It’s rare in life for a person to receive a second chance when presented with an opportunity.
That’s not the case for some pro athletes.
Former Major League Baseball pitcher Steve Howe had seven chances.
During a 12 year career where he was employed by four different teams, Howe was repeatedly suspended by his employers and MLB.
Each suspension was caused by his abuse of alcohol and cocaine.
A life filled with potential and promise was cut short by Howe’s inability to say ‘no.’
Former pitcher Steve Howe was born on this day in 1958.
Howe was drafted out of the University of Michigan in June of 1979 and won the 1980 NL Rookie of the Year for the #Dodgers. His problems were well documented but he could pitch. He passed away in 2006. pic.twitter.com/79Ig2HyfKt
— ⚾ J. Daniel ⚾ (@JDaniel2033) March 10, 2021
This is the story of the life and tragic death of Steve Howe.
Early Life and College “Decision”
Steven Roy Howe was born on March 10, 1958 in Pontiac, Michigan.
His father, Virgil, had been a pitcher in the semi-pro leagues and instilled a love of the sport into Howe at a young age.
Whenever he wasn’t playing baseball, Howe was involved with a rough crowd that engaged in a less-than-ideal lifestyle.
However, it was the lifestyle characteristic of the rough and tumble streets of Pontiac.
“I used to fight at least four times a week,” he said. “There was crime around, drugs, you name it. We were all working-class people. I didn’t give anybody any trouble, but I didn’t take any. I’ve got lots of scars.”
In between fights, Howe’s father pushed him to excel in baseball so he could go to college.
“He made sure I went to college,” Howe said. “If I didn’t go, he would have kicked my butt.”
Years later, Chris Howe (one of Steve’s younger brothers) elaborated on his brother’s relationship with their father.
“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.”
That was only part of the incentive for Howe.
He continued to work on his sizzling fastball and tinkered with a sinker pitch that excited college scouts.
While pitching lights out on the diamond, Howe did just well enough in the classroom that he accepted a scholarship to play at the University of Michigan.
Pitching for the Wolverines
After arriving in Ann Arbor, Howe quickly developed into one of the best pitchers in college baseball.
His freshman season saw the Wolverines finish just above .500 with a 22-19-1 record.
In 1977, Howe and his Michigan teammates improved to 33-15 and an appearance in the Mid West Regional tournament.
Howe was also named to the All-Big Ten team.
At the end of his second season, Howe was ready to leave school, convinced he was a sure-fire pro.
Howe was so convinced he would be drafted that he let his studies slide and nearly flunked out of Michigan.
Thankfully, his fiance, Cindy, convinced Howe to buckle down and return for a third season.
It would prove to be a wise decision.
— Tony Paul (@TonyPaul1984) March 25, 2019
That year, Michigan went 30-17 and made the College World Series tournament.
After defeating Baylor in the first round, the Wolverines lost to USC 11-3 in the second round.
Howe had continued his dominance on the mound during the ‘78 season and was named to his second All-Big Ten team.
In his college career, Howe won 31 games (the most in program history) and posted a 1.80 ERA.
Drafted by Los Angeles
Looking back, another year in college most likely improved his draft position.
With the 16th overall pick of the 1979 MLB Draft, the Dodgers selected Howe.
He was sent by LA to their Double-A team in San Antonio where he made 13 starts.
Howe did so well in his short time in Texas that the Dodgers invited him to spring training the following February.
In an effort to show the coaching staff what he could do, Howe showed up weeks early.
He worked diligently and impressed manager Tommy Lasorda and his new teammates.
Sad this dude couldn't stay off of drugs. I seen him pitch at VeroBeach, He was a great relief pitcher…
Steve Howe. pic.twitter.com/8SNXHJm2Uj
— Patrick McGuire (@patrickdMcGuir2) October 7, 2020
Because Howe was one of only two left handed pitchers on the roster, (and he proved himself in spring ball) he made the team.
Howe’s ability and confidence in himself eventually led to him being named the team’s closer by May of 1980.
“I’ve never seen a young fellow who has the kind of poise he has,” said pitching coach Red Adams. “He’s had adversity, but it doesn’t seem to bother him.”
