The Tragedy of Steve Howe

Steve Howe was the 1980 National League Rookie of the Year with the Dodgers. (via kla4067)

We live in a world where every mistake we make can be caught on camera and instantly make us, at least for a moment, famous, or notorious, or a laughingstock. If you stop to think about it, the enormity of what can happen to our reputations because of a careless (and I mean that in both the figurative and literal sense of the word) act or word is overwhelming. It’s easy to be a good person most of the time, but to be a good person all of the time is hard. We all have bad days. And we all now live in a fishbowl.

Of course, it wasn’t always like this. It used to be hard to find people acting like idiots and shame them before they faded back into anonymity. They had to do something truly extraordinary to stand out from the din.

Steve Howe always stood out.

Howe was born in Pontiac, Michigan, in 1958 to a General Motors family in a rough town. “I used to fight at least four times a week,” he said. “There was crime around, drugs, you name it. We were all working-class people. I didn’t give anybody any trouble, but I didn’t take any. I’ve got lots of scars. I was hit in the back of the head with a lead pipe. I was hit in the head with a baseball bat. I hurt my knee in a car accident. I got shot once with rock salt. We fought with lead pipes, knives. I personally liked bottles. You broke a bottle, you had about six knives.”

His father was a former semi-pro pitcher but made sure his son, as long as he survived those fights, got an education. “He made sure I went to college,” the youngster said. “If I didn’t go, he would have kicked my butt.” That college was the University of Michigan, where he set the university record for pitching wins and was a two time All-American. He reportedly almost flunked out in his sophomore year, convinced that he was ready to go pro, but his fiance, Cindy, browbeat him into staying for a third year and making the Dean’s List. He had met her half a world away while pitching in the Alaskan Summer League, and after three weeks, they were engaged. She moved with him back to Michigan while they waited to get married, and she would wind up being his most stalwart supporter through the ups and downs to come.

Howe was taken by the Dodgers with the 16th overall pick in the 1979 June draft. He reported straight to Double-A, where he got in 13 good starts for San Antonio before the season ended. He was invited to spring training the next February as a non-roster player. Eager to prove himself, Howe showed up three weeks early, endearing himself to general manager Al Campanis and manager Tommy Lasorda with his attitude, as well as his pinpoint control and awesome sinker. The difference, according to Campanis? “It’s cockiness. The kid’s got ice water in his veins.” The Dodgers only had Jerry Reuss throwing from the left side, so there was a wide open competition for a second lefty job in the bullpen, which Howe won handily.

From the start, he was a sensation, providing Lasorda with a reliable late-game option. In the third game of the year, he relieved Bob Welch in a tie game in the bottom of the 12th and pitched five scoreless innings to win his first big league game. By the start of August, he had a 1.62 ERA and nine saves in 50 innings, and people started talking about him as a potential rookie of the year. “Rookie of the Year?” Lasorda asked incredulously, “How about MVP?”

Don Sutton agreed, saying “there are a lot of key performers on this team, but if you take away Howe and Bobby Castillo, we’d be dead. [Howe] is not awed at all. I could see that as soon as I met him. You can’t faze him. He’s got himself and the game in perspective.” “I’ve never seen a young fellow who has the kind of poise he has,” said pitching coach Red Adams. “He’s had adversity, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.”

In fact, nothing much seemed to bother the rookie, who called himself “cocky as hell. That’s the way I am on and off the field. I believe in myself.” He struck out Willie Stargell on three pitches with the bases loaded, and when asked, “Do you know who that was?” he replied “A guy who can’t handle the fastball up and in.”

Howe’s ERA dropped all the way to 1.53 in mid-September of his rookie year, but then three bad outings over the last few weeks pushed it back to 2.66 in 85 innings, with 17 saves (a new rookie record) as the Dodgers finished a single game behind the Astros for the division title. With 12 of the 24 first-place votes, Howe won the NL Rookie of the Year award over decisively better choices Bill Gullickson, Lonnie Smith, Dave Smith, Jeff Reardon and Al Holland.

But Howe was a bona fide star and stayed with the Dodgers for the next four seasons, becoming an absolutely dominating relief ace and was on the mound for the last 3.2 innings of the World Series in 1981, putting up goose eggs to save the Dodgers’ world championship.

