It's a Baseball Story That Doesn't Happen Every Spring, and at Dodgertown They're Pulling for a Happy Ending : STEVE HOWE'S RETURN

Times Staff Writer

The letter arrived unsigned. That kind always does.

"Stevie baby," it began, "I've been waiting a year and a half for this, you chemically dependent bleep. . . . "

You get the idea.

Steve Howe got an idea, too. Instead of tearing up the letter, or throwing it away, he Xeroxed it and passed out copies in the Dodger clubhouse.

Some comebacks are braver than others. Steve Howe, fighting dragons imagined and real, reached for one of the only weapons he has left. He went for the laugh.

"He's scared, although he'd never tell you that now," a friend of Howe said.

"He is, after all, the most publicized drug case in the history of sports. But I'll tell you this: He's giving it one hell of a good shot to make it. And he's got a good message for anybody who tries that stuff."

That stuff is cocaine, which rarely comes as expensive as it did for Howe. A year out of his career, hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his pocket, scars on his marriage, his reputation and his psyche.

You could say that Howe has a score to settle. But in this game, breaking even isn't good enough. It's winner take all.

Steve Howe, whose elbow surgery has limited him to light tossing, stood on the mound at Field No. 2 in Dodgertown, throwing to Todd Maulding, the team's batting-practice catcher, at a photographer's request.

"Could you throw it a little lower?" the photographer shouted. "The ball is going out of the frame."

Howe's next pitch reached the plate on one bounce. He glared at the photographer. "Is that low enough for you?" he snapped, then broke into a big grin.

Turning to the bleachers, he addressed the few fans, the retirees and sun-starved New Englanders who come here each spring. "How was that, gang?" he said. They cheered.

Howe isn't giving interviews, but he is hardly remote, signing autographs, joking with teammates and engaging in casual conversation with reporters.

"Mentally, he's the best I've ever seen him," said Tom Niedenfuer, a teammate in the bullpen and also a friend.

"He's like a little kid after missing a year. A little nervous, too."

Howe has not pitched for the Dodgers in a game since September, 1983. On the 23rd of that month, he was suspended for a second time by the Dodgers. Then, in December, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the 1984 season for violating baseball's drug rules. Howe filed a grievance with the players' association that was settled last June, but it was agreed that Howe should spend the rest of the season rehabilitating.

The Dodgers, who have been subjecting Howe to urine tests--twice a week this spring--say Howe has been clean for months. When he ran the hill-- the workout devised by running coach Jim Bush on the 17th Street bridge here--Howe wore a Narcotics Anonymous T-shirt that read: "Mean 'n Clean."

Howe's drug use is not a forbidden subject here. Howe brings it up himself, frequently. "The only difference between me and the other players is that I have to take a little bottle with me to the bathroom," he joked in the training room.

Pitching coach Ron Perranoski is one of Howe's closest friends. They often drove in to Dodger Stadium together from the Valley. And even last season, when Howe couldn't play, he would go to Perranoski's house, just to talk.

"He talks about (his addiction) freely," Perranoski said. "That's good therapy.

"He really is trying, a super effort. Like anything else, it's a sickness, and he realizes it.

"But this is the best I've seen him handle it, the publicity and all. The first time (he came back) he was hyperventilating, he was so damn nervous."

It was Country and Western night at Dodgertown. Out behind the swimming pool, a bonfire cast a soft light . Steaks , ribs and chicken sizzled on the grills. A small dance floor had been set up in front of a stage, where a local band called Southern Charm played soft country ballads. Steve Howe and his wife, Cyndy, wearing cowboy hats , as were the other guests, joined several other couples gliding slowly across the floor to the sound of the steel guitar. For the entire dance, the smile that illuminated Cyndy Howe's face never left. "Steve has a total support system," said Fred Claire, the Dodgers' executive vice president. "He has a lot of good people around him--Jim Hawkins, Cyndy. . . . "

Hawkins is Howe's attorney and confidant. Cyndy is Steve's wife and mother of their 22-month-old daughter, Chelsie Leigh. They expect to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary June 16.

