It was merely an intrasquad game, a choose-up-sides affair to provide work for the abundance of pitchers in the New York Yankees' camp. A soft breeze accompanied the bright sun of early afternoon, encouraging some 4,500 to spend the day in a ballpark. The price was right, too. No admission charge.
Years from now, few will recall the details of the exercise, that Scott Sanderson struck out four of the six batters he faced or that Steve Adkins stumbled through two innings. But for Steve Howe, who knows all about stumbling, the day will be hard to forget.
Four years after Howe, 32, last pitched to batters wearing big league uniforms, he officially began his quest to return. He worked both halves of the seventh and final inning. With his wife Cindy, daughter Chelsie, 7, and son Brian, 3, in a crowd that greeted him with polite applause, the lefthander continued his push away from a dark past of drug- and alcohol-related horror, a life of abuse that resulted in his being suspended from baseball six times.
"I had so much adrenaline, my hair was tingling," Howe said. "I had enough adrenaline for the whole United States Army to go across a desert."
Those feelings made it difficult for him to say focused in his first inning. It took Howe nine pitches before he retired leadoff batter Gerald Williams on a fly ball to center. He lost his composure briefly after walking second baseman Pat Kelly on a full count. Howe said balls three and four were strikes.
"When you lock up the umpire on a breaking ball, you know you have a good breaking ball," Howe said. "That's why (umpires) practice, too. Definitely, I was pumped up in the first inning. In the second inning, I calmed down and settled into it."
Howe's totals for the two innings: 36 pitches (23 strikes, 13 balls), one walk, one hit (a chopper behind the mound by Kevin Maas), no strikeouts.
"Overall, I thought he did all right," Manager Stump Merrill said. "We had to slow his motor down in the first inning. I don't think he took too many deep breaths. It was to be expected. It's been a long time since he faced a batter with meaning."
To be exact, Oct. 4, 1987. Howe, then of the Texas Rangers, retired the Mariners' Phil Bradley on a broken-bat ground ball on his final big league pitch. That off-season, Howe violated his after-care program for substance abuse and was suspended. He pitched in the minors last season, but had his year cut short because of elbow surgery. Now having had two years' sobriety (verified by spot drug testing), Howe is an invitee in Yankees camp, hoping to win the job vacated by Dave Righetti's free-agent departure to the San Francisco Giants.
"I don't do drugs and I don't drink, so I'm in the best shape I've ever been in spring training," said Howe, who is in his first major league camp since 1985 with the Dodgers. "I don't have to look at my car and wonder if I hit anything the night before. I've never been really effective in the spring. Now I know I have to be if I want to win a job."
"His stuff was good; his slider really had movement," General Manager Gene Michael said. "The more he works, the better he'll get. He needs outings and innings."
"I still have an 0.00 ERA," Howe said. "That ain't all bad. Hey, can I re-qualify for rookie of the year?"
No, but Howe, National League Rookie of the Year 11 years ago, would be a shoo-in for comeback player of the year if all goes as well as Thursday. It was just the beginning, Howe said. The one-day-at-a-time approach he must take in his struggle to remain drug free also applies to his bid to recover his career.
"This is partially what kept me going -- the dream I could come back," Howe said. "America loves a success story. If I can be a part of one and maybe help others, more power to it. Chemical dependency is giving up hope, and when you give up hope, you die. I looked at my wife and children and wondered if I could make it back. That was the low point. They pray every day for daddy to get a baseball job. My situation is complete. Icing on the cake would be to make the team and be successful."
Howe combined with Sanderson, Mike Gardella and Mark Leiter for a seven-inning no-hitter as Mike Ferraro's team defeated Graig Nettles' squad, 3-0. "A bad draft," Nettles said, laughing. "It's a good thing I signed him as a coach and not as a scout," Michael said. . . . Adkins gave up three runs and four hits in two innings and committed two errors. . . . The Yankees began the exhibition season in Fort Lauderdale Friday. Exiled owner George Steinbrenner was expected to watch the game from the stands. . . . The Yankees play the Baltimore Orioles Saturday and Sunday but Jim Palmer is not scheduled to pitch either game. . . . In addition to a B game with the New York Mets on March 19, the Yankees have added two split-game games to the exhibition schedule--Thursday against the Cincinnati Reds in Plant City and March 25 against the Mets in Fort Lauderdale.
Dave LaPoint, released by the Yankees last month, was invited to the Philadelphia Phillies' camp. If LaPoint makes the club, the Phillies only have to pay him the $100,000 minimum wage, with the Yankees responsible for the remainder of his $900,000 contract.