He made the All-Star team for the first and only time in 1982 and had a 2.08 ERA in 99 innings while walking only six batters unintentionally. Howe looked poised to take his game to another level altogether. But that offseason, at the urging of his wife and agent, he checked himself into a substance abuse treatment center. Dodgers legend and community liaison Don Newcombe, himself a recovering alcoholic and an advocate for substance abuse treatment, suggested the lefty was seeking help probably for cocaine, “but I think most of it was alcohol.” Howe released a cookie-cutter statement about how he was being supported by his family and the Dodgers and was making progress “in an effort to better re-acquaint myself with Steve Howe.” He promised to “leave the past where it now rests.”

But no one, especially the Steve Howe with whom Steve Howe had recently become reacquainted, would let him. He was really in the fishbowl now. Dogged by reporters, he admitted that he had used “before games, during games, after games, even once on a day he pitched” in the tunnel outside the clubhouse. But he was also lauded by Jim Murray in the LA Times for straightening himself out. But now everyone felt entitled to have an opinion about who Howe was and what should be done with him.

Thanks to that sobriety, 1983 looked like it would be the reliever’s best season. “When the season opened in Houston, it took about three warmups and I knew everything was cool,” he told reporters. Through the middle of May, he had only allowed two unearned runs in 22 innings, and his ERA was zero. But at that point, things went off the rails for him, as the pressure again began to build. With his wife nearly ready to give birth and experiencing false labor, he reportedly had made four cross-country flights in six days between her and his teammates. After the last flight, he said he hadn’t slept for more than 30 hours and was feeling sluggish from the stress and travel.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

He made an appointment to see the Dodgers’ physician and get blood work done, but according to the doctor “he didn’t show, he didn’t call, he didn’t do anything. I saw him at the ballpark that night and he said he was sorry. He said his newly born infant had developed an infection…He had a million excuses for not coming into the office. I couldn’t argue, he had the baby.”

Finally, on May 28, Howe didn’t show up for a game against the Giants, and no one knew where he was. Reached later that night by Campanis, he asked for help. He was put on the disabled list and sent back to rehab. “For him to stand up and say, [rehab] didn’t work, and go back in, it takes a hell of a man to do that. It takes a man to admit that to the public twice. I’m proud of him,” said fellow bullpen denizen Dave Stewart.

But, of course, Stewart was part of the problem. He later admitted to covering for Howe when the lefty used during games, saying he didn’t want to snitch and that “I couldn’t see where it was a problem. It wasn’t affecting his performance.” Tom Niedenfuer also had at least strong suspicions about Howe’s use but justified minding his own business, “You don’t have any responsibility but to yourself…My idea is to do my job, keep my mouth shut and worry about yourself. It’s a tough business, and that’s what this is, a business.” And so Howe was allowed to continue his spiral unabated while, in spite of their suspicions, his team did nothing to support him or intervene.

When Howe returned at the end of June, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn decided it was time to get tough with him and the rest of Major League Baseball, which had clearly become rife with cocaine. The sport was still two years from the Pittsburgh drug trials, in which 13 major leaguers would be called to testify, but every indication was that the league was being buried in a mountain of white.

The Dodgers and Kuhn fined him $54,000, the biggest penalty in the history of the game to that point. It was 17 percent of his yearly salary. Howe’s agent, Tony Attanasio said, “I really believe they feel the commissioner’s program needs more teeth in it. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say a message is being broadcast throughout the U.S. They wanted our consent, for us to agree to their program. We were put in a position of, ‘Here it is, you’d better take it, or it could be worse.’”

As part of a deal to avoid a suspension, Howe agreed to not file a grievance and was put on three years probation and a strict testing regimen. There was nothing about ongoing counseling or a plan to support him as he transitioned back. The hilariously old-school Lasorda reported that, “I’d tell him, ‘It’s against the law and it’s harmful to your body.’ He’d say to me, ‘You’re right. You’re right. Then he’d go out and do it again.” Lasorda also told anyone who would listen “If it was me, I’d let ‘em take 50 different tests if they wanted to. They could take anything they want from me. They could test me, day in, day out.” He was not at all sympathetic.

