Between The Lines
The brilliant ascent and self-destructive crash of Steve Howe. By Jim Greenfield
The death of former major league pitcher Steve Howe in a highway accident in California on April 28 was shocking only in the manner of all sudden, violent tragedies. For more than a quarter century, Howe had lived on the edge. His struggle with chemical dependency, which cost him millions by carving entire seasons from what could have been a Hall-of-Fame career, was widely chronicled; his propensity for other forms of wild, risky behavior, including high-speed adventures in anything with an engine, was not.
During our early work on his autobiography, Between the Lines, in September 1986, Howe and I drove in his truck from his home in Whitefish, Montana, to California. I saw the trip asan opportunity to trace the ascent and plummet of the first six years of his career. For Howe, the trip was a respite from the scrutiny of his wife, Cindy, who was doing her level best to keep him out of trouble.
Because Howe intended to publish a tale of his redemption, many of the characters we encountered in California were not destined to appear between the covers of the book. Particularly in San Jose, a minor-league outpost to which Howe had repaired earlier in 1986 to resurrect his career after his expulsion from the majors, it was apparent that the company he kept was a reason for his frequent tumbles from the precipice.
All of Howe’s erstwhile San Jose friends—from the high school football coach he arranged to meet at the Hispanic bar on our first night in town, to the ticket broker who took us to the 49ers-Saints game a couple of days later—eagerly supplied him with cocaine and a cloistered, shades-drawn hideaway in which to enjoy it. He was the most notorious and sanctioned addict in professional sports, and to fellow cokeheads, he was a luminous, accessible celebrity. Deep into our fourth day in the city, after brightly concluding that Howe was unable or unwilling to end the peripatetic party, I loaded him into the truck’s passenger seat and drove north and east, toward the Sierras. Spent physically and probably emotionally, he immediately passed out and did not stir until we had crossed Donner Pass and begun the descent to the Nevada line.
Howe was immensely likable, even charismatic, with wide-set hazel eyes in a broad, ingenuous, handsome face which defaulted to an impish grin. He connected easily with people, especially women, and spoke his mind. It was great fun to be in his company, partly because of the sense that misadventure lurked. His presence, and the uncommon skill that emerged in 1980 with the Dodgers, when he was named National League Rookie of the Year, explain why the hard-throwing lefty was always able to land a job, even though he was stuck in spin cycle away from the ballpark.
Howe, somewhat ironically, possessed extraordinary command on the mound. During the 1982 and 1983 seasons, when he was a frazzled addict and even lost weeks to rehab in the latter campaign, he walked only eleven hitters unintentionally in 168 innings, an awe-inspiring achievement. In his major league career, he issued only about one unintentional walk every seven innings—forcing hitters to swing the bats if they wanted to beat him—and had an Earned Run Average that was nearly a run below the cumulative averages of the leagues in which he played. He was a successful postseason pitcher, earning one of the Dodgers’ wins in their 1981 World Series victory over the Yankees.
It seemed in 1987 that Howe’s planned comeback story would materialize. We persuaded the Commissioner’s office to reinstate his eligibility, and the Texas Rangers signed him. After a brief stint in Oklahoma City to shake off some rust, he finished the season with the Rangers and performed respectably, if not at the level of his Dodger years. But Howe had a unique penchant for converting triumph to tragedy. After the first of three days of team-sponsored offseason workouts on a Monday in January 1988, Howe disappeared. His Montana attorney and I knew where he was—figuratively, if not literally—and recognized the likely consequences. When Howe emerged on Friday, he admitted drinking, which we knew was not the full story. For the Rangers, unfortunately, it was story enough: They canceled his contract for violation of his mandatory aftercare program. Three full years of conflict over his eligibility would pass before he would return to the majors, in pinstripes.
There were always secondary casualties when Howe fell off the wagon. Only a week earlier, Contemporary Books had formally agreed to publish “Between the Lines,” but after the Rangers ended Howe’s employment, Contemporary concluded that it was not getting the inspirational story that it expected, and terminated that contract. After we completed a round of threats and settlement with Contemporary, only Masters Press, a small house in Grand Rapids, Michigan, was willing to publish, with no advance against royalties. Hindered by a bare-bones promotional budget and Howe’s absence from the limelight, sales of “Between the Lines” did not approach five figures after publication in May 1989. Certainly it would have been different if we had presciently deferred publication until Howe’s star rose again in New York, but I admit I had no confidence, after the Texas debacle, that Howe would ever return to the majors, or even that he would survive long enough to host book signings.
Howe’s Yankee years were uneven both professionally and personally. In 1992, Commissioner Fay Vincent tried to ban him after he pleaded guilty to cocaine possession in Montana, but an arbitrator reinstated him after that season. Then all was relatively tranquil until Howe’s pistol-packing dustup with the authorities at JFK after the Yankees released him in mid-1996. Over six seasons, the Yankees paid him more than $8 million, which finally afforded him the financial security he had squandered during his suspension-pocked twenties. In recent years he had lived first in Scottsdale, Arizona, then in Valencia, California, with Cindy and their two children.
