How a failed attempt at major league ball, and an invitation from Puget Sound, launched Casey Sander's acting career
It was 1975, and a 19-year-old kid who had dreamed of just one thing in his short life—to play major league baseball—was, on this April day in Southern California, a mess. A former draft pick of the California Angels, Casey Sander ’79 had been cut just 48 hours earlier by the club after his third professional season. Despondent, he cried in the locker room showers for hours. Clearly, baseball dreams die hard.
But then, in the equivalent of a madcap dash from first to home, Sander drove all night from the Angels’ training site in El Centro, Calif., to Arizona, hoping for one last shot. He went to four different cities in one day, offering his outfielder/first baseman services to four other teams as they were wrapping up spring training.
Nobody wanted him.
Out of options, he took to the long, lonely road leading home to Seattle. A California Highway Patrol officer stopped Sander going 95 mph on Interstate 5 through Burbank. The driver’s eyes were puffy from crying. The officer glimpsed an Angels gear bag on the rear seat of Sander’s 1972 Datsun 240Z.
“He said, ‘You play for the Angels?’” Sander recalls. “I said, ‘Not anymore. I was cut.’” The officer couldn’t bring himself to write a ticket. “His exact words were: ‘You’ve got enough bad news for one day.’”
Little did he know then, but Sander would be back in Burbank more than 15 years later. This time as a TV star.
His is a Hollywood tale, the story of spit-and-leather aspirations dashed by a series of injuries. It’s the story of unexpected second chances, with a beloved University of Puget Sound coach offering new beginnings. And, ultimately, it’s the story of transformation, of a man who found an acting career by happenstance, and who, as an artist, has been driven for four decades to put “skin on words” as he brings characters to life.
Viewers will know Sander best from his recurring roles on Home Improvement (in which he played Rock Lannigan, a classic American working man), Grace Under Fire (as Wade Swoboda, proud Vietnam veteran and doting husband), and The Big Bang Theory (ex-cop Mike Rostenkowski, loving father to Bernadette and ambivalent father-in-law to Howard). Each show rose to No. 1 in the Nielsen ratings. (“How many people can say that?” Sander muses.) The Big Bang Theory and Home Improvement took Sander back to Burbank, where both sitcoms were filmed. In his career, he counts more than 300 television and movie credits.
The story starts more than 1,100 miles north of Tinseltown, in north Seattle’s View Ridge neighborhood, where Sander played Little League catcher and gained a reputation as a spray hitter who also could punch a baseball into the gap. But it was his speed and dexterity on the high school football field, where he played running back, that brought offers of scholarships from Puget Sound and all four Washington and Oregon schools represented in the Pac-8.
Sander turned them all down, banking on being drafted by a Major League Baseball club. Several teams had shown interest, and taking a college football scholarship would have lowered his draft status. “I gambled on myself to make my dream come true,” he says.
He was taken in the 10th round of the 1973 draft by the California Angels. But baseball quickly turned mean on Sander. In his first season in the minor leagues, for a farm team in Idaho Falls, Idaho, a ball skipped off the turf and struck him in the right eye, shattering his orbital bone. (Careful TV viewers will notice a slight droop of his eyelid.) During winter ball the following year, he suffered a fractured vertebra in his lower back. And the next year, at Quad Cities, Iowa, he tore cartilage in his right knee. It was shortly after that that the Angels cut him.