Dropping the Puck

By IAN WILSON

In the 1980s, there was no one cooler than the multi-sport athlete.

Bo knows that, and Deion Sanders packaged it for “Prime Time.”

Posters of Bo Jackson, who suited up for the Kansas City Royals on weekdays and the Los Angeles Raiders on Sundays, adorned the bedroom walls of countless starry-eyed children back then. Sanders inspired others when he hit a Major League Baseball (MLB) home run and scored a National Football League (NFL) touchdown in the same week in September of 1989. “Neon Deion” remains the only person to ever play in both a Super Bowl and a World Series.

Of course, football and baseball are two of the most popular sports in North America and neither requires lacing up skates. A far less likely sports cross-over for an athlete to pull off is hockey and baseball. Yet, Kirk McCaskill of Kapuskasing, Ontario had the opportunity to do both at the highest level.

McCaskill, the son of a professional hockey player, chased pucks and fired fastballs for the University of Vermont Catamounts in the early ’80s.

At the rink, the forward played 107 games over four seasons, racking up 83 goals and 144 points. He was a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, which recognizes the top college hockey player in the United States, in 1982. By that point, National Hockey League (NHL) scouts had already taken notice. The Winnipeg Jets drafted McCaskill 64th overall, in the fourth round of the 1981 NHL Entry Draft.

On the diamond, the right-handed pitcher and designated hitter was no less formidable. He set team records for batting average (.356) and slugging percentage (.561) in 1981, before going 5-0 on the mound in his junior season. The California Angels set their sights on McCaskill by making him the 88th overall selection – once again in the fourth round – of the 1982 MLB Amateur Entry Draft. (Joe Maddon, current manager of the Los Angeles Angels, was the scout who signed McCaskill).

It looked as though McCaskill had some tough, if not enviable, decisions to make, although he wasn’t ready to close the door on either sport.

He split time between Single-A and Double-A in 1983, pitching in 29 games and 195 innings for the Redwood Pioneers and Nashua Angels. When the season ended, he signed a four-year deal with the Jets, signaling a path towards life in the NHL.

McCaskill appeared in 78 games for the Sherbrooke Jets of the American Hockey League (AHL) during the 1983-84 season, potting 10 goals and 12 assists in limited ice time. Winnipeg called him up for the playoffs, but the 6-foot-1, 195-pound centre never took a shift while the Jets were swept by the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round.

TRAP DOOR

Shortly after hockey season, it was back to the ballpark for McCaskill, who missed spring training and began the 1984 season with the Edmonton Trappers of the Pacific Coast League (PCL).

When Edmonton Journal columnist Norm Cowley asked McCaskill which sport he hoped to pursue a career in, the pitcher remained non-committal.

“I’ll see how things work out,” he said.

“Whichever one I do better in.”

1985 Edmonton Journal photo of McCaskill and catcher Steve Liddle

A pair of shaky relief appearances highlighted some nerves and control problems early in his first Triple-A campaign, and McCaskill opened up about the challenges of the previous hockey season.

“If I have to make a decision, I’ll make it at the end of the summer,” McCaskill told reporter Marty Knack in the May 6th, 1984 edition of the Journal.

“I know I had a terrible winter (playing hockey) … it was a difficult year. Our coach, Ron Racette, had a brain tumor but nobody knew it. He would wander off and we couldn’t practice. We just thought the guy didn’t know what was going on. I just dreaded going to practice because they were the same every day. And they were terrible practices, at that.”

Frank Reberger, the pitching coach for the Trappers, liked what he saw from McCaskill and had no doubts about his ability to get to the big leagues.

“He’s a good competitor and willing to learn his profession. He’s got a fastball that rises pretty good and a good sinker ball. He’s got a good curveball and a good slider,” said Reberger.

McCaskill made his first start of the year on May 11th at John Ducey Park in front of 3,897 fans. His struggles continued, with the Ontario product surrendering nine hits and six runs through 4.1 innings in an 11-3 loss to the Las Vegas Stars. The outing left many wondering if McCaskill should hang up his ball glove and dust off his skates.

Joe Coleman, the minor league pitching coach for the Angels, was taking a more patient approach, however.

“All things considered, it was a good outing,” Coleman told the Journal newspaper.

“If we as a staff expected him to go out and shut somebody out in his first start without any spring training, then we’d be in the wrong.”

More uneven starts followed for McCaskill, who was still working to find his groove. After turning in his worst start of the season – three hits, five walks and six runs against in just one-third of an inning – McCaskill delivered his best outing. At Civic Stadium in Portland on Sunday, June 10th, McCaskill produced a complete game, one-hitter against the Beavers, the same team that torched him in his previous beatdown. It was a bittersweet performance. The one-hit McCaskill surrendered was a two-run homer and the Trappers lost the game 2-0.

