• Sal Maiorana

Finally, troubled Steve Howe runs out of chances

NEW YORK (June 22, 1996) – The end of Steve Howe’s major-league career came with his release by the Yankees after five years with the club, though some would say the end should have come long before it did.

A supremely talented left-handed power pitcher when he was at his best, Howe was also one of the most troubled souls to ever put on a major-league uniform – and let it be known, there were a lot of uniforms.

Cats should get as many lives as Howe had, a player who battled alcohol and drug addiction his entire career, one that began with him winning the NL rookie of the year award in 1980 with the Dodgers and later featured seven separate substance abuse suspensions which cost him five complete seasons.

His role on the team had been as a lefty specialist, but he wasn’t getting anyone out and the Yankees could no longer stick with him. In 17 innings across 25 appearances his ERA was an intolerable 6.35, this on the heels of a 4.96 in 1995 when his stuff had begun to fizzle.

“It just didn’t work, he couldn’t get lefties out,” Joe Torre said. “The effort was there, the result wasn’t.”

The 38-year-old had become an object of derision at Yankee Stadium, and as he departed the Yankee clubhouse one last time he admitted that had begun to take its toll.

“The booing made it very difficult for me to do my job,” he said. “There are a lot of good fans in New York, but right now the negative ones are overwhelming the good ones. Sometimes a change of scenery is necessary. There comes a time when something needs to happen. I wanted what was best for me, my family and the Yankees and the Yankees wanted the same thing. In that respect, this is good.”

Howe pitched 3 2/3 innings and earned a save in the final game of the Dodgers 1981 World Series victory over the Yankees, but by 1982 he was in rehab for the first time having admitted to using cocaine during games. Following a relapse in 1983 he was suspended by the Dodgers, and then commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the entire 1984 season.

When the Dodgers finally cut ties early in 1985, Howe joined the Twins, got caught using cocaine again, and he was gone for all of 1986.

The Rangers gave him a chance in 1987 and he made it through the season, then violated his after-care program by using alcohol and didn’t return to the game until 1990 with Salinas of the Class A California League.

While George Steinbrenner was banned from the day-to-day management of the Yankees after he was found guilty of paying gambler Howard Spira to dig up dirt on Yankees star Dave Winfield, the Yankees became the latest organization to give Howe an opportunity to rehabilitate his career, signing him in 1991.

On a bad Yankee team managed by Stump Merrill, Howe was outstanding as he pitched to a 1.68 ERA in 37 appearances, but in December he was busted in Montana on cocaine charges. What began as yet another suspension turned into a lifetime banishment from the game issued by commissioner Fay Vincent.

Or so everyone thought. Howe fought the ruling and baseball’s king of too many chances was inexplicably spared when it was overturned by an arbitrator. The Yankees took Howe back in 1992 and he stayed until his release, his final line in New York showing 229 appearances and a 3.57 ERA.

And then it got weird yet again.

Two days after clearing out his locker, Howe was attempting to go home to Montana but instead wound up in jail, arrested at Kennedy Airport for trying to get a loaded .357 Magnum revolver through the security checkpoint at the Delta terminal.

He was with his wife at the time and he explained to authorities that he knew the gun was in his bag, that it was hers which she had for protection, but that he did not realize it was loaded.

“If it had to happen, I’m glad he was a private citizen and not a New York Yankees employee,” general manager Bob Watson said. “I’m sorry to hear about that. He doesn’t need any other negative things going on in his life.”

Ultimately, as the Yankees were still enjoying the glow of their first world championship since 1978, Howe pleaded guilty to the gun possession charge and was sentenced on Nov. 8, 1996 to three years of probation and 150 hours of community service.

Howe tried one more baseball comeback in 1997, playing for Sioux Falls, S.D. in the independent Northern League, but after 12 games he called it quits.

With his life seemingly on track in retirement, Howe died in a one-car crash in 2006 near Palm Springs, Calif. at the age of 48.

Brian Cashman, who was the Yankees assistant general manager for part of Howe’s time with the team, said when hearing of his death, “I wish more people knew Steve the way I knew him. The Steve Howe I know talked about his kids so much, and he was high energy, he was fun, he loved what he did. He battled an addiction every day, and unfortunately some days he wasn’t successful with it. But the person I knew was someone I liked a lot. He was never a problem within the circle of relationships here.”

NEXT post on May 1: Finally, a game against the Red Sox.