A Career Of Living Dangerously

Steve Howe's 1991 comeback with the New York Yankees was astounding, which makes the latest skirmish in his battle with cocaine all the more confounding
February 03, 1992

In the morningsSteve Howe would run his hands over the body of his car and wonder if he'd hurtanyone the night before. This is a ragged and disappointing life, he'd think,feeling his fenders. To the rest of the world, his career in cocaine seemedpurely a self-destruction. Six chances baseball had given him! The sheerunrepentance of his life was spectacular. Yet, looking for dents and dings,Howe suspected there were plenty more people at risk than just himself. Thethought would make him dead tired.

But what was hegoing to do? Stop? Just say no? The easy platitudes—the good sense ofsobriety—deserted him in an awful defiance of his talents and luck. Here wasthe one platitude that remained: ''You're terrified to fail," he would sayof the addiction, even during that wondrous comeback with the New York Yankeeslast season, "and afraid to succeed." Even that psychology soundedcheap. But what do we make of it now, this week, with Howe once again scheduledto face ugly questions about cocaine, as he sits in a Montana courtroom insteadof on top of the world?

The necessaryarrogance of Steve Howe was not always chemical, but it was, one way oranother, entirely artificial. Even as he broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgersin 1980, he seemed all smirk and swagger, staring down the press, pokingfingers in chests and just generally aggravating people. Remember what he oncesaid to a blathering Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager? "Play clam,Chief." A rook! Of course, he'd tell you later, he had been frightenedbeyond comprehension. If you had seen him and his young wife, Cindy, on theteam bus that year—and what player traveled with his wife?—all dressed out inpolyester in a sea of Dodger silk, so hopelessly out of it, so alone, juststaring straight ahead, you might have guessed at his terror.

The user alwayshas a story that makes sense of his addiction, that makes the idea of Howe'spassing his hands over sheet metal in later years seem a natural behavior. Thefirst time he used cocaine, really used it, was upon being named Rookie of theYear. He'd fooled around with the stuff before, but he hadn't needed cocaine topitch. Hadn't needed anything to pitch. He was so focused, so revved up on themound that any additional stimulation would hardly have been helpful. But theidea of speaking into 50 microphones at a press conference that day crippledhim with nausea. "Other people may be willing to look like a dick from timeto time," he said later. "But not me." He ducked into the men'sroom of Little Joe's, Tommy Lasorda's favorite venue for press functions ofthis sort, and scored his first meaningful hit. Howe then met the press and wascalm and poised. The newspapers the next day were very approving, he felt. Sococaine, the new closer in Howe's life, got its first save. A long career waspredicted.

As that careerunfolded, the cocaine, season by season, lost its therapeutic qualities. From1980 through '83, Howe was one of the game's most brilliant relievers, his ERAdropping even as his binging increased. But thereafter he was in and out ofbaseball, more out than in. He missed team planes, snorted on the team bus,snorted in the bullpen, disappeared for days at a time. He was suspended againand again, bounced from rehab center to rehab center and finally, when his92-mph fastball could no longer cloud even a G.M.'s judgment, banned.

The scale of hisfailure was impressive. Short of killing oneself, it would be difficult toimagine a man doing more damage to himself than Howe did. He was a publicmonument to self-destruction. But by 1988, he was gone. All that was left wasthe question: How had he lasted so long?

Of course thereal horror had been private and persisted beyond 1988. If you thought Howe hadscrewed up his baseball career, you should have seen what he did to his homelife. Cindy came to realize that if she didn't go to the games with him, shecouldn't count on his coming back. "I couldn't even send him to the grocerystore," she said last summer. "It might be three days until he got backwith the food." Once after Steve received $1,400 for a speaking engagementand had promptly disappeared, Cindy awoke to find him returned and crouched inthe backyard of their California house, vomiting in the grass. He made itindoors but collapsed into a fetal position, twitching. Cindy hustled him offto a private hospital in the high desert for 10 days. This was right beforespring training in '85.

