Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Card #14: Steve Howe

Who Can It Be Now?
Steven Roy Howe was a left-handed pitcher born in Pontiac, Michigan, in March of 1958. Howe attended the University of Michigan, and the Dodgers selected him in the first round of the 1979 June Draft with the 16th pick using a pick they obtained from Pittsburgh due to the Pirates' signing of free agent Lee Lacy.  

By using WAR as a standard, Howe had the fifth best career of all the players drafted in the first round -- trailing only Andy Van Slyke (6th pick, St. Louis), Tim Wallach (10th pick, Montreal), Steve Buechele (9th pick [did not sign], White Sox) and Tim Leary (2nd pick, Mets).  To be fair, he had a better career in baseball than did the number three pick overall: future NFL QB Jay Schroeder.

Howe made the Dodgers out of spring training in 1980 and, 17 saves later, was named the National League Rookie of the Year -- the second in a line of four in a row for the Dodgers. That run included Rick Sutcliffe in 1979, Howe in 1980, Fernando Valenzuela in 1981, and Steve Sax in 1982.

Howe's career lasted from 1980 through 1996.  However, his struggles with substance abuse -- particularly alcohol and cocaine -- are well documented and will be discussed below.   When Howe was able to pitch, he was a very good pitcher.  He didn't strike out a ton of guys -- only about 5.0 per 9 innings -- but his control was very good as he averaged giving up just over 2 walks per 9 innings.

You cannot talk about Steve Howe without talking about drug and alcohol abuse.  Howe missed all of the 1984 season, all of the 1986 season (pitching only in the minor leagues during this year), and all of the years between 1988 and 1990 (though once again, he pitched in the California League in 1990). 

In the end, it probably cost him his life.  In April of 2006, Howe was driving on Interstate 10 in the Coachella Valley east of Palm Springs, California, early in the morning after having driven overnight.  His pickup truck rolled over, and he was not wearing his seatbelt.  An autopsy showed that Howe had methamphetamine in his system at the time of his death.

Pass the Dutchie
Howe's drug and alcohol problems are well documented.  He was fined or suspended seven times during his major league career -- starting with probation in 1983 after he entered rehab in the 1982 offseason that was accompanied by a one full month's salary fine of  $53,867 in 1983 dollars ($128,623.47 today, according to this inflation calculator).

He pitched incredibly well in 1983 -- a 1.44 ERA, a 0.976 WHIP, 18 saves, and his best K/9 of his career -- but then everything came apart in Houston in September.  He missed the team flight to Atlanta from Houston and refused to take a drug test.  For the second time, he went to rehab and, this time, he was suspended for one year by Kuhn -- a punishment to which he agreed to sit out the 1984 season.  

After that, it was one problem after another, usually interrupted by some time on the straight and narrow.  In 1985, the Dodgers finally tired of his issues and released him.  He was signed by the Twins and lasted a month until he informed the Twins he had relapsed. The Twins cut him the next day.  

Howe pitched in the California League in 1986 as an "unaffiliated player" until he was signed by the Rangers in July of 1987.  He pitched well enough to get a $1-million contract for 1988. Then he did not show up for offseason workouts due to alcohol, and he was cut again.  

He was not allowed by Fay Vincent to return to organized baseball until 1990 and the Majors until 1991.  Howe hooked on with the Yankees at that time and had a good 1991 season. Flush with a new contract after the season, Howe went back to his old ways -- getting arrested just before Christmas for cocaine possession.  He entered a plea bargain and pitched from the start of the 1992 season.  

In June of 1992, Vincent banned Howe for life, a punishment which was overturned in arbitration in the fall.  According to an obituary written by the great Murray Chass of the New York Times, Howe's attorney and agent Richard Moss was able to get the punishment overturned by arguing that Howe's addictions were caused by attention deficit disorder.  As an aside, an article by Fred Gardner, the "editor of O'Shaunessy's Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical Group," blames Ritalin for Howe's cocaine abuse.  

He stayed clean enough during 1993 to pitch that whole year and through the two strike-shortened years in 1994 and 1995.  Though there were rumors (according to one website, linked above at "seven times") that he was distributing amphetamines to his teammates in 1995, the real problem was that he was no longer effective as a pitcher at age 37.  As a result, the Yankees released him.  

A Few Minutes with Tony L.
Steve Howe is a frustrating player to write about.  I don't have any recollections of him other than his drug suspensions.  I met him briefly in 1987 after a Brewers-Rangers game -- I got his autograph as he was boarding the Rangers team bus.  I don't remember much of the interaction, so it must have been fairly innocuous.

In 1982, he was at his peak in many respects.  He was coming off a season in which his team had won the World Series and in which he had a major part.  Yet he could not avoid the lure, the temptation, and the eventual dependence on cocaine, amphetamines, and alcohol that has destroyed millions of lives not nearly as public as his.  

At the same time, there are points in the Steve Howe story that make it difficult to feel bad that he wasted his opportunities in the major leagues.  In the Los Angeles Times obituary, former Dodger catcher and later Angels manager Mike Scioscia remembered Howe as "cocky and confident ... [c]learly, he was a kid who never reached his potential, but for a short time he did.  The feeling of regret, he never expressed, as far as I know."  

In that same article, Ozzie Guillen may have hit the nail on the head inadvertently about why Howe never felt regret:  "Steve was so good, baseball kept him.  He got in trouble all the time.  That showed you how good he was [that baseball kept reinstating him]."

Baseball never got serious about drug testing until the records that the commissioner and the owners remembered from their youth started to fall under the cartoonishly large muscles of guys like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa, and Mark McGwire.  Indeed, when Howe and his representatives overturned Fay Vincent's lifetime ban in 1992, the Yankees were arguing on Howe's side to say that Howe deserved yet another chance.  

When the drug-abuse enablers include the general manager and front office staff of one of the signature franchises in all of baseball history, is it any surprise that the owners, managers, general managers, and commissioners all turned a blind eye to androstenedione? Only when the cash cow -- er, fans -- threatened to leave did anything ever come about to change baseball's drug culture.  That change was far too late to save Steve Howe.

1 comment:

  1. Whenever MLB wanted to test players for drugs, the union stood in the way.