Despite this questionable support system, through mid-September, Howe was back to his normal amazing self, posting a 2.14 ERA in 46 innings the rest of the way. But his season came to a screeching halt in the final month. On September 23, he missed the team flight to Atlanta, claiming he’d been caught in traffic and forgot to call. He flew commercial and then refused to take a drug test when he arrived on the advice of Attanasio and the Players Union. The Dodgers immediately suspended him and fined him another $54,000. Howe left the team and checked himself into rehab, where he would stay the rest of the year despite reportedly testing negative.

But even if he wasn’t then, he was soon using again. In November, he tested positive three separate times for cocaine. Kuhn lowered the boom, suspending him this time for all of 1984, and he did the same for Willie Wilson, Jerry Martin, and Willie Aikens of the Royals, though all three of them would be reinstated in May. Howe reportedly had the chance to apply for reinstatement eventually as well, but either because he felt he needed more time to battle his addiction, as he said, or was dissuaded by the Commissioner, he did not apply. Howe spent the year in recovery both from addiction and from shoulder surgery to move his ulnar nerve.

He came back in 1985 but really struggled. The Dodgers released him in July after several additional incidents in which he arrived late to games or never showed up at all. A month later, he signed with the Twins. A few weeks after that, he was a guest on Nightline, where he told Ted Koppel cocaine wasn’t just a problem in his life, it was his life. The next day, Howe disappeared again, and after resurfacing 72 hours later, was released.

In 1986, he was signed by the independent San Jose Bees, who were collecting former Major Leaguers in a failed attempt to dominate Single-A ball, and was incredibly effective until he again tested positive in May. He was suspended for a month, and then again had a test come back positive in July, at which point he was asked to leave. He feigned ignorance, saying, “I’m pondering retirement right now. I really don’t know what’s going on.” That offseason, he agreed that he had screwed up but claimed he was “on a de facto blacklist.”

And the thing is, he was. New Commissioner Peter Ueberroth was adamant about maintaining a squeaky clean image and wanted Howe nowhere near Major League Baseball and strongly discouraged teams from signing the lefty. So he tried to go to Japan, where the Seibu Lions had agreed to sign him. But worried about his history, the commissioner of the NPB nixed the deal and sent him home. It seemed he was blacklisted everywhere.

Against the explicit wishes of Ueberroth, however, the Rangers reached out in July. The Commissioner called everyone he could think of in the front office. He sent letters. He threatened to fine the club. But Texas was in a pennant race in 1987, and they needed bullpen help. In August, they promoted Howe back to the majors and Ueberroth, true to his word, made them fork over a quarter million dollars. The Rangers assured him they, and Howe, had things well under control. It had better work, the commissioner warned.

And it actually did for a while. Howe was pretty good down the stretch, and the Rangers planned to bring him back. But he just couldn’t stay clean. Howe was released in January for “a major breach of his after-care program” after missing a workout. “It just shows the power and sinister nature of addiction,” said pitching coach Tom Grieve. “He gave up a contract for $1 million.”

Fearing Uebberroth, no one gave Howe another chance, and he wallowed for three years, moving to Whitefish, Montana, pitching semi-pro ball and again for an independent team in the California League, tearing up his shoulder, and being hospitalized because of a blood clot in his lung.

Of course, he wanted more than anything to get back to the majors, and he reportedly stayed sober for two years. His agent kept trying to get Yankees GM Gene Michael to give the pitcher a tryout, but Michael consistently rebuffed him. So Howe didn’t give him the option. He, his wife, and his agent strolled into Yankees camp and offered to show the club what he could do. Someone rounded up a catcher, and Howe threw for 10 minutes. A day later, he had a non-roster invitation and a uniform with pinstripes. “He’s getting a chance because he’s good. There’s always a need for left-handed pitching,” Michael told reporters.

And just like that, Howe was a sensation again, this time in the biggest and most difficult media market in the country. “This is what partially has kept me going, the dream that I might come back. Everybody likes a success story, a comeback story. It restores the hope of people who might be down.”

Of course he made the team. And, of course, he was fantastic. In almost 50 innings, he had a 1.68 ERA before a hyperextended elbow ended his season in August.