Incidentally, that same weekend, a young pitcher named Tom Glavine (a second-round pick of the Braves in 1984) was drafted in the fourth round of the NHL Entry Draft by the Los Angeles Kings, ahead of future Hockey Hall of Famers Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille. Glavine ultimately opted to go the baseball route, and things worked out pretty well for him in that sport.

PACIFIC COAST LEAGUE CHAMPS

By the second half of the season, McCaskill was settling in, pitching deeper into games and racking up more Ks. His fastball was effective and his curveball was snapping. There were still ups and downs along the way, as evidenced by his regular season stats, which left him with a 7-11 record, a 5.73 earned run average (ERA), 74 walks and 75 strikeouts in 143 innings of work.

He had also informed the Jets that he was giving up hockey to focus on baseball.

Despite McCaskill’s battles with consistency, the 69-73 Trappers were a playoff team in 1984. They defeated the Salt Lake City Gulls in the Northern Division final for a berth in the PCL championship series against the Hawaii Islanders. Originally set as a best-of-five series, rainouts reduced it to a best-of-three matchup at John Ducey Park.

The underdog Trappers stunned the Islanders with an 8-4 win in the first game on Saturday, Sept. 8th, and they sent McCaskill to the mound for a Sunday rematch against lefty Alfonso Pulido, who posted an 18-6 record that summer.

“I just wanted to rear back and throw as hard as I could,” said McCaskill, who was spotted a 6-0 lead and pitched 5.2 innings in an historic 9-6 victory that secured the first of four PCL titles for the Trappers.

“It helped having the best fastball I’ve had all year during the first three or four innings.”

The championship also strengthened McCaskill’s belief that he was on the right track.

“You can’t beat this feeling … I can remember last year playing hockey for Sherbrooke, and we lost so many games it was depressing. This is much better,” the 23-year-old told the Journal.

BURDEN LIFTED

Following the celebrations in Edmonton, McCaskill did something he hadn’t done for a long time. Instead of rushing to get prepared for the hockey season, he went on vacation to Vermont, where he visited with friends and played a lot of golf. He also took part in the California Angels Instructional League camp in the fall.

“There wasn’t a lot of pressure, so I could go out and gain confidence in my pitching and in myself … I think now I’m a 100-percent improved pitcher,” he told Cowley of the Journal before he reported to the Trappers to start the 1985 PCL season.

“It’s not a relief, but the burden is gone,” added McCaskill. “I don’t have to worry about two sports anymore … my whole approach has changed. It’s all baseball and I think that has helped me improve.”

McCaskill was also optimistic about his place in the game of baseball.

“I think I’m ready to pitch in the big leagues from what I’ve seen of other pitchers and what I saw in spring training,” he said.

“I know I didn’t have the numbers and the season last year that other guys had. But then, no one else had the kind of season that I did, where I came straight off hockey and had no spring training.”

McCaskill was named the Opening Day starter for the Trappers, which ended up being a no-decision against the Las Vegas Stars. He scattered six hits, struck out seven batters and walked just one in the solid outing.

The righty hurler needed just three PCL starts to prove he deserved a call to the majors. In those three games, McCaskill threw 17.2 innings, went 1-1 and struck out 18 batters while posting a 2.04 ERA.

GOING TO THE SHOW

On May 1st, 1985, McCaskill made his MLB debut against Jimmy Key and the Toronto Blue Jays. Although he issued one walk and struck out four through 6.1 frames, McCaskill was tagged for five earned runs and took the loss.

But he showed enough to stick around, making 29 starts for the California Angels that season. He went 12-12 with a 4.70 ERA and 189.2 innings pitched for the Halos.

His 1986 campaign was even better: 17-10, 3.36 ERA, 10 complete games, 202 Ks and 246.1 innings pitched. The best year of his career helped lead the Angels to a 92-70 record and first place in the American League (AL) West Division.

McCaskill never looked back (although he did return to the Edmonton Trappers for a brief conditioning stint in 1987, a six-inning, three-hit win over the Phoenix Firebirds).

He spent seven seasons with the Angels, and pitched another five for the Chicago White Sox. In that time, he appeared in 380 MLB games and went 106-108 with a career 4.12 ERA. McCaskill also recorded 30 complete games and 1,003 strikeouts.

One of his more memorable outings came on Sept. 14, 1990 against the Seattle Mariners at Anaheim Stadium. During the first inning, Ken Griffey and Ken Griffey Jr. hit back-to-back homers off McCaskill, marking the only time in MLB history that a father and son have accomplished that feat.

“I always tell this joke when I talk about it: The only thing I was upset about was that when Junior crossed home plate, Mrs. Griffey had come out of the stands and she was in the on-deck circle and she wanted a piece of me,” recalled McCaskill recently.

After he retired, McCaskill was inducted into the Vermont Sports Hall of Fame, as well as the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame.

That may not be Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders level cool, but it’s still impressive.

print

Leave a Reply