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Pro Baseball

Oriole rides winds of change

By BRANT JAMES

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 19, 1999


FORT MYERS -- The Baltimore Orioles' first spring training game of the season had ended nearly 20 minutes earlier. Even the last few forgotten gloves had been plucked by clubbies from the dugout clutter of Gatorade cups at Hammond Stadium.

But Calvin Pickering just wouldn't stop signing autographs. He worked his way from behind home plate well past the first base dugout, where a chain-link fence swung in to the clubhouse walkway.

Pickering had gone to great lengths to assure he would one day be able to dawdle on such pursuits, and in his second spring training with the Orioles' major league club, he was enjoying every minute.

Natural ability and determination no doubt played their part in getting Pickering from the Virgin Islands to Tampa to the major leagues. But there's no discounting the swirling winds.

Chased out of the Virgin Islands by hurricanes that battered their homes, two of Pickering's aunts settled in Temple Terrace.

"I was 1992, Hurricane Hugo," said Pickering's aunt, Lois Sealey, as she stood watching the rest of the Orioles board the bus for a return trip to their spring home in Fort Lauderdale.

"I was Marilyn, 1995," chimed in another aunt, Mildred Joseph, her voice also thick with an island accent.

Sealey, who left three years after Hugo hit, took a job in a doctor's office, Joseph at a school.

To them, Tampa was a place to start over. For their nephew, Calvin, back in St. Thomas, it soon became the same.

Meanwhile, Pickering, always among the biggest of the kids, even those older than him, was busy becoming somewhat of a sandlot legend. The hulking left-hander hit for average and amazing power but likely would have gone unnoticed on an island largely ignored by major league scouts.

"We don't play much baseball in the Islands," Pickering said. "It's mostly basketball. Baseball is big in Little League and Senior League, but once kids get 19, 20, 21, it's hard because the season for them only lasts a couple of months."

His future changed when Aunt Lois blew back into the islands.

"I was on vacation back in the Virgin Islands when I saw Calvin play," Sealey said. "It was then I knew he had to come back with me. He would go to school, he would have his dream."

Sealey and Pickering persuaded his mother, Ruby, to allow him to move to Temple Terrace to play his senior year in high school, hoping he would impress the scouts who frequent Florida.

He had a live-in coach in his uncle, Keithly Joseph, who had instructed him in the Virgin Islands. Joseph's son, Glen, a pitcher at King, was drafted in the 19th round in June by Cincinnati.

"Back home, not a lot of scouts came out," Pickering said. "I had to take the opportunity to move to the States to try and show my talent."

In 1995, Pickering enrolled at King, batted .426 with 19 RBI as a 6-foot-4, 245-pound outfielder and was named to the all-state and All-Suncoast second teams.

All the while, baseball was foremost on his mind.

"Baseball was always in his blood," Sealey said. "As a matter of fact, Calvin used to sleep with his glove and baseball bat and ball. I used to laugh and say, "Oh, man, don't do that. Just be cool.' I tell you, he'd be in my apartment swinging his bat, and I would say, "If you break my window, you're going to see.' "

His aunts were there for support, guidance and vast quantities of home-cooked meals.

"He felt like it was home," Sealey said. "I think the hardest thing for him was the way we talk, getting people to understand him.

"But he felt good because there was always baseball."

Pickering's gambit paid off that June when the Orioles selected him with their 35th pick in the amateur draft. Close to his new home playing for the Orioles' Gulf Coast League team in Sarasota, he batted .500 (30-for-60) and knocked in 22 runs in 60 games.

Pickering was named the club's minor league player of the year after batting .325 with 18 homers and 66 RBI in 60 games for Bluefield (W.Va.) of the Appalachian League in 1996. He stayed productive in his first full season, batting .311 with 25 homers and 79 RBI in 1997 for Delmarva in the low-A South Atlantic League.

He produced one of the minors' best offensive performances last season, batting .309 with 31 homers and 114 RBI for Double A Bowie (Md.). After winning two-thirds of the Eastern League's Triple Crown, he was named league Player of the Year. "We couldn't have imagined this," Joseph said. "But the further he got, the more it got interesting. We wanted it for him, but we didn't want to get our hopes up too much."

Phone lines to St. Thomas were jammed when Pickering made his major league debut Sept. 12 against Anaheim. They got even more congested a week later when he connected off the New York Yankees' David Cone at Camden Yards for his first big-league home run.

"The whole of the Virgin Islands knew about it," Sealey said. "It was a thrill to see it. I had just walked in the house when he was playing, and he hit that first home run."

Pickering, 22, likely will start at Triple A Rochester this spring, but he is the suitor to the designated hitter and first base slots in the Orioles' lineup. Will Clark is under contract with Baltimore for three years, but DH Harold Baines is playing on a one-year extension.

"They haven't told me where I will be, but I can't just think like I won't be here," he said. "I'm trying to make them keep me here."

Pickering, by now turning the corner into the tunnel, signs one last autograph for the kid who called him, "Mister Number Six."

Mitt under arm, he smiles as he catches sight of his aunts and uncle ahead.

"I would never have had this chance if I wasn't able to come up and be with my aunts," he said. "I came up and did what I had to do. I was one of the fortunate ones."

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