But, again, sobriety slipped away. In December, sheriff deputies in Montana arrested him for felony possession of cocaine. He pled guilty to attempted possession and was permanently banned by new commissioner Fay Vincent, the first player kicked out of baseball for substance use. The MLBPA filed a grievance immediately, and the decision eventually was overturned. Howe would be allowed back after 1992. It was his seventh drug-related suspension.

Thankfully, the rest of Howe’s career in pinstripes went fairly smoothly. Submitting to a drug test every second day, he was clean for years. He was, of course, beset by the injury problems that plague many pitchers in their late 30s, but he was mostly effective on the field, even serving as the Yankees’ closer for a time in 1994. The Yankees even made sure he had a job selling tickets in the spring of 1995–while the rest of the players were locked out of camp–to make sure he continued to comply with the terms of his probation. For all of his faults, George Steinbrenner seemed to be deeply committed to giving players who had struggled with substance abuse another chance.

In 1996, however, the ride came to an end, with Howe unable to get batters out and being booed mercilessly at home. He was released with an ERA over 6.00 and told reporters he was prepared to “go home and mow the lawn.” On his way, he was arrested at the airport after the TSA found a loaded handgun in his carry-on luggage. Unable to find another gig, he retired from the fish bowl, except for an aborted comeback attempt with an independent league team in 1997.

We can’t know for certain just what cocktail of mental health issues, genetic disposition, and poor choices led to Howe’s struggles in baseball. But we do know playing baseball for teams that were not equipped to help him get better did not work. Cyndi told the New York Times, “No one really understood cocaine in those days.” After his first stint in rehab, “they thought he was cured. They wanted him back.” And that was, it seems, the problem more than anything else: teams that wanted their player back more than they wanted their player to be well.

It’s an exceptionally stressful life, and one that may not be any better today than it was 30 years ago. Eric Sim, a recently retired minor league catcher and pitcher, told me most players would not feel comfortable telling their parent organizations if they were struggling because “that’s really only going to hurt your reputation and future within the org.” Another recently retired player, who spent time in both the majors and in the minors, pointed out that “minor league baseball is hard and extremely lonely…Drinking on the road is especially part of the culture to blow off steam, but it definitely is a slippery slope.” He agreed the “stigma” attached to seeking help prevented most players who might be in crisis from taking advantage of the resources available to them.

He also pointed out, “because players know that everyone with a smartphone can potentially be on TMZ, public figures are starting to become much more private.” While this has the potential to avoid the scandals that have plagued guys like Josh Hamilton and Matt Bush in the past, driving substance use underground only hides the problem, allows it to fester, and perhaps builds pressure until it explodes into the public eye in even more disturbing ways.

But it seems like baseball has, in fact, gotten better at helping players deal with substance abuse. Counseling is available, and those counselors are far better prepared than they were when the sport was overwhelmed by cocaine in the ‘80s. It has become part of the solution for major leaguers who are battling substance use.

That solution does not seem to be a realistic option for the players on the minor league side. While major leaguers are protected by their union and a negotiated drug policy, minor leaguers do not always enjoy such support. While there would undoubtedly be an emphasis on treatment for players who screen positive under the minors’ mandatory tests, those players face severe penalties, even for first-time offenders. And being labeled a user can delay players’ careers and damage their earning potential, disincentivizing them from coming forward to seek help. The players I spoke to agreed substance abuse problems often can start in the minors, and it’s important to create a culture where coming forward won’t necessarily jeopardize a player’s future.

It took Steve Howe more than a decade to get his addiction under control enough to reclaim his career on the mound. It was, for a time, the comeback story he wanted it to be, at least in part because he had the help and support of his team. But that story has a sad coda. Driving home from Arizona in the early morning hours in 2006, the 48 year old rolled his pickup truck and died at the scene. The toxicology report found methamphetamines in his system. Baseball couldn’t be a permanent solution to the problems he faced, but it can help prevent the next Steve Howe from winding up on the same road.

