He Was Kept in Cold Storage : McCaskill Has Warmed to Task With Angels

Times Staff Writer

There is really no good reason for Kirk McCaskill's being the starting pitcher for the Angels tonight in Boston, instead of being somewhere in Canada, sharpening his skates and counting his money.

There are, however, a number of bizarre reasons.

If it weren't for a college baseball coach who offered him a scholarship he didn't accept and a minor league hockey coach with a brain tumor, McCaskill, runner-up for the Hobey Baker Award--hockey's version of the Heisman Trophy--as a junior at the University of Vermont, might have been a star in the National Hockey League by now.

But then McCaskill's is a story full of what ifs, and might have beens.

Consider:

--The son of a professional hockey player, he grew up dreaming of following in his father's footsteps.

--At 15, he left home and went away to a boarding school he detested just to hone his hockey skills.

--He played baseball at Vermont but he had only 17 decisions in four years. He was in the starting rotation and wasn't hurt or anything, it's just that the baseball season in Vermont is shorter than some people's vacations.

--He was the first collegian picked in the 1981 NHL draft (after his sophomore year) and eventually signed a four-year guaranteed contract worth a minimum of $350,000 with the Winnipeg Jets.

So why isn't McCaskill playing hockey?

Well, there's Arizona State Coach Jim Brock, who offered him a baseball scholarship after watching him pitch in an American Legion game in Phoenix. It was the first time McCaskill considered his potential as a pitcher.

Then there was the late Ron Racette, the minor league hockey coach whose erratic behavior, caused by an undetected brain tumor from which he died last year, drove McCaskill from the game he loved most.

Confused? Stay tuned, it is, as McCaskill says, a "long, long story."

"I never even dreamed of playing baseball as a kid," said McCaskill, an extroverted 24-year-old with square-jawed, boyish good looks. "I played a little bit of Little League, but hockey was always my first love."

He lived in Huntington Beach for three years while his father, Ted, who played 20 years of mostly minor league hockey, was with the Los Angeles Sharks of the old World Hockey Assn.

McCaskill was on the Edison High School baseball team his freshman year, but he talked his parents into sending him to Trinity Pauling prep school in New York so he could play more hockey.

"There were 15 girls and 200 boys, suits and ties, sit-down dinners, the whole works," he said. "At the time, I complained about every minute of it, but, looking back, I think it was a good experience for me.

"I didn't have a car or get to date. We didn't even have a prom. But I made up for all that in college," he added, smiling.

McCaskill did play baseball at Trinity, but the baseball season in upstate New York is short. Miss a turn or two with a sore arm and you might as well rest up for next year.

"In my senior and junior years, I pitched in a total of 10 games," he said. "I certainly wasn't thinking about a career in baseball. In fact, I was torn between playing baseball and intramural tennis my senior year."

After graduation, McCaskill returned to his parents' home in Phoenix and signed up for American Legion ball for something to do. He caused a bit of a stir among the local scouts, who had never heard of this new kid with a very live fastball.

The situation was mutual.

"Before I got to Phoenix, I'd never seen a scout," he said. "I didn't even know there was a draft. Then all these scouts were hanging around, excited about the new meat, I guess. Anyway, then Jim Brock offered me a full scholarship and I thought, 'Gee, maybe I've got something here.'

"But I turned him down without really considering it. I would never give up hockey."

Not yet, anyway.

McCaskill was not accepted at Yale, his first choice, and went to Vermont instead. "I'm not the outdoorsy type, but I fell in love with that place," he says.

He was there on a hockey scholarship, but his prospects as a pitcher continued to rise, like one of his better fastballs. He was drafted by Winnipeg after his sophomore year, and by the Angels after his junior year, a season in which he had a 3-2 record.

McCaskill, harboring visions of being a two-sport star, signed with the Angels but turned down a $60,000 bonus they were offering if he would agree to quit hockey. He returned to Vermont and paid his own way during his senior year.

The Angels, however, did manage to lure McCaskill away from hockey, at least temporarily.

"About 10 games into my senior hockey season, they sent me a letter saying I was invited to come to spring training with the big club," he said. "I was pretty impressed. My coach at Vermont, Jim Cross, suggested I play the first semester of hockey and then go home and get ready for camp."

McCaskill made what he called a token appearance in spring training, then was assigned to the Angels' Double-A affiliate, Redwood.

"I was pretty happy with the way things were going and then Winnipeg called," he said. "Talk about an offer you couldn't refuse! Here I was, making $725 a month, and they offered me a guaranteed four-year contract worth at least $350,000.

"I guess they thought there would be a bidding war with the Angels. But who in their right mind could turn down that kind of security?"

That was in 1983, and McCaskill didn't turn it down, although a year later, he would turn his back on almost a quarter of a million dollars.

