MESA, Ariz. — The worst year in the life of Kirk McCaskill has been in the book for almost two months now, and if the Angel pitcher could somehow arrange a burning of that book, they'd be roasting media guides in Mesa tonight.
"I'm glad '88 is here," McCaskill says, throwing out the first understatement of the spring. "And look. The Tigers let Kirk Gibson go to the Dodgers. It's already shaping up as a great year."
McCaskill begins to laugh, and it's a double-edged laugh. There are two jokes at work here, one obvious and one inside.
Of course, McCaskill is glad that Gibson's gone. He's an American League pitcher, isn't he? But at the same time, McCaskill knows fully well that pitching to the left-handed slugger was among the least of his problems in 1987.
Just getting to pitch was the hardest part.
At first, his principles wouldn't let him. Last spring, McCaskill walked out of camp in protest of what he regarded as "strong-arm" tactics during contract negotiations by Angel General Manager Mike Port. Faced with a take-it-or-take-a-salary-cut proposition, McCaskill held out for six days before Port agreed to place the Angels' original offer of $232,000 back on the table.
McCaskill finally signed and readied himself to pitch again.
Then, his arm wouldn't let him.
Three starts into the regular season, McCaskill was diagnosed as having bone spurs in his right elbow. On April 27, he underwent arthroscopic surgery and didn't make his next start until July 16.
From there, things really fell apart.
McCaskill, a 17-game winner in 1986, was only 2-6 with a 6.88 earned-run average after surgery. Worse than that, the arm still hurt. On Sept. 4, McCaskill, making what would be his final start of the season, surrendered a grand slam to Mike Pagliarulo and a solo home run to Rickey Henderson in three innings, left the game and complained that his elbow felt "worse than before."
At the advice of the Angel trainers, McCaskill was placed on ice--"shut down," in baseball parlance. McCaskill didn't pick up another baseball until January and didn't begin throwing off the mound again until Feb. 1.
One week into spring training, McCaskill remains the leading question mark on a pitching staff filled with them. Was four months rest enough to repair the second-most important right elbow in the Angels' starting rotation? Can McCaskill reasonably expect to approach his 1986 form--and the Angels subsequently approach theirs? Or were the Angels' earlier claims of "cautious optimism" about McCaskill too optimistic and not nearly cautious enough?
It's still early, but so far, McCaskill is responding with exclamation points.
"McCaskill is throwing good, as good as I've ever seen him," Angel Manager Gene Mauch says. "And he's got all his pitches with him. He's cracking down on his fastball, he's cracking down on his curveball.
"I was watching him the other day, and I said to Lach (pitching coach Marcel Lachemann), 'You mean, he feels nothing? ' Hell no, he feels nothing."
Mauch, of course, has been known to paint landscapes rosy and rosier, but there seems to be a growing consensus around the Angels' camp that McCaskill's comeback may be the real thing. Catching prospect Erik Pappas came off the field one afternoon last week shaking his head and raving to McCaskill about the pitches he had just seen.
McCaskill, too, is shaking his head these days. He claims to be as surprised as anyone about his progress to date.
"After I threw on Wednesday, I was doing my running and I was kind of waiting for my arm to start hurting," he said. "I kept wondering when it was going to stiffen up. But it never did.
"That's a nice feeling--to have no feeling there."
And it's a quite a change from McCaskill's wintry winter outlook, when the arm hurt without McCaskill doing so much as holding a baseball.
"October, November, December, the arm was very painful," McCaskill said. "I didn't think I'd ever be ready for spring training."
It wasn't until December that McCaskill and Angel physical therapist Roger Williams finally discovered the root of McCaskill's discomfort. Unlike most pitchers after elbow surgery, McCaskill's problem wasn't with arm extension but just the opposite. Because scar tissue had hardened in the joint, McCaskill was unable to properly flex--or close--his elbow.
"We never realized the problem was with flexion," McCaskill said, curling an imaginary dumbbell to mimic the painful motion.
"What happened was when I first came back last year, my arm felt pretty good and I kind of stopped rehab. I got my extension back pretty quickly, so I stopped doing my stretching exercises."
That, McCaskill now concedes, was among his biggest mistakes of 1987.