References & Resources

  • Berkow, Ira. “The Story As Lived by Cindy Howe.” The New York Times. May 17, 1991.
  • Chass, Murray. “Permanent Ban Imposed on Howe By Commissioner. The New York Times. June 25, 1992.
  • Curry, Jack. “Howe Is Arrested on Cocaine Charge.” The New York Times. December 20, 1991.
  • Curry, Jack. “Yankees and Howe Part Ways.” The New York Times. June 23, 1996.
  • Lowitt, Bruce. “One Last Chance.” The Los Angeles Times. October 12, 1985.
  • Edes, Gordon. “Kuhn Suspends Howe for Entire ‘84 Season. The Los Angeles Times. December 16, 1983.
  • Edes, Gordon. “Steve Howe Admits He Used Cocaine During Games.” The Los Angeles Times. March 5, 1983.
  • Fuentes, Gabe. “Howe Looks Back at Drug, Baseball Woes.” The Los Angeles Times. October 23, 1986.
  • Heisler, Mark. “Dodgers Suspend Howe for Absence.” The Los Angeles Times. September 24, 1983.
  • Heisler, Mark. “Howe Suffers Drug Relapse, Back Into Hospital.” The Los Angeles Times. May 30, 1983.
  • Heisler, Mark. “Howe Undergoes Drug Cure.” The Los Angeles Times. January 15, 1983.
  • Heisler, Mark. “Howe Understands What It Is to Feel Pressure.” The Los Angeles Times. September 17, 1982.
  • Heisler, Mark. “Questions Linger About Howe.” The Los Angeles Times. May 31, 1983.
  • Hoffer, Richard. “Kiddie Korps Turns Dodger Bullpen Into a Playpen.” The Los Angeles Times. June 6, 1980.
  • Littwin, Mike. “Here’s Howe Dodgers’ Bullpen Has Held Up.” The Los Angeles Times. August 1, 1980.
  • Martinez, Michael. “Howe Looks Sharp In Debut.” The New York Times. March 8, 1991.
  • Martinez, Michael. “Yankees invite Steve Howe to Camp.” The New York Times. February 22, 1991.
  • Martinez, Michael. “Yanks Try Out Barker and Howe.” The New York Times. February 21, 1991.
  • Meyers, Jeff. “Baseball With a Capital Bee.” The Los Angeles Times. April 13, 1986.
  • Murray, Jim. “He Got a Save, for Himself.” The Los Angeles Times. April 10, 1983.
  • Newhan, Ross. “Rangers Defy Ueberroth by Calling Up Howe.” August 7, 1987.
  • “Newswire: Howe Tests Positive (‘99.9%’) for Cocaine. The Los Angeles Times. July 16, 1986.
  • “Rangers Release Howe for Failing to Follow His Drug-Care Program.” The Los Angeles Times. January 18, 1988.
  • “Steve Howe, 48, Pitcher Who Battled Addiction, Dies.” The New York Times. April 29, 2006.
  • “Steve Howe Barred From Playing in Japan, Will Return to U.S.” The Los Angeles Times. March 11, 1987.
  • “Steve Howe Signs With Rangers, Will Pitch at Oklahoma City.” The Los Angeles Times. July 13, 1987.

Mike Bates co-founded The Platoon Advantage, and has written for many other baseball websites, including NotGraphs (rest in peace) and The Score. Currently, he writes for Baseball Prospectus and co-hosts the podcast This Week In Baseball History. His favorite word is paradigm. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBatesSBN.
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Dennis Bedard
4 years ago

Tragic story of a fundamentally flawed human being. “But we do know playing baseball for teams that were not equipped to help him get better did not work. ” It is not a team’s duty to put its players on the straight and narrow. That they offer assistance is laudable but they are in the business of winning baseball games, not babysitting errant players. And the teams that signed him after he consistently (and predictably) turned to the dark side were dong so to provide a “quick fix” to their own pitching woes hoping against hope that his addiction would go undetected. Howe had his demons which eventually destroyed him. RIP.

J.W. Swanick
4 years ago
Reply to  Dennis Bedard

Great article Mike and I have to agree with the first comment. Why is it any company’s duty to babysit their employees? Of course it is applaudable to have businesses help and support their workers, but in no way is it their duty or obligation.

