No stopping for Pickering Prospect: The Baysox's Calvin Pickering has succeeded at every level, and now he has his sights set on the majors.

August 27, 1998|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- The stifling heat seemed a good excuse for Calvin Pickering to hunker down inside the air-conditioned clubhouse at Bowie earlier this week. Manager Joe Ferguson had called off batting practice, a generous act for a team in danger of missing the Eastern League playoffs. And judging by Pickering's statistics this year, the one thing he didn't need was more work.

He had an out, but chose not to take it. Pickering grabbed a bat and headed for the cage, ripping line drives in every direction and helping to retrieve the balls that littered the outfield.

"Just because you're hitting good doesn't mean you stop," he said.

No one can stop Pickering these days, not even himself.

A 21-year-old first baseman from the Virgin Islands, Pickering has made it impossible to understand why he was bypassed in the 1995 draft until the Orioles snatched him in the 35th round. He has met every challenge, at every level, and crushed it.

Two years ago, he hit .325 with 18 homers and 66 RBIs at Bluefield, becoming the first Rookie-level Oriole to be named the organization's top player. Last season, he hoisted Single-A Delmarva to the South Atlantic League championship by batting .311 with 25 homers and 79 RBIs, then had hits off Cy Young Award winner Pedro Martinez and 20-game winner Brad Radke in two spring training games with the Orioles.

Rather than take the next step to Single-A Frederick, Pickering leaped to Double-A Bowie. It wasn't a soft landing. Prone to slow starts, he went 4-for-41 to open the season.

"He hit a lot of balls right at people," Ferguson said. "but there's going to be an adjustment period there. But it didn't take him too long."

"I just had to relax more," Pickering said, "and let my natural talent do the work. I set a goal to have a decent first half, and then I went 4-for-41 and a lot of people didn't think I was ready for this league. I was hitting the ball good, but it wasn't finding the holes. I knew sooner or later everything would start to drop."

Everything except his stock, which he has raised even more by batting .309 and setting Baysox records for homers (28) and RBIs (102). In a torrid stretch earlier this month, he hit 12 homers in a 16-game span. And just as impressive as his numbers has been his approach, one that belies a 6-foot-5, 277-pound frame suitable for mashing.

Pickering is more likely to take the ball to the opposite field rather than pull it to right, though he's been known to launch a few moon shots in that direction.

"He has the unusual ability to wait on the ball until it gets deep into the hitting zone, which enables him to hit so may home runs the other way," said farm director Syd Thrift. "He follows the Ted Williams principle of making sure you get one good pitch in every at-bat. You will if you have enough patience."

"He's a different type of hitter for a young kid," Ferguson said. "He's very disciplined at the plate. He's got the opportunity to walk about 100 times. His on-base percentage is about .430, which you don't often see from a home run hitter in the minor leagues. He can hit it for distance anywhere in the ballpark, but his focus has been getting the ball to left-center because that's where he's at his best.

"You don't want hitters going up there always trying to pull the ball. When you do that, you're just eating out of the pitcher's hands."

Eating used to be a problem for Pickering. He didn't know what to consume, or when to stop. His weight approached 300 pounds at Delmarva, and Thrift persuaded him to spend three weeks in January at Duke University's nutrition center.

Though not swift of foot, he proved to be a fast learner. Pickering melted inches off his waist and lessened a major concern about him within the organization.

"It's a daily thing with him. As long as he keeps himself structured, I don't think he'll have any problems," Ferguson said.

"He's watching his calories very closely. He brings food on the road and cooks in his room. He's addressed that very well."

Pickering made a frantic call to Duke recently when he gained 5 pounds despite sticking to a diet imposed by his nutritionist. Told to cut out the sweetened iced tea he had been drinking, he quickly took off the weight.

"That's a guy who shows initiative," Thrift said. "He's a big man, but he's in tremendous condition."

After a possible September call-up by the Orioles, Pickering is expected to begin next season at Triple-A Rochester. But his future with the organization is made uncertain by negotiations with pending free agent Rafael Palmeiro. If the Orioles re-sign Palmeiro, who's asking for a five-year deal, Pickering could become available to other clubs.

"I've been looking to see what they're going to do, but if they re-sign him, I can't do anything about it," he said. "In five years I'll be 26, which is too late. My goal is to make it up there when I'm 22 or 23. But he wants a long-term deal. I don't know what's going to happen."

"Calvin Pickering's going to play in the major leagues," Thrift said. "And he's going to play there a long time."

The Pickering file

Age: 21

Position: First base

Major-league time: None

Acquired: 35th-round selection in 1995 draft out of King (Fla.) High School

Strengths: Has power to all fields, hits for average and shows rare patience for a young home run hitter.

Weaknesses: Needs to improve his defense, especially his throws, and must control his weight.

Pub Date: 8/27/98

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