By baseball standards, Jeff Pickler's professional career got off to a late start.
The former Foothill High infielder, who was also a standout at Cypress College and Tennessee, is in his second minor-league season in the Milwaukee Brewers' organization. And Pickler, 24, started at the bottom, with the Brewers' rookie-league team in Ogden, Utah.
But Pickler is making his move.
After batting .364 at Ogden--the highest average of any Brewer minor leaguer in 1998--he was promoted to Stockton in the Class-A California League. On Friday, Pickler was sent to the Brewers' double-A Southern League team in Huntsville, Ala.
The latest promotion is more impressive when you consider Pickler's slow start this season after making changes in his batting style.
"You realize there is always a need for improvement," said Pickler. "The ultimate thing I did was to become more balanced, which allowed me to drive the ball more. I had a big stride, so I had to limit the movement. But I didn't started feeling good [with the change] until the last week of May."
At the time of his promotion, Pickler was Stockton's leading hitter at .338 with one home run and 42 runs batted in through 80 games.
"He's had a great year," said Stockton Manager Bernie Moncallo. "He's not a power guy, but Jeff can handle the bat. Hitting is his No. 1 tool. He has a ways to go defensively, but he knows that.
"I'd say he's ahead of schedule, going to double-A after only half a season here. His ability got him drafted and his professionalism has allowed him to continue to progress through our system."
Scott Pickler, Jeff's father and Cypress College baseball coach, began teaching his son to hit when he was 4. As a senior at Foothill in 1994, Pickler was a second-team Times Orange County selection. He went on to set school hitting records at Cypress and at Tennessee, where, in 1998, he was an All-America and the Southeastern Conference's player of the year.
Milwaukee made Pickler an 11th-round pick in 1998. Suddenly baseball, which had always been fun, took on greater significance.
"In my earlier years, going to the majors was a dream, but recently, it's become a goal," Pickler said. "Dreams are something you think about. Goals are something you work for."
And Picker, who earned a marketing degree at Tennessee, knows his goal is within reach. But he also understands he won't have forever to pursue it.
"A person like me, who got a late start in the minors, you definitely have a sense of not getting any younger," Pickler said. "I'm still too young to be too worried, but I understand [teams] are not fond of a 27-year-old in 'A' ball."
Pickler said playing baseball in college helped him immensely.
"You learn how to handle pressure situations and how to handle failure," Pickler said. "In the SEC, I saw a lot of pitchers who are now either pitching in high single-A or double-A ball. The preparation was more than adequate.
"The Brewers are the right organization for young guys trying to make it to the majors. They tend to promote from within the system, rather than go out and buy talent. As a minor leaguer, that's all you can ask for. I hope I am justifying the promotion."
The California League and Major League Baseball reached an agreement to create the California Fall League, which will begin play in September.
Teams will be based in Lake Elsinore, Lancaster, Rancho Cucamonga and San Bernardino, and will be composed of players from all 30 major league organizations.
First-year players, from double-A or lower, will make up the 28-man rosters.
Teams will play 42-45 games, ending in November. The agreement runs through 2001.
Staff writer Martin Henderson contributed to this story.