4 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bates

Regarding 1), I’ve been in a number of work environments which included multiple drug users (very occasionally me), none of which was minor league baseball. It was on me to not do it/stop, and neither myself nor any of my buddies saw it otherwise. You’re not giving your employers a full effort (for whatever reason), that’s on you, not them.

As to 2), the professional point of minor league baseball is to weed out the 90-95% of players without major league ability. Hard, but true. I’m totally in favor of abuse treatment programs for employees (so long as we have employer-based health insurance),but that’s a matter of business ethics rather than profit/loss.

J.W. Swanick
4 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bates

1). We’re not talking ‘morality’ here. We’re talking business. And I’m pretty sure that playing baseball shouldn’t qualify as a “working condition that leads to increased rates of substance abuse and addiction”. I believe those jobs are few and far between. If you think your working conditions will lead you to drug abuse . . . get a new job.
2). I am in no way against employers offering and providing employees with support. You make valid points. I’m just saying that it’s not their obligation to do so.

By the way . . . if it takes some drugging to throw 106mph, hit 700′ foot bombs or get your WHIP below .50 – have at it! (I’m half joking)

4 years ago
Reply to  Mike Bates

“Employers are under a moral obligation to help their employees if they are responsible for creating working/living conditions that lead to increased rates of substance use and addiction.“

That “obligation” only exists in your imagination and the very idea that someone’s job could make them an addict is ludicrous. If someone becomes an addict, it’s all on them, and it’s all because of their own bad choices. Blaming it on their job/home/family/spouse is just making excuses for them and enabling them. It’s their own fault, and no one else’s.

And I should know.

4 years ago

I met Howe in the eighties. Nice guy. Great pitcher. But that doesn’t change the fact that he was an addict. Nor does it change the fact that the blame for his addiction is on him and no one else. Blaming it on the minor leagues or baseball is absurd; it’s a straight-up character and willpower issue.

I’m an alcoholic who doesn’t drink. Every morning when I get up I crave a drink. With every meal I crave a drink. Every night I crave a drink. In between I crave a drink. I never have one. Why? Because I recognize that I have an addiction and I am dealing with it the only way anyone can, by willpower. To drink or not to drink is my choice alone, just as to use drugs or not was Howe’s choice alone. It’s not about anyone or anything else: it’s a choice we make ourselves. Blaming it on stress or circumstances is just making excuses. I lost my wife and spent a lot of nights staring at a whiskey bottle but didn’t fall in (“first the man takes a drink, then the drink takes a drink, and then the drink takes the man”). Howe and my father who drank himself to death and my friends who got addicted and overdosed and died or who just ruined their lives and careers had the exact same choice: either man up and straighten their lives up or watch their lives and careers end. They didn’t man up, and the inevitable happened. At some point every addict has to either find the courage and willpower to say no or to lose everything. Howe could only find that courage for a while. I completely understand that.

I sympathize with and understand Howe’s failure. Battling addiction is incredibly difficult, and when you’re hurting badly your comfortable addiction of choice looks just amazingly attractive. Every day of my life is a willpower day, just as Howe’s clearly was. Maintaining that willpower every day in the face of an addiction is incredibly, painfully, ridiculously hard. Trust me on that.

Today we have better and more available counseling and better rehab, but no amount of counseling and rehab can fix a man who lacks the willpower to face down his own demons when he’s alone at night and hurting badly. Steve Howe lacked that willpower, and I am very, very sorry for that, but he made poor choices and he had to pay the price for them.

As do we all.

4 years ago
Reply to  Johnston

Thanks for sharing. God’s speed.

Eric Robinson
4 years ago

Great article! Very readable and well researched.

Yehoshua Friedman
4 years ago

MLB players get all kinds of help managing their lives. They get paid amazing salaries. Sometimes the help isn’t enough. But minor league players are treated like disposable tissues. They are not protected by the union. MLB has to respect its development resources. When guys are struggling there has to be a way to help them. When they are just 20-year-old players living on peanut butter sandwiches and sleeping on air mattresses, something needs fixing. But the Howe story is just the sad problem of substance abuse abetted by the notoriety of being in the public eye, the bigger the market the worse. Community ownership rather than billionaire moguls would also help. Players need community.