HE'S JUST BACKING OFF : McCaskill's Delivery Is Low-Profile

Times Staff Writer

It is the third day of drills for Angel pitchers and catchers, and Kirk McCaskill is approached for a post-workout interview. McCaskill obliges but tosses out one ground rule before he settles back into a chair:

"Just as long as it's not McCaskill Is Back."

McCaskill smiles, because he knows what's coming. After all, what's an Angel spring without another installment in the Kirk McCaskill comeback story? In 1988, there was arthroscopic elbow surgery to overcome. In 1989, the injury du jour is something known as a radial nerve irritation, a condition that left McCaskill's pitching hand numb and rendered him useless for the last two months of the '88 season.

Besides, after what did and didn't transpire last summer, who's to say that McCaskill is finally and truly back to the form he displayed in 1986, when he finished 17-10 with a 3.36 earned-run average?

Certainly not McCaskill.

"I want to stay very low-profile this spring," McCaskill said. "I'm not taking anything for granted . . .

"When a guy gets hurt one year, you can kind of brush it off. But when he's hurt two years in a row, then you have something to prove.

"I feel like I've got to prove myself all over again. I feel like I'm fighting for a job."

Since 1986, McCaskill has started a grand total of 36 games for the Angels. In 1987, sandwiched between April surgery and September post-op complications, McCaskill started 13 games, compiling a 4-6 record and a 5.67 ERA.

"A year wasted," McCaskill said.

In 1988, he stayed unhurt through early August and went 8-6 in 23 starts--the only winning record in the Angel rotation--with a 4.31 ERA.

But then came Aug. 13 and that tingling sensation that shot up McCaskill's right forearm while he attempted to loosen up before a game in Oakland. McCaskill was forced to miss that game--and any others he had hoped to start for Manager Cookie Rojas.

For the second year in a row, McCaskill ended the regular season on the disabled list. And for the second winter in a row, McCaskill was confronted by career-threatening uncertainty.

That he's throwing again here, without pain or numbness, has answered one critical question. But others remain.

Has the nerve healed? The Angels can only hope so.

Will the condition ever return?

"We're taking it day by day," Manager Doug Rader said.

And what caused the irritation in the first place?

That, along with Junior Noboa's two-month stay on the Angel roster, lives on as the club's great unsolved mystery of 1988.

"We ran all the tests in the world," McCaskill said. "We never found out a cause."

That didn't stop people from speculating, of course. Theories abounded, ranging from an old hockey injury to Rojas' use--or misuse?--of McCaskill in late July and early August.

Rojas came under scrutiny for his handling of McCaskill during three consecutive starts:

--July 30: McCaskill threw 64 pitches and lasted two-plus innings in an eventual 15-14 Angel victory over the Chicago White Sox.

--Aug. 3: After vowing that McCaskill "will never pitch on three days' rest" again, Rojas pitched McCaskill on three days' rest. McCaskill was bombed again, facing only 11 batters in an 8-7 loss to Seattle.

--Aug. 8: The Angels lost again to the Mariners, 4-3, but only after Rojas had kept McCaskill on the mound for 145 grueling pitches, the longest stint of McCaskill's career.

The next time McCaskill tried to pitch, his arm went numb. Soon afterward, fingers were pointed Rojas' way, although McCaskill absolved him then, as he does today.

"The 145 pitches had nothing to do with it," McCaskill said. "And when I pitched on three days' rest, I had only pitched one inning (actually two) the start before.

"Maybe it all helped lead up to it, but on the day it happened, I felt fine. It just appeared. I had no inkling.

"I played catch the day before and when I woke up the next morning, the arm was fine. I did my stretching and running before the game and everything was fine. Then, when I started to throw in the bullpen, my forearm went numb."

McCaskill ventures his own guess as to the root of the nerve irritation, citing a game against Baltimore on May 29, in which McCaskill was struck on the right forearm by a line drive.

"That kind of makes sense," he says. "I got hit in the forearm and that's where the radial nerve is."

So why did the nerve wait more than two months to go numb on McCaskill?

The pitcher can only shrug.

During the off-season, rest was prescribed for McCaskill. He did not pick up a baseball until January, when the numbness was gone.

In the interim, McCaskill passed the days by traveling with his wife Dana in Europe, raising money for the charity that bears his name, the Kirk McCaskill Strike Out Hunger Foundation, and keeping tabs on Wayne Gretzky as a Los Angeles King season-ticket holder.

One can easily imagine some king-sized introspection weighing on McCaskill's mind during those hockey nights at Inglewood. A former All-American hockey players at the University of Vermont, McCaskill once had to choose between the Winnipeg Jets and the Angels as his athletic vocation.

After consecutive washed-out seasons in baseball, McCaskill could be excused for wondering if he had made the right choice.