Although rampant cocaine abuse among Howe’s contemporaries inspired integrity-of-the-game angst, that era now seems like a mild speed bump in baseball’s long road. Players’ personal excesses may have squelched their peak performances and denied fans a fair return on their entertainment dollars, but this was nothing new; baseball mavens will always wonder what Babe Ruth and countless others would have accomplished if they had not spent most of their spare time drinking. Today’s steroids travesty, by comparison, gnaws at the game’s essence by fostering the inference that power hitting records established over the last fifteen years are fraudulent because they are inflated.
Howe’s pioneering pattern of suspension and reinstatement, thanks to arbitrators’ rulings that organized baseball could not unilaterally ban a player for life in lieu of a negotiated drug policy, will lose its value as precedent. Slowly but inevitably, with a hard shove from Congress and a disaffected fan base, baseball management and the Players Association are building a regulatory framework that should define meaningful penalties for use of banned substances.
Consistent with his spirit, if not with the realities of five years spent in Los Angeles, Howe once boasted to me that he had never been “boxed” by other vehicles on a freeway, and he drove as though he was determined to keep his mythical record intact. It’s not likely that he rolled his truck while trying to evade that kind of confinement at 6 a.m. in the California desert; more likely, he made a mistake and had simply run out of mulligans. Those who knew him will miss the light cast by his nature and forever bemoan the waste of great talent.
Jim Greenfield is a Philadelphia area attorney, a former reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the author of Between The Lines, a biography of Steve Howe published with the pitcher in 1987.
The Rise and Fall of Steve Howe
June 5, 1979 First round-draft selection of the Los Angeles Dodgers.
1980 Saved 17 games for Los Angeles and named National League Rookie of the Year.
1982 Enters drug rehabilitation after the season.
June 29, 1983 Fined one month's salary ($53,867) and placed on probation by the Dodgers after admitting a drug problem.
July 15, 1983 Reported late for game and suspended two days by the Dodgers.
September 23, 1983 Missed team flight to Atlanta and suspended indefinitely by the Dodgers for what the team says is cocaine dependency. Goes into substance abuse rehabilitation.
December 15, 1983 Suspended for one year by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn for cocaine use.
May 1984 In a grievance settlement, agreed not to play in 1984.
June 23, 1985 Fined $300 by Los Angeles for arriving three hours late for a game.
July 1, 1985 Placed on the restricted list by the National League for three days at the Dodgers' request after missing a game against Atlanta. Released by the Dodgers two days later.
August 12, 1985 Signed by the Minnesota Twins, but released a month later after missing three games with what the team said was a "temporary recurrence" of cocaine problem.
March 20, 1986 Signed by San Jose of the California League.
May 15 Suspended by the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues after allegedly testing positive for cocaine. The following month he was suspended again through December 31 for the same reason; San Jose released him the day his suspension was over.
July 11, 1987 Signed by Oklahoma City of the Class AAA American Association; the Texas Rangers purchased his contract the following month.
November 1987 Agreed to two-year, $1.2 million contract with Texas.
January 19, 1988 Released by Texas after violating aftercare program by using alcohol.
April 4, 1990 Signs contract with Salinas of the California League.
February 1991 Signs contract with Columbus of the International League.
May 9, 1991 Contract purchased by the New York Yankees.
November 5, 1991 Signs one-year contract with the New York Yankees.
December 19, 1991 Arrested on cocaine charges in Kalispell, Montana.
June 8, 1992 Suspended indefinitely after pleading guilty in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Montana, to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy a gram of cocaine.
June 24, 1992 Suspended permanently by Commissioner Fay Vincent.
August 18, 1992 Fined the minimum $1,000 and ordered him to perform 100 hours of community service by a federal judge in Montana and placed on probation.
November 11, 1992 Reinstated by a baseball arbitrator.
June 22, 1996 Released by Yankees.
June 24, 1996 Arrested and charged with criminal possession of a weapon at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York when a police officer spots a loaded .357 Magnum pistol in his carry-on baggage.
April 1997 Signs with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League in comeback attempt at age 39 but quits midseason because of an arm injury.
August 19, 1997 Critically injured in a motorcycle crash and later charged with drunken driving. Charges later dropped after prosecutors decided his blood test was improperly obtained.
April 1, 1999 Suspended as a volunteer coach for his daughter's softball team in Whitefish, Montana girls' softball team.
April 28, 2006 Dies in a one-vehicle car accident in Coachella, California, when his pickup truck rolls over in the early morning. Howe was 48.
[timeline courtesy wikipedia]
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COPYRIGHT © 2008 BY JAMES GREENFIELD