Today in Baseball History: Steve Howe dies at age 48

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Early in the morning on April 28, 2006, a man driving through the California desert crashed his truck and was pronounced dead at the scene. He was only 48 years-old. His name was Steve Howe. He was a former Dodgers and Yankees relief pitcher whose tremendous talent was overshadowed by his addictions and whose career – which featured seven separate suspensions for drug abuse, alcohol abuse, and criminal behavior — turned a would-be sports star into a cautionary tale.

Howe, the son of an autoworker from Pontiac, Michigan, had a rough-and-tumble upbringing, but he was gifted with an electric left arm and a deft hand with a sinkerball that got him a baseball scholarship to the University of Michigan. While there, he was a two-time All-Big Ten selection. In the summer of 1979 the two-time defending NL champion Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the first round of the amateur draft. Howe would only pitch in 13 minor league games that summer before making the big club as a non-roster invitee the following spring.

Howe’s rookie season was one to remember. Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda, noting the kid’s fearlessness and, frankly, his cockiness, would make him the team’s closer by the end of his first month in the bigs. By the time the season was over  Howe would throw 84.2 innings across 59 appearances and post an ERA of 2.66 while notching 17 games for the 92-win Dodgers. That fall he’d beat out Bill Gullickson and Lonnie Smith for the National League Rookie of the Year Award.

Howe’s next two seasons would continue to feature fantastic pitching and the sorts of highlights most players never achieve in their entire careers. He’d save eight games and post a 2.50 ERA in the strike-shortened 1981 season. His Dodgers would go on to beat the Yankees in the World Series with Howe’s 3.2 scoreless innings in Game Six clinching the title. The following year he’d earn his first and only All-Star Game selection while logging 99.1 innings across 66 appearances and posting a 2.08 ERA. As 1982 ended, Howe was on a very short list of the game’s best relievers.

He was also, however, addicted to cocaine and was drinking heavily. He’d later admit that he had used “before games, during games, after games, even once on a day he pitched.” During the 1982-1983 offseason, Howe checked himself into a treatment program. It would not be a one-and-done for the young lefty.

Howe completed the program and began the 1983 season pitching as effectively as he ever had, but on May 29 he relapsed and had to re-enter drug treatment. The Dodgers fined him and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn placed him on probation upon his return in late June. In early July the Dodgers suspended him after he showed up late to a game but quickly reinstated him. He continued to pitch fantastically through July, August and into September, but on September 19 he missed the team’s flight to Atlanta and refused to take a drug test, which was one of the conditions of his probation. The club suspended Howe indefinitely. That December, Major League Baseball suspended Howe for the entire 1984 season.

Which, actually, was probably a pretty good thing for Howe. While his agent filed a grievance over the length of his suspension — and while Howe and the Dodgers settled it in June of 1984 — he and the club agreed that he’d sit out the entire season regardless, with Howe telling the press at the time, “my doctor, my therapist and fellow members of my recovery program have urged me to take more time before subjecting myself to the high emotions and stress of a pennant race.” Howe would come back in 1985 but would pitch ineffectively for the first half of the season.

The Dodgers released Howe in July. Howe would say that he was happy to be out of Los Angeles, with the strong implication being that the city was too full of temptations for him. It was also the case that he simply lacked anything approaching a healthy support structure with the Dodgers. His teammate and bullpen mate from 1981 through 1983, Dave Stewart, would later admit to covering for Howe when he used during games, saying “I couldn’t see where it was a problem. It wasn’t affecting his performance.” Another member of the Dodgers bullpen, Tom Niedenfuer said of Howe’s drug use, “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.”

The Twins would pick Howe up a month after his release from the Dodgers. He’d be ineffective for them too. At the time, cocaine was front page news in baseball and, given his past stints in rehab, Howe’s name was brought up pretty frequently. About a month after the Twins signed him he appeared on ABC’s Nightline, telling Ted Koppel that cocaine wasn’t just a problem in his life, it was his life. His use of the past tense was misleading. The very next day, Howe disappeared for 72 hours. When he resurfaced he told the Twins he had relapsed. The club released him. Howe would then drift for the better part of the next five years.

Thanks to both Howe’s dubious off-the-field track record — and to strong prodding from Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, who had staked his reputation on cleaning up the game — no teams would touch Howe entering the 1986 season. He signed with the independent San Jose Bees, tested positive for drugs again, and was released. He then signed to play in Japan but the NPB Commissioner cancelled the contract given Howe’s history. Howe would remain unemployed in baseball until July of 1987 when, over the objections of Ueberroth, the Texas Rangers signed him to a minor league deal. He’d be called up that August and pitch decently enough for the rest of the year to earn a $1 million contract for the 1988 season.

There would be no 1988 season for Howe, however. Or a 1989 or 1990 season either. That’s because in January of 1988 he relapsed once again — alcohol this time, not cocaine — and failed to show up for a mandatory offseason workout. The Rangers released him and baseball suspended him indefinitely. During his time in the wilderness he’d attempt to pitch in Mexico and in unaffiliated ball in Montana. It all went nowhere, not least because he injured his shoulder and experienced other medical problems during this period.

In March of 1990 Commissioner Fay Vincent reinstated Howe, but only for affiliated minor league play. He’d not get any bites then, but in February of 1991 New York Yankees GM Gene Michael was impressed enough with a tryout from Howe that he invited Howe to camp as a non-roster player. At the time Michael said, “he’s getting a chance because he’s good . . . there’s always a need for more left-handed pitching . . . He’s been clean for two years. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions about him, his makeup, the type of person he is. I feel there’s been a lot worse things done in baseball than bringing Steve Howe back. If it was my son or your son, you’d want to give him another chance.”