The cocaine wasinspiring a talent for torment that Cindy, who had known Steve since she was17, could not have imagined. He had made every addict's eventual discovery:That his habit was all someone else's fault. In this case, his wife's. WhenCindy confronted Steve after a four-day binge, his first such disappearancefrom home, Steve threw it right back at her. "Maybe if you wouldn't be sodemanding," he told her, "I wouldn't have to stay out." The cocainehad imparted genius, on the spot. It was the perfect thing to say to a youngand insecure wife, a woman already adrift in the world of major leaguecelebrity. They don't call addicts users for nothing.

Cindy was a bornvictim, all innocence and devotion. Howe had met her while he was still at theUniversity of Michigan. He had gone to Anchorage, Alaska, to play summer balland had seen her at a party there. His first reaction was unkind: Here's a"little blonde teenybopper" bouncing around drinking Kool-Aid. Still,she seemed attractively rambunctious. While it wasn't a typical date, they onceraced high-performance cars through Anchorage until Cindy crashed a curb andbent an axle. There was something to that. After three weeks of this kind ofcourtship, they were engaged. She was still in high school.

But the educationshe got, once Steve found cocaine, was strictly postgraduate-level. He left herseveral times, partly to demonstrate that she was at fault and to gain someleverage in their relationship, partly to enjoy a guilt-free binge. In 1983,just hours after Cindy gave birth to their first child, Chelsi, Stevedisappeared again.

Perhaps thestories of addiction are unique only in their particulars. Perhaps all addictsare unhappy even in success, maybe because of success. "I had everything Ithought I needed," Howe has said. "I had a beautiful home, a beautifulwife, kids, dogs, three cars. But I was never home. I never washed the $60,000car. I didn't play with the dogs. I was as empty as ever." By 1984 he wasfiling for bankruptcy; complete moral bankruptcy was yet to be declared.

But that cametoo. After he was banned from baseball in 1988, Howe seemed to be recognizingthat he was near bottom. In Whitefish, Mont., where Cindy had relatives and thecouple had settled, he sought a fresh start. He took construction jobs, diggingpostholes and building fences. He hunted most of the meat his family ate. Heenjoyed support from friends and church, a charismatic faith that had becomeimportant to both Cindy and him. He used cocaine less and less. Still, at notime did either he or Cindy believe he was truly cured. He was not healed, onlyexhausted. "I got to a point where I didn't want to die," he said lastsummer, "but I didn't know how to live. I just got tired." Running hishands over his car in the morning....

Cindy wasparticularly unnerving to him. "She and I led two of the most totallydifferent lives you could imagine," he said. "She was unconditionallyloving. Here I was screwing up, and she wasn't, but I think that her life hadto shine through me. Because I kept watching her. And she'd come to me and say,'I'm not going anywhere, I'm going to love you no matter what you think, nomatter what you try to do.' And I didn't trust it, just didn't trust it for along time."

He was finallyready to bottom out.

It was Jan.22,1989. Howe, who hadn't used cocaine in six months, was driving home from anAlcoholics Anonymous meeting, one that was all about alcoholics who wouldsuddenly remember where they had hidden a bottle during a blackout. "And inthe car," he said, "I'm given this picture." A year earlier, duringone of his binges, he had hidden a stash of cocaine inside a roll of Christmaswrapping paper. In all that time, he had not even remembered it. In the car hesuddenly knew again where the drug would be.

When he got home,he quickly found it. It was all there. There was enough to last him, well,days. "I just took a taste," he said. "Put some on my gum and putit back. And I went to bed."

Cindy's powers ofdetection had come a long way. "You're loaded!" she shouted in thebedroom. He was by no means loaded, but she had correctly read his guilt. Theyargued. Finally, she went to sleep. "I was going to go downstairs and getrid of it," Howe said. "Well, I was going to snort some first and thenget rid of it." But she had followed him downstairs and was standing therewhen he turned around with the bag of cocaine. Howe was caught, yet he stilldidn't know what to do, which may be all you need to know to understandaddiction. "Somehow I knew my very existence was on the line, yet all Iwanted to do was inhale that cocaine. I just wanted to bury my face init."

