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

May 07, 1985|JOHN WEYLER | 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.

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