"I had hardly skated at all for 18 months," McCaskill said. "There were three games left in our season when I left, and less than a week later I was in training camp with Winnipeg.

"The first time I put on the blades, we scrimmaged. I had to learn to skate all over again. It was actually pretty funny. I mean the other guys are just looking at this kid who signed a four-year contract, and he can't even skate.

"You could see it on their faces. They were saying, 'What is this?' "

McCaskill improved sufficiently to hang with the Jets through nine exhibition games before he was cut and sent to Sherbrooke, Quebec, a Jet farm team, for development.

What developed had little to do with McCaskill's improvement.

"The coach, Ron Racette, used to warm up our goalies by having three guys come down and shoot at them at once," McCaskill said. "It was crazy. They'd keep getting plugged in the legs and stuff."

McCaskill wasn't getting any playing time, either. "Maybe two shifts a game," he said. In any case, it wasn't the hockey career he had envisioned.

"I lost all my confidence," he said. "I started to think I was terrible and then I was terrible. I was sitting on the bench, sinking lower and lower.

"There was a kid up there with a ball and I got my roommate, goalie Brian Hayward, to catch me. He used his goalie's glove," McCaskill said. "I threw a couple of days in an old field house and started thinking, 'Yeah, this feels good. This is me."

General Manager Mike Port, then the Angels' chief administrative officer, heard that McCaskill wasn't exactly skating his way to immortality. The only grudge he was holding was against Winnipeg.

"The real culprit in this story is the NHL team who turned the kid's head with an awful lot of money when we already had him under contract," Port said. He decided to find out if McCaskill was interested in returning to baseball.

McCaskill was about 3,000 miles away, but Port must have been reading McCaskill's mind long distance.

"We couldn't counter Winnipeg's offer to keep him," Port said. "It wouldn't have been fair to a lot of other quality players in our system. But our interest all along was in Kirk McCaskill, the baseball player.

"I established contact to let him know we wanted him back and would embrace his return. We weren't going to be high and mighty about it."

The Angels were well aware that McCaskill had major league potential and, considering the depth and quality of the California staff in recent years, well, they welcomed him back with all sincerity.

"It's true," Port said. "He has all the physical equipment, in the vernacular of the game. He has enough fastball, a very good curve and, obviously, he's an outstanding overall athlete."

So last spring, McCaskill gave up a guaranteed $110,000 for the third year of his hockey contract and a guaranteed $120,000 for the fourth, but he insists money isn't everything.

He was assigned to the Angels' Triple-A affiliate, Edmonton, and got off to a shaky start before winning five of his last eight games and finishing with a 7-11 record in 1984.

He worked hard in instructional league ball last winter and went to spring training with high hopes. A lingering viral infection sidelined him, however, and he was reassigned to Edmonton.

"If he hadn't gotten sick, he would have had a very good chance of making the team to start with," Manager Gene Mauch said. "There's no question about his stuff. Every one of his pitches is a quality, major league pitch."

McCaskill got a call last Tuesday afternoon in Edmonton, informing him that he was going to be Wednesday night's starting pitcher at Anaheim Stadium against Toronto.

He allowed just two hits and one unearned run in the first six innings of his big league debut before faltering in the seventh and yielding five hits and five runs, including a three-run homer to the Blue Jays' No. 9 hitter, Tony Fernandez.

"I kept telling myself it was just another game," McCaskill said. "I kept downplaying it. You have to go out there confident, not nervous. My parents and a lot of friends were here, but I wasn't really that excited. After the game, though, it started to sink in.

"I felt good and I didn't think I was that tired, not tired enough to give up a three-run dinger to the No. 9 hitter," he said. "Well, I guess maybe I was that tired."

Nevertheless, the Angels liked what they saw last Wednesday, and that's why McCaskill will be back on the mound tonight in Fenway Park.

"He threw 16 curveballs and 14 were strikes," Mauch said. "That's a great way to get in position to get guys out."

Angel catcher Bob Boone was impressed. "He had outstanding stuff," Boone said. "This is the first time since I've been here that we've been able to go to the minors and jerk up somebody like this who can get the job done. It's really exciting."

McCaskill, who was called up to replace an ailing Geoff Zahn, will probably get ample time to prove his worth. But when Zahn and Ken Forsch are able to pitch again, Mauch and Port will be faced with a decision about McCaskill's future.

"Nine and a half times out of 10, these situations decide themselves," Port said. "But we certainly don't mind being faced with the pleasant predicament of having too many healthy pitchers."

So don't be surprised, though, if McCaskill becomes a fixture in the Angels' rotation.

"I tell you what impressed me the most," Mauch said. "The kid seemed to be genuinely enjoying himself out there. I love to see that."

McCaskill is having fun, and he says he couldn't be happier now. But you'll have to excuse him if he daydreams once in a while about stealing the puck from Wayne Gretzky and winning the Stanley Cup with a blazing slap shot.

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