Life of Steve Howe: Too Much, Too Soon : Pitcher’s Struggle With Cocaine Continues, but His Career Doesn’t

Associated Press

There are no more cheers for Steve Howe, only the silence of memories punctuated by the sounds of a distant playoff game he might have been in.

He could have been sitting in the Dodger bullpen in the National League playoffs, hoping to help get the team into the World Series. Instead, he sat in St. Mary’s Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis, hoping to get away from cocaine.

He has had his chances. With the Dodgers. With the Minnesota Twins. He used them up one at a time, like a relief pitcher grooving one fastball after another, watching them explode at the plate until he has nothing left save a trip to the showers, the minors or oblivion.


Once he had it all--all-state in high school, All-Big Ten twice, the winningest pitcher in University of Michigan history, National League Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1980, world champion in 1981.

And in 1985, at age 27, when he should be reaching his professional peak, he is looking instead for a way out of a white-powdered valley.

Cocaine, he said on ABC’s “Nightline” program last Sept. 12, was not the problem in his life. It was life itself.

“Life in general and people and places and things and success a lot of times are people’s problems,” he said. “At least it was for me.” The day after appearing on the television program, Howe disappeared.

Three days later, he reappeared, met with Twins officials, asked for and was given his release and entered St. Mary’s.

“It’s bad to have memories dragged up, except by a professional counselor,” Jim Hawkins, Howe’s lawyer and close friend, said from his office in Westlake Village. “They recall not only what you saw and heard but what you felt. In his case, they can be extremely negative emotions. Maybe it was bringing up those emotions on the TV program that led to this relapse.”


In “Cocaine: Seduction and Solution,” authors Nannette Stone, Marlene Fromme and Daniel Kagan note that people who believe they are unable to love and be loved, and those looking for a way to cope with anxiety, stress and depression, are particularly susceptible to cocaine dependence.

“My sole existence of what I did in life was what I did on the ballfield,” Howe said on Nightline. “When nothing else matters and you don’t feel that you’re going to be able to perform up to your capabilities and someone gives you an avenue to deaden that pain . . . you’re going to do what you can do so that people are going to like you and accept you.”

Howe and his wife, Cyndy, declined to be interviewed for this story. So did Dr. George Mann, the director of the Twins’ employee assistance program and medical director at St. Mary’s.

Mann also refused to disclose whether Howe is a patient at St. Mary’s. Howard Fox, the Twins’ president, and Howe’s parents said he is.

His father, Virgil, was once a pretty good sandlot pitcher. Now he and his wife, Barbara, live in the Detroit suburb of Clarkston and work for General Motors.

“Steven just played ball for so long in his life that--and I’m not saying this is the reason he did what he did with drugs--that there never seemed to be enough time for Steven to do what Steven wanted to do,” Virgil said. “He started playing ball when he was 9 years old. That’s all he’s ever done.”


Chris Howe, 24, one of Steve’s three younger brothers (he also has a younger sister) and a law student at Michigan’s Flint campus, said that as a teen-ager Steve showed the frustrations of a youngster who believed he had to perform up to someone else’s standards.

“I don’t think it’s accurate to say my father was trying to make Steve into something Dad couldn’t be,” Chris said, “but that’s not to say Steve didn’t try too hard to please him. He tried to please my father more than anyone else.”

“Oh, it’s easy to place blame where there is no blame,” Barbara, his mother, said. “We have five children and we have one cocaine addict. I would die for my kids. But I will not take the blame for his addiction, any more than his father should. Steven did this all by himself. He chose to do it.”

“I don’t feel any sense of failure,” Virgil, his father, added. “How could we feel we failed with him when we didn’t fail with the other four?”

No one is really sure what went wrong with the young left-hander who mastered control of a baseball but not his life.

“When he was a kid, he just said what he was going to do and it came easy,” Barbara Howe said. “Everything was easy for him and once he got it, it was, ‘It’s not what I really want.’ Personally, if he never plays baseball again, I don’t really care, as long as he’s OK and can function. But that’s up to him. I can’t live his life for him. I can’t tell him what to do anymore.”


Moby Benedict, director of intramural athletics at the University of Michigan, was its baseball coach when Howe was one of the Wolverines’ star pitchers.

“Steve was a follower more than anything else,” Benedict said. “Certainly not on the ballfield. Give him the baseball and he became a fierce competitor. . . . Off the field, he was not a leader. The guys would say, ‘Let’s go,’ and he’d go.

He couldn’t say no.

Not to his friends and acquaintances.

Not to the Hollywood crowd which embraced him.

Not to drugs.

“I’d tell him, ‘It’s against the law and it’s harmful to your body,’ ” Tom Lasorda, the Dodger manager, said. “He’d say to me, ‘You’re right. You’re right.’ Then he’d go out and do it.”

