Kirk McCaskill, master baseball convert, savors hockey’s desert deluge
Kirk McCaskill was reached this past Saturday in the wake of his fifth season opener as the Torrey Pines High School baseball coach in San Diego. A 9-1 romp over Murrieta Valley was the cathartic culmination of a wet and windy week that prompted painstaking efforts to remedy the field.
Had the Canadian-American dual citizen stuck to his motherland’s favorite (or favourite) game, he might have handled those soaked sods differently.
Perhaps he would have sought a creative means of freezing the field for a late-winter skatearound. Or, if nothing else, he might have proposed a diversion at an established ice house until nature made baseball more practical, a la The Sandlot gang’s cooling-off day at the town pool.
On the surface, that approach would have made sense for a former puck brat whose own hockey career culminated in a full AHL season. But McCaskill is also a former longtime Major League pitcher imparting his hardball knowhow to one of California’s top scholastic programs. When it comes to the rink, he now swears by Homer Simpson’s “better to watch stuff than to do stuff” philosophy.
“I’m just a fan,” he told Pucks and Recreation. “I still watch a lot of hockey, but I’m not nearly as tuned in as I was in the ’90s.”
With that said, he has a rare firsthand perspective on how the sport’s presence has changed in his adopted region. Born in Kapuskasing, Ont., McCaskill subsequently lived in nine other North American cities with his family during his upbringing.
Ted McCaskill played for his hometown Kapuskasing G.M.’s of the Northern Ontario Hockey Association for his son’s first year of existence. Afterwards, throughout the ’60s and ‘70s, the elder McCaskill’s playing and coaching endeavors took the family to Tennessee, Minnesota, Vancouver, Phoenix, Los Angeles and Upstate New York.
Kirk McCaskill recalls getting his own first crack at organized hockey in, of all places, Phoenix at age 10. At the time, the thought of being drafted by an NHL team all but consumed his mind. But few thought any franchise — let alone the one that eventually selected him — would one day transfer to the Arizona capital.
The same went for the notion of a Division I college in the state — let alone the one McCaskill declined a baseball scholarship from in order to keep pursuing pucks — one day fielding varsity hockey. Ditto the prospect of a natural-born Arizonan one day going first overall in the draft.
Yet the old Winnipeg Jets have been the Phoenix/Arizona Coyotes for two decades and counting, the same timespan McCaskill has devoted to his post-MLB life in suburban San Diego.
Meanwhile, Arizona State just finished its second NCAA hockey campaign, and its first on a full-fledged Division I schedule. And Scottsdale native Auston Matthews is in his rookie year with the Toronto Maple Leafs, who made him the NHL’s No. 1 pick last June.
“Interesting. I thought I’d never see that,” McCaskill observed. “Hockey was just kind of getting going (in the area during my youth). But I’m still pretty shocked that the college level has moved out west like this, but what a great opportunity for the players…more and more guys are playing well and getting the opportunity.”
Rebound on the mound
McCaskill was first drawn to his second home country’s game of choice while in Nashville, his family’s first stop after leaving Kapuskasing. As it happened, though, Phoenix was later the epicenter of his belated baseball breakout.
He was returning from his senior year at Trinity-Pawling School in New York, where he had “almost played tennis” as his spring sport. But after representing the Fighting Gentlemen on the diamond, he opted to extend his try at baseball in a local legion league at his father’s behest.
“The coach had no idea who I was,” McCaskill said, though he made an exceptional first impression after they met.
“I pitched one inning, and the coach called me and said, ‘Hey, can you pitch Friday night? Scouts want to see you,’ because I was not scouted in prep school. So I showed up to that game and there were a lot of scouts in the stands. It was pretty wild.
“That was the first time I realized that I had any sort of baseball talent.”
But McCaskill — whose youth athletic repertoire had also included basketball, high jump, soccer and track — was still not ready to specialize. And because ASU would adopt D-I hockey 36 years too late for him, he opted for a two-sport regimen the University of Vermont. There, he provided a beacon for a struggling squadron of skaters and fostered his pitching arm under future Clemson coaching legend Jack Leggett.
“I can remember going from hockey practice into the hockey locker room, changing into my baseball gear, going into the fieldhouse next door and practicing baseball,” he said. “So, four or five hours a day. I loved it.
“I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I had a great time and made lifelong friends at UVM.”
McCaskill led the Catamount icers in goals and points as a sophomore and junior. He capped the former campaign as Winnipeg’s fourth-round draft choice, then the latter as a 1982 Hobey Baker Award candidate.
Not to be outdone, his dexterity on the diamond derived equal recognition. The California Angels tabbed McCaskill as their fourth-round selection in the 1982 amateur draft. From there, he entered the pipeline at the short-season Single-A level, helping the Salem (Ore.) Angels to the Northwest League title under manager Joe Maddon.
He would return to UVM for an abbreviated senior season on the ice, then signed out for what would have been his final semester to focus on spring training.
“That was an eye opener,” he said, “being around Reggie Jackson and Rod Carew and Tommy John and Freddie Lynn and all these guys at camp.”
Equally real and equally tempting was the chance to rub elbows with Dale Hawerchuk, Paul MacLean and Thomas Steen in Manitoba the ensuing autumn. In turn, McCaskill would sandwich one winter of professional hockey with stints at all of California’s development bases. He dressed for nine games in Winnipeg’s 1983 preseason before being reassigned to the American League.
On his AHL pact, he charged up 10 goals and 12 assists for the Sherbrooke Jets in 1983-84. Despite being a comparative ironman, missing only two out of 80 games, his output was dwarfed by that of 14 teammates. Afterwards, a postseason call-up to the parent club failed to yield any ice time.