"You can see he's happier," said Mark Cresse, the Dodger bullpen coach. "He's talking a lot about his family, too, a lot more than he ever did."

In previous months, there had been lots of talk about Howe's marriage: Cyndy's admission that she, too, had used cocaine, and reports that Steve, shortly after the birth of their daughter, had moved out on his own.

But whatever fissures that had surfaced in their relationship have, publicly at least, been sealed. The difference in Howe has not gone unnoticed--not only in his marriage but also in other relationships as well.

"He's not a split personality anymore," one teammate said. "Used to be when he'd walk into the clubhouse, you didn't know if he was going to bite your head off or pat you on the back."

Howe, of course, always has been cocky. "I always thought he was a little wacky on his own (without the drugs)," Cresse said.

"I couldn't call him a split personality. It's just that one day he'd be wired, the next day he'd look like he was ready to fall asleep. His energy level varied.

"Now, he's smiling, his eyes are wide awake, he's a lot livelier."

Cresse, the other Dodger coaches and Manager Tom Lasorda have attended meetings conducted by Dr. Forest Tennant, the team's drug consultant, in which Tennant counseled them on what signs to look for to detect drug abuse. Dodger owner Peter O'Malley also addressed one meeting.

Said Cresse: "He told us, 'We don't want cocaine to beat us. If somebody is going to beat us, we want it to be another team, not a drug. There's no place in baseball for drugs.' "

The Dodgers have not yet decided whether they will take special measures--possibly assigning Howe a roommate on the road--to guard against a possible relapse.

"We haven't really discussed specifics, but obviously Steve would have to be receptive for it to work," Claire said. "The right chemistry would have to be there."

Drugs kept Howe from throwing a baseball last season. His elbow is keeping him from throwing this spring.

Last October, after working out in the Arizona Instructional League, Howe went to the Dominican Republic to pitch winter ball. Two weeks later, he was back in Los Angeles with a sore elbow.

On Jan. 9, Dr. Frank Jobe performed surgery in which he re-routed the ulnar nerve in Howe's elbow. "We had to take it out of the groove where there was a lot of scarring tissue and place it in front of the bone," Jobe said. "We had to elevate the muscle in order to get the nerve under it."

Former Dodger pitcher Pat Zachry said he had similar surgery, and it took eight months before he was pitching again. The Dodgers' projections for Howe are far more encouraging: Jobe has said he could be ready by the end of spring training.

"The big thing physically is that he doesn't attempt to do too much," Claire said. "He's never had that type of injury to his arm, and he's not one to show his true feelings."

Perranoski said it shouldn't be important, once Howe begins to pitch, whether he has a good start or not.

"When he's healthy, he's awesome," Perranoski said. "The biggest thing is to get him throwing the ball the way he can. Then it will be only a matter of time before he gets in the groove."

"The fans can be terrible, brutal. How long has it been since Welchie's problem and fans still yell, 'Hey, Bobby, how about a drink?' The fans are ruthless. Steve knows he has to deal with that. He used to let it get to him. Now he almost has to expect it."

--Mark Cresse

Peter O'Malley has been outspoken in his condemnation of drugs in sports. Last month, he was embroiled in controversy when he attempted to include mandatory drug-testing clauses in Dodger contracts.

But the Dodger owner also has been steadfast in his support of Howe.

"You've got to be firm and do everything possible to prevent (drug abuse), but in the event someone has used or has a problem, then you do everything possible to help the person," O'Malley said. "That's been our approach.

"Steve is doing well. He has the support of everyone in the organization. He's trying his best. It's tough. It's not easy. He takes one day at a time. He gets more and more days behind him and his chances of leading a normal life are very good. And I hope leading a normal life includes baseball.

"Even if it doesn't include baseball, if Steve Howe can come back and lead a, quote, normal life, and not be dependent on illegal drugs, I'll be very happy about it. . . . We're not doing it just because he's a good pitcher. We've done it for a lot of other people who were not good pitchers.

"That's my goal for him: to lead a good, normal, happy life. And I think he has an excellent chance of accomplishing that."

It is spring, the season of regeneration.

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