Steve Wagner was a teammate at Michigan, another pitcher. He and Howe remained friends beyond college, wound up in California together. When Steve and Cyndy went to spring training at Dodgertown in Vero Beach, Fla., Wagner was their house-sitter.

“I could see a change in him when he got to California,” said Wagner, now working with his father in the lumber business in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Steve had been a star in college, but he’d never experienced anything like the pressure someone so young had to face--everybody being on him all the time, everybody wanting a favor. There was always somebody wanting something and Steve could never say he couldn’t do it. . . .

“I think he’s the kind of guy who can help everybody else deal with their problems and not be able to deal with his own . . . but he was never one to admit it. He would put on a good show about it.”


“Who is the real Steve Howe?” Barbara, his mother, wonders. “I don’t know. I really don’t, and I don’t think he does. . . . ‘Is this the real Steve today? Who are you today? Are you what you want to be or are you what somebody else wants you to be?’

“He’s like a chameleon. He’ll be whatever you want him to be. He’ll see what somebody’s looking for and give it to him. He’s always been that way. . . . I’ve told him, ‘You’ve got to live for yourself. You can’t please this person, that person and that person.’ ”

Barbara Howe sighed. “Maybe when he goes and uses, he says to himself, ‘I’m doing this for me.’ ”

Mike Hernandez Sr. owns Camino Real Chevrolet in Monterey Park, five miles east of downtown Los Angeles. He makes a habit of helping young ballplayers with the loan of a car or some money. Maybe a job. In 1980, Howe, married less than a year and with barely half a minor league season under his belt, made the big leagues.

Hernandez and Manny Mota, the Dodgers’ first-base coach, go back a long way. “Manny brought this kid in,” Hernandez said. “ ‘He needs a car,’ he told me.” Pretty soon Howe was selling cars for him as well.

“With me and Steve, it quickly became a father-and-son relationship. The second year, I kicked a guy out of here that somehow, in my mind, I felt the guy was a drug pusher. Turned out I was right. I got very upset and scolded Steve and Cyndy. I told him, ‘How can you even be walking around with this guy?’


“I don’t think Steve was ready to make the kind of money he was making,” Hernandez said. “I think he got into bad company, not only outside of Dodger Stadium but inside, also.”

A rich young star, even a newly married one, doesn’t automatically settle down in the suburbs. Howe didn’t. He and Cyndy roared into Marina del Rey, the freeway off-ramp to the California fast lane.

“L.A. is Media City. TV, movies,” Hawkins, their lawyer, said. “Steve was invited into those circles, into the Los Angeles celebrity stardom circle. Not just baseball. Actors, directors, producers, fast-movers, the whole crowd. Getting invited into those circles can be a very heady experience for a 22-year-old kid. He was a somebody, very much sought after.”

“Nobody ever told him cocaine was bad,” his mother said. “Three years ago it was a fun thing. It was Hollywood. It was California. ‘Hey, let’s do cocaine.’ It was party time. It’s only been, what, the last year and a half that everybody’s realized how evil it is. It was just like marijuana when it started out. ‘Let’s go smoke pot.’ Now we’re finding out what it does to your brain cells.”

Dr. Forrest Tennant is executive director of Community Health Project, 25 clinics in Southern California. He also is the Dodgers’ drug abuse consultant. He was Howe’s counselor.

“There are three kinds of cocaine users,” Tennant said. “One is the occasional user, the weekend user. He gets his treatment from a minister or a psychologist. Another is the regular user who’s not addicted, maybe one, two times a day. He goes into Cocaine Anonymous or a hospital for a 28-day treatment program.


“And there’s the chronic, addicted user. He’s been to a minister or psychologist. He’s been in the hospital or CA. And he’s still relapsing because the cocaine has altered his brain chemistry. . . . Simple behavioral treatment isn’t enough.”

Howe, Tennant said, “is not the same as those players who testified in Pittsburgh,” a reference to the seven major leaguers who admitted past cocaine use in the trial of convicted drug dealer Curtis Strong. “Howe is a relapsing user.”

“I think I was the first guy to know in ’82 that Steve had a problem,” Hernandez, the auto dealer, said. “But I’m not his father. I couldn’t keep up with the guy.”

He called Mota, told him of Howe’s problem, asked him to speak quietly to the Dodgers. “He did it and the Dodgers were very concerned, but they didn’t do anything until Steve himself--I don’t know, maybe he was forced--until he went to the drug center the first time.

“He was taking two (drug) tests a week with the Dodgers,” Hernandez said. “I forced him to tell them, ‘I want to take it three times.’ See, he could con them. The stuff only lasts 72 hours. So he could take a test on Friday, then take dope and not take another test until Monday and it wouldn’t show anything. He took three tests a week for a long time and everything was going fine. Everybody was trying to help him.

