays pitcher Alek Manoah.

Bichette's willingness to open up with teammates serves as an example, too.

"Don't feel ashamed about talking about your feelings," Romano said. "Bo is talking about it and he's the guy. He's the man."