Howe would be sent to Triple-A after spring training, but he’d get a quick callup, making his return to the bigs that May. That year he’d toss 50 innings and post a 1.68 ERA before an elbow injury ended his season in August. Despite that hiccup, that October Howe and the Yankees agreed to an incentive-laden one-year $600,000 deal for 1992.

That December Howe would be back in trouble when he was arrested for felony cocaine possession. Later that offseason Howe struck a light pole with his car and fled the scene, resulting in a fine. Unlike his previous teams, the Yankees stood by Howe, and he pitched effectively early in the 1992 season while his legal cases were pending, but Major League Baseball once again had Steve Howe as a prominent agenda item. Early that May the law would allow him to plead his cocaine possession charge down to a misdemeanor. The following month, however, Fay Vincent gave Howe baseball’s version of the death penalty, banning him from baseball for life.

Howe was only the second player to be banned for life for drug offenses. The first one, future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins, was suspended for drug possession following an arrest in 1980. Jenkins’ suspension was overturned by an arbitrator only two weeks later and the legal charges against him were eventually dropped. Howe’s ban would last from June through November, ending his 1992 season, but like Jenkins, an arbitrator reinstated Howe as well. Howe’s reinstatement required him to submit to drug tests every other day. While nothing else had worked in his eight seasons in the bigs, this did, at least until the end of his playing days.

Those days saw Howe flash his old brilliance at times, but the time and the toll he and baseball had put on his body was starting to show. In 1993 he dealt with a nagging ankle injury. He managed to appear in 51 games — the most games he’d pitched since 1982 — but posted a 4.97 ERA. In 1994 Howe was extremely effective when he pitched — he featured a 1.80 ERA in 40 games with 15 saves — but his year, like everyone else’s, was ended by the strike. The Yankees were impressed enough to exercise his $2.3 million club option for 1995. That offseason, in keeping with the employment requirements of his 1992 probation, the Yankees and the union let him work in the team’s ticket office despite the strike.

Howe would lose his closer job to John Wetteland in 1995. He’d struggle as a middle reliever, posting a 4.96 ERA in 56 games. In 1996 he’d come back for one final big league season but he didn’t have anything left, allowing 12 runs in his first 17 innings. The eventual World Series champion Yankees released him on June 22nd.

Two days after his release Howe was arrested at JFK airport for carrying a handgun. He’d plead guilty to gun possession and be placed on three more years’ probation and community service. The Giants had considered signing him when the Yankees let him go but backed out following his arrest. Howe made a stab at another independent league comeback in 1997 but it went nowhere and he retired. Later that summer he was involved in a motorcycle accident that landed him in intensive care with collapsed lungs and a ruptured trachea. He’d be charged with drunk driving.

Following his playing career Howe started a contracting business in Arizona but maintained his home in Valencia, California. He was driving between work and home on that early April morning in 2006 when, according to the authorities, Howe’s pickup truck left the roadway “for unknown reasons,” entered the median and rolled numerous times before coming to rest on its roof. Howe was traveling at an estimated 70 mph. Toxicology reports revealed that he had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the accident.

(Major hat-tip to Mike Bates of FanGraphs for his excellently-sourced March 2019 biography of Howe and Mike Axisa of River Ave. Blues for his article about Howe from February 2012)


Also today in baseball history:

1929: The Red Sox play their first-ever Sunday home game following the repeal of blue laws which prevented it before now. The game is not played at Fenway Park, however. Due to protesters and the objections of a nearby church, the game is played at the Boston Braves’ home park a mile away.

1946: The Red Sox return the favor, allowing the Braves to play a doubleheader against the Phillies at Fenway Park. The Braves need to play there because the grandstand seats at Braves Park still had wet paint on them. It was a re-paint, actually. They had painted the seats just before Opening Day, didn’t let them dry enough, and thousands of fans had their clothes ruined — and the paint job was ruined — when they sat down on the still-drying seats.

1960: The White Sox debut their new exploding scoreboard, nicknamed “The Monster.” The $300,000 installation — the brainchild of Sox owner Bill Veeck — will produce fireworks and sound effects whenever a home run is hit by a hometown player.

1961: Warren Spahn becomes the second-oldest pitcher to throw a no-hitter. Spahn had just turned 40 five days previously. Cy Young once tossed one when he was 41. The game’s only run comes on a Hank Aaron RBI as the Braves beat the Giants 1-0.

1985: Despite a pledge from George Steinbrenneer that his job would be safe for the entire season, Yankees manager Yogi Berra is fired after the club gets off to a 6-10 start. He’s replaced by Billy Martin, who is returning to manage the club for the fourth time. Berra vows not to return to Yankee Stadium for as long as George Steinbrenner is the owner of the team. Martin turns the Yankees around and they go 91-54 after he takes over, finishing two games back of the AL East champion Blue Jays. Late in the season Martin would get into a bar fight with relief pitcher Ed Whitson and end up with a broken arm. Steinbrenner would fire him in October but keep him on as an advisor and give him a raise. He’d have one more stint as Yankees manager, in 1988, lasting only 68 games. Berra and Steinbrenner will reconcile in 1999.

1988: The Orioles establish a new American League record with their 21st consecutive loss to start the season.

2012: Bryce Harper makes his much-anticipated major league debut. The 19 year-old rookie center fielder doubles in the top of the seventh and drives in the potential go-ahead run in the ninth inning with a sacrifice fly, but the Nats fall to the Dodgers.