“Then all of a sudden he disappeared.”

Howe was the Dodgers’ No. 1 choice in the June free-agent draft in 1979, spent half a season at San Antonio in the Double-A Texas League, then made the Dodgers’ roster in 1980.


His 17 saves, 2.65 earned-run average and 7-9 record made him the National League Rookie of the Year. In 1981 Howe was 5-3 with a 2.50 ERA and 8 saves, and the next year he led the Dodgers in games (66), saves (13) and ERA (2.08), was 7-5 and a National League All-Star.

And after the 1982 season, he spent 5 1/2 weeks at The Meadows, a clinic in the Arizona desert. “What I did probably saved my career,” Howe said on April 27, 1983.

Twenty days later he re-entered treatment, this time at the Care- Unit Hospital in Orange, Calif. He returned to the active list on June 29, was fined one month’s salary ($53,867), then was suspended by the team on July 16, the day after he arrived half an hour after a game with the Chicago Cubs had begun.

Howe was reinstated the next day after undergoing a drug test, was suspended again on Sept. 23, sat out the rest of the season (he was 4-7 with 18 saves and a 1.44 ERA in 1983) and was suspended for all of 1984 by Bowie Kuhn, then the baseball commissioner.

“I didn’t know what Steve’s problem was before he admitted it the first time,” Lasorda said, “but I had suspicions. He’d always have an excuse for being late. I’d tell him, ‘You sleep with dogs, you’re going to wake up with fleas.’ He’d seem all right for a time, then boom, he’d have problems again.”

On May 22, 1983, Steve and Cyndy Howe became the parents of Chelsie Leigh Howe, a daughter.


Hawkins met the Howe family for the first time six months later. They’d moved from Marina del Rey to Agoura. “They were trying very hard to be responsible, parental-type people,” the lawyer said.

Howe, anticipating a lengthy suspension, was concerned about paying his bills. Kuhn announced it on Dec. 15. The Howes filed for bankruptcy a week later. They owed about $100,000 more than they had.

On May 15, 1984, Cyndy Howe sued for divorce. It never became final. The Howes are together again.

Steve underwent more drug counseling and rehabilitation during 1984, hoping he could still pitch in the majors.

The Dodgers gave him a one-year contract for 1985.

As Opening Day approached, Howe vowed he had beaten cocaine. “Drugs are right where they belong,” he said. “In the past.”

On June 23, he showed up three hours late for a game against Houston, claiming Cyndy had mistakenly taken the car keys. He was fined $300.


On June 26, in San Diego, he gave up a home run to Steve Garvey in a 10-4 loss. After the game, in Lasorda’s office, Howe burst into tears.

“He just came in and said, ‘I want to go someplace else. I can’t handle this,’ ” Lasorda said. “He said he had not been involved in cocaine, he was just depressed at the way things were going and he just thought it would be best for him and his family to get somewhere where these things wouldn’t happen.”

On June 30, he failed to show up for a game against Atlanta.

In 20 games he was 1-1 with three saves and a 4.84 ERA.

On July 3, the Dodgers released Howe.

The Twins signed him on Aug. 11.

“Minnesotans are very forgiving people,” Fox, the Twins’ president, said. “They like to root for underdogs, for people who have made mistakes and are trying to overcome them. That’s one reason I gave him an opportunity.”

The fans welcomed him warmly. He received a standing ovation the first time he strode to the mound in the Metrodome.

His pitching didn’t improve. In 13 games he was 2-3 with no saves and a 6.16 ERA.

Then came the drug trial in Pittsburgh. Steve Howe was mentioned only peripherally. Then came “Nightline.” Then he was gone.

The Twins released him on Sept. 17.

There is fallout from the cocaine cloud under which Steve Howe lives.

“I want to be sympathetic with Steven, but I’m really getting fed up with it all,” his mother says. “I don’t like picking up the newspaper and reading how my kid’s missing from the baseball team again. I’m sick of it. . . . He’s got brothers in Clarkston who keep hearing, ‘I see your druggie brother screwed up again.’


“It hasn’t created a problem in the family, although the kids have said things to us, how they feel sorry for us. Not for themselves. Like Michael said, ‘Why the hell doesn’t he just get out of baseball and straighten his life out instead of us having to pick up a newspaper all the time and read about him?’

“It’s embarrassing, sure. You can say, ‘It’s no reflection on you.’ But it is. That’s your kid, and millions of people read about him when he blows his nose or whatever.”

Barbara Howe, the mother of a cocaine-addicted former baseball star, sighed once again.

“You know what I think Steven’s problem is?” she said. “Everything he ever said he wanted to do, he’s done. He’s an ordinary kid who got everything he ever wished for. All his dreams came true. And it wasn’t enough.”