McCaskill, however, said he did.

"I don't think I would've made it as a hockey player," he said. "Put it this way: I wasn't on my way to making it. I was only on my way to a quick exit.

"At the time, I felt myself getting better as a baseball player and was committing more and more time to that. The first day of my last Jets camp (1984), we held a scrimmage and I hadn't been on skates in nine months. I was totally uncomfortable on skates. I could barely turn on them anymore.

"Confidence plays a big part in any sport you play, and I no longer had any confidence in my hockey skills."

The King games were merely one way to take McCaskill's thoughts off his arm and rehabilitation. Or, at least, such was the intent.

Everywhere McCaskill was recognized during the winter, he claims, the opening ice-breaking salvo was always the same: "So, Kirk, how's the arm?"

"I was going to have a T-shirt made," McCaskill joked. "It would have read:

"1--My arm is fine.

"2--Yes, I've signed my contract.

"3--No, I haven't met Doug Rader.

"4--No, I don't know where Ron Romanick is."

Romanick, McCaskill's old Angel running mate, is out of baseball. Not wanting to reach the same destination just yet, McCaskill has returned to Mesa, hopeful of learning if one can pitch effectively in the big leagues with his fingers crossed.

The early reports have been encouraging, but, then, they also were at this time last year.

"He's throwing the ball as well as ever," said Marcel Lachemann, the Angel pitching coach. "And he's throwing all four of his pitches.

"This is different than last year. Whenever you've got a pitcher coming off arm surgery, you've always got to look at about a year before the thing's totally healed up. Even with arthroscopic surgery.

"This is not surgery. We're talking about resting the arm. He's done that and now he's going through his whole program. He's doing everything--all his drills, all his throwing. We had to hold him back a little last year."

The Angels are counting on McCaskill as one of their five starting pitchers. The proof rests in the recent reassignment of Willie Fraser, the club's fifth starter in 1988, to the bullpen, where he is to provide needed support behind Bryan Harvey.

Without a strong McCaskill, the thinking behind such a move is moot.

"I'm glad the Angels are sticking with me," McCaskill said. "They're encouraging me more than anything else. But, I can't afford to look at it that way.

"Based on my winter workouts, I could see where they might say, 'He'll be in the rotation.' In my mind, however, I'm still trying to win a job.

"The injury is something that's always going to be on my mind, there's no denying that. All I can do is stay so focused on what I'm doing here that the injury, in the back of my mind, will be a very minuscule part of my mind-set."

For the time being, all McCaskill Is Back stories are to be put on hold. The subject suggests checking back some time in early October.

Angel Notes

Unlike Wally Joyner and Devon White, Angel rookie successes who had to wrestle with Mike Port down to the deadline for acceptable salaries in their second seasons, Bryan Harvey had an easy go of his 1989 contract negotiations. Harvey, runner-up to Oakland shortstop Walt Weiss in the 1988 American League rookie-of-the-year voting, signed a one-year contract worth $170,000 Wednesday afternoon, the first day of full-squad workouts. Harvey's contract also includes a $15,000 bonus if he makes the All-Star team. "It's good to be over with," Harvey said. "I had it easier than some guys. I don't know, my agent (Steve Greenberg) and Mike Port talked a few times and things just worked themselves out. I think (the rookie-of-the-year voting) helped me a little bit."

So, no doubt, did the current state of the Angel bullpen. After Harvey, Willie Fraser, who had a 5.41 ERA in 1988, ranks as the club's No. 1 short-relief specialist. . . . The official figures on Bert Blyleven's Angel contract: Blyleven, 37, will be paid a guaranteed salary of $1.225 million this year. His 1990 contract, to be renewed at the club's option, calls for a salary of $1.175 million. If the Angels choose not to re-sign Blyleven next season, they can buy out his contract for $200,000.

Why is Wally smiling? It may have something to do with the fact that, for the first time in three years, Joyner has come to training camp with his contract already signed. "I'm in good spirits," Joyner said. "Just call me Mr. Happy." Joyner would have been happier, he joked, had Blyleven remained a Minnesota Twin a little longer. "There goes a couple home runs," Joyner quipped. "I guess I've got to pick on someone else."

The only no-shows Wednesday were pitcher Vinicio Cedeno and catcher Edwin Marquez, both experiencing visa problems. "We've got two MIAs," Manager Doug Rader said. "According to (Port), Marquez called today and said he had no plane ticket or a visa. Mike said, 'That's a deterioration of the scenario--the last time I talked to him, he had a plane ticket.' So we're losing ground on the thing." . . . Also out of camp was third base coach Moose Stubing, who doubles as a basketball official in the Big West, Southwest and Western Athletic Conferences. "We've got a new nickname for Moose," Rader reported. "We call him Bo. I told him, 'This is just a hobby for you.' "

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