He was simply contending with a different species than he had in Burlington.
He could have continued to copy his father’s path, which had finally granted regular major-league action in the WHA after a decade in the minors. Instead, he capitalized on the more immediate chance to mingle with the A-listers of the “other” American League.
“The Jets offered me this contract, and at the time I was making $600 a month playing for the Angels,” McCaskill recalled. “It was just an opportunity I couldn’t turn down, to see if I could fulfill my dream of playing NHL hockey.
“But the bottom line was I was not good enough, remotely, to be a National Hockey League player. I struggled in my American Hockey League career that one year. But I was moving up, moving forward as a baseball pitcher, so in the end it was a pretty easy decision for me to choose baseball.”
Thus ended the Canadian-American answer to the Bo Jackson juggling act. Ironically, as one of the perks of his decision, McCaskill would become teammates with Jackson on the 1993 Chicago White Sox.
For the better part of 12 seasons (1985 to 1996), McCaskill was a rotation staple for the Angels and for one season with White Sox. Chicago shuffled him to the bullpen for his final four Major League campaigns.
McCaskill’s MLB highlights included helping the 1986 Angels and 1993 White Sox to playoff appearances, even securing the final out to punch the latter ticket. Although, his claim to fame among U.S. baseball buffs may be the dubious honor of surrendering Ken Griffey, Sr. and Ken Griffey, Jr.’s set of back-to-back home runs Sept. 14, 1990 at Anaheim Stadium. But as far as he has suggested, a dubious honor is still an honor at that level.
When the younger Griffey was selected for enshrinement in Cooperstown last year, McCaskill told mlb.com, “I’m not embarrassed talking about it. I’m not embarrassed that it happened…To me, it’s truly a singular event in the history of baseball. It will never happen again. So when you look at it from that perspective, how many things in the history of the universe have happened one time?”
Come what may, he garnered some historical recognition in his own right. His MLB resume — featuring a 106-108 record, 30 complete games, 11 shutouts and seven saves — was good for Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame induction in 2003.
And his original top sport of choice still had an active place in his life. While in Chicago, he skated in a recreational hockey league on Sunday mornings. He did the same for another five years in California.
“But I got away from it, got old and kind of crotchety,” he said.
Still, McCaskill has made no effort to suppress a genuine grin upon witnessing several stages of hockey’s SoCal groundswell. He was in his fourth season with the Angels when the Los Angeles Kings acquired Wayne Gretzky, and responded by purchasing season tickets the day of the deal.
He had been to the Forum before, when the Kings were in their formative years and competing for fanfare with his father’s employer — the WHA’s Los Angeles Sharks. But the up-close exposure to the so-called “non-traditional” locations clouded his crystal ball for the region’s NHL and AHL presence.
“I didn’t think about it much,” he said. “I was so involved in hockey that I didn’t necessarily know they weren’t growing markets.
“I guess when Gretzky got traded to the Kings…that was really the launching point for the boom that we see today.”
Nesting in Gulls country
Life does not produce chronicles quite like McCaskill’s nearly as often anymore. He did not even seek a sequel or remake of his sports-brat narrative for a new generation.
His pitching career had him representing a total of eight cities in five states, plus Edmonton, Alta. But the majority of those chapters preceded his fatherhood.
“I’m mostly happy about that for my kids, that we’ve lived here in San Diego for 20 years now,” he said. “It’s been a very steady environment, so I mostly think about my kids, because I didn’t mind moving and traveling, you get used to it. But I’m glad that we’ve been able to settle here the way we have.”
Some elements of the life he knew as a nomad have resurfaced, though. The chance to lead the Torrey Pines nine restarted the daily routine he had always “relished” in his second-life sport. But other aspects have blossomed to his delight as a onetime hockey dreamer turned unremitting fan.
The original San Diego Gulls were a rival of Ted McCaskill’s Phoenix Roadrunners and Vancouver Canucks in the old Western League. It was an equivalent of the Triple-A level Kirk played at in Sherbrooke, as was the original IHL, which briefly housed another Gulls team in the first half of the ’90s.
But by the time McCaskill hung up his cleats and settled in the area, San Diego was newly lacking in top-tier minor pro hockey. Two more incarnations of the Gulls came and went at lower rungs in the West Coast League and ECHL. There were also two short-lived junior squads.
The IHL was the continent’s last primary development circuit to coexist with the AHL before it folded in 2001. After ditching San Diego in 1995, the league took several final gasps in such cities as Long Beach, San Francisco and Las Vegas.
For the first 14-plus years of this millennium, America’s Pacific Time Zone lacked the sport’s second-highest ranks. That changed, in part, to fulfill the desires of the Anaheim Ducks.
As part of a wave of relocations to create a Pacific Division, Anaheim resurrected the Gulls brand and restored San Diego as its top minor-league base. With that, the third-largest U.S. city to never harbor an NHL franchise got back the next-best thing after a two-decade hiatus. As of this week, the Gulls rank third in league attendance, averaging 8,734 fans through 26 games.
For their second AHL season, the Gulls have gained a border rival in Arizona’s affiliate. The newfangled Tucson Roadrunners bear the same name as Ted’s former Western League Phoenix team.
Then there is the imminent arrival of the NHL’s expansion Vegas Golden Knights, plus recent rumors of UNLV following ASU into the varsity ranks.
All the more reason for McCaskill to stay put and soak in the best of both sport’s worlds.
“I love it,” he said. “It makes sense to me to have your minor league affiliate as close as possible. And I know the fans love their sports out here in San Diego, and the Gulls are doing great, generating a lot of interest.
“I’m excited for San Diego and the Southwest to have the opportunity to watch more hockey.”