Cindy examinedhis torment. "It's up to you," she said, "but whatever you do, I'llalways love you." And she turned away.

You think youknow the end of the story. At least you want it to end here, where Howe,despite his fury, flushes the cocaine away. Where the next morning he meetswith a pastor friend, sits with his long arms hanging between his legs and, forthe first time in his life, sobs. Where he never uses the drug again.

Where he makesthe Yankees. Wasn't it wonderful? The way Howe showed up uninvited at theYankee camp last spring (the commissioner had reinstated him in 1990, clearinghim to pitch in the minors). The way he stood out on the mound, a totallypathetic figure, wearing Don Mattingly's spikes and some old Dodger blues. Theway his wife stood in the empty stadium, watching him. The way the Yankeecoaches got bug-eyed seeing how the ball moved, in the 90's and darting at theknees, just as it used to.

The old arrogancereappeared, too, and seemed to rise off him like steam. All smirk and swagger,and the whole season nobody could hit him. You could say, and Howe often did,that his arm had perversely benefited from his banishment: a 1958 model, yes,but low mileage. "Even when I was going through all that crap, thesuspensions, the rehabs," he said last season, "I wondered how goodcould I be if I was free and clear. I'm finding out. I can be pretty darngood."

He was pitchinglike he had in his Dodger days, except he was clean. He was up to here innicotine and caffeine—six, eight cups of coffee out in the bullpen every game,all jitters and adrenalin. But clean. And cocky? The day after he gave up apair of runs and his ERA jumped into a whole number, a visitor laughed and saidto him, "Hey, it wasn't like you thought you'd never give up an earned runagain, right?" Howe squinted and delivered a blast of Salem Light from thecorner of his mouth and said, "As a matter of fact, that's exactly what Ithought."

He was 33, hadbeen out of the major leagues for three years, had been into drugs many more,and he finished the season with a 1.68 ERA. The Yankees offered him a $600,000contract with incentives that could have raised his 1992 salary to $2.3million.

And then, inDecember, strange news came out of Kalispell, Mont., a town 15 miles south ofWhitefish. Federal drug enforcement agents, trying to complete an investigationthat had already rounded up seven people and a kilo of cocaine, caughtthemselves a stray, somebody entirely extraneous to their case but somebody,for all that, who wanted to buy a gram of cocaine for $100. The DrugEnforcement Administration said it was Steve Howe.

He was arrestedon a misdemeanor charge of possession, a charge that threatened to cost him amaximum of one year and $1,000 and his new baseball career; a charge to whichhe pleaded not guilty. The trial was scheduled for Jan. 30 in Missoula. Howemaintained an official silence, though from jail he did tell his pastor, AlBarone, that his arrest was "the Lord's intervention. God was holding himaccountable for his actions and at the same time intervened." As if to saythat Howe, despite his intentions, was stopped at the brink of usage. There wasnothing to contradict that. His agent, Dick Moss, has insisted that Howe hadpassed a series of continuing drug tests before the arrest.

Howe's future hasbecome complicated again. Whatever the outcome in the Missoula courtroom, MajorLeague Baseball must still puzzle out his involvement in this matter and makeits own decisions on this troubling case. Might a man be guilty of possessionbut innocent of consumption? What must baseball rule then?

Thosedeterminations, though, seem somehow only incidental to the larger case ofSteve Howe. This fragile man, this precarious life: Where does it go from here?Does he smirk and swagger through the rest of his dangerous seasons, thearrogance rising off him like steam, except for an awful morning in the Montanacold, when he runs his hands over the body of his car and wonders if he hurtsomeone the night before? Wonders was it someone he knew, someone who lovedhim?

PHOTORONALD C. MODRA PHOTORONALD C. MODRAAn undiminished fastball was key to Howe's '91 comeback. PHOTOMICHAEL GALLACHER/THE MISSOULIANHowe, aided by lawyer Pat Sherlock after the December arrest, faced a fragile future. PHOTORONALD C. MODRADespite her husband's unconscionable acts, Cindy has provided unconditional support.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)