By the end of LA’s 92-71 season, Howe had pitched over 84 innings, posted a 2.66 ERA and saved 17 games.
In what seemed like a yearly occurrence for the Dodgers, Howe was named the National League’s Rookie of the Year by MLB.
Howe and the Dodgers beat the Yankees; an All-Star Appearance
The 1981 Dodgers were a loaded team.
Not only did the team trot out Howe, but they also had Rick Sutcliffe and another young phenom, Fernando Valenzuela.
In the midst of “Fernandomania,” the ‘81 Dodgers put on a clinic that year.
After eliminating the Astros and Expos in the first rounds of the playoffs, LA faced the mighty Yankees in the World Series.
Howe took his 5-3 record as a starter, eight saves and a 2.50 ERA into the Yankees series and played with no fear.
While on the mound for the final 3.2 innings during Game 6, Howe held the Yankees scoreless.
In memory of former @Dodgers pitcher and 1981 World Champion Steve Howe:
Born March 10, 1958. pic.twitter.com/bCJYyGCHdw
— Dodgers Archive (@DodgersArchive) March 11, 2021
That led to the clinching 9-2 victory that sealed the Series title for the Dodgers.
The following year, Howe continued mowing down batters.
He pitched 99.1 innings, had a 7-5 record as a starter, 13 saves and a 2.08 ERA.
Although LA failed to make the postseason in 1982, Howe made his first (and only) All-Star Game appearance.
At the close of the ‘82 season, he was one of the best closers in the game and poised to join the pantheon of all-time greats.
It turns out that, while Howe was experiencing success on the mound, his personal life was unraveling.
For some time, unknown to the public, Howe had struggled with substance abuse.
During the offseason after 1982, instead of enjoying his success, Howe was urged by Cindy (now his wife), to enter rehab for both alcohol and cocaine use.
Unbeknownst to fans and some teammates, Howe’s substance abuse and career had overlapped.
In interviews shortly after his time in rehab, Howe admitted that he had used cocaine, “before games, during games, after games, even once on a day he pitched.”
His time in rehab looked like a success during the first part of the 1983 season.
Howe had a 4-7 record as a starter, but racked up 18 saves and a 1.44 ERA.
Steve Howe (March10,1958–April28,2006)American professional baseball relief pitcher,pickup truck rolled over in Coachella, and he was killed pic.twitter.com/zTnkd1TREa
— NoT🖤ForgotteN (@the_memorypage) August 23, 2017
Just when things looked rosy, the wheels came off in late May.
As Cindy was about to give birth, Howe’s stress in pitching for the Dodgers and preparing to be a father took its toll.
He found himself abusing drugs and alcohol again and reached out to the team for help.
“For him to stand up and say, [rehab] didn’t work, and go back in, it takes a hell of a man to do that. It takes a man to admit that to the public twice. I’m proud of him,” said teammate Dave Stewart.
Howe returned in June, was fined by MLB $54,000 for his repeated substance abuse, and then picked up where he left off.
For the next three months, Howe crushed opponents and looked like his old self.
Then, in late September, he missed a flight to Atlanta.
When he did show up, the Dodgers were suspicious and ordered Howe to take a drug test.
He refused and the team fined him another $54,000 and suspended him for the remainder of the season.
Further drug testing in the winter found Howe guilty of cocaine use yet again.
MLB had enough and Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended Howe for the entire 1984 season.
Starts and Stops
In 1985, Howe returned to the Dodgers but did not do well.
Making matters worse, he arrived late for games and sometimes went AWOL.
By July, the Dodgers had their fill and released Howe.
During interviews, he seemed relieved to leave LA, implying that the many vices of the city were not good for him.
It probably didn’t help that some of Howe’s Dodger teammates enabled his substance use.
“I couldn’t see where it was a problem. It wasn’t affecting his performance,” admitted Stewart.
Fellow bullpen member Tom Niedenfuer wasn’t much better.
“…you don’t have any responsibility but to yourself . . . My idea is to do my job, keep my mouth shut and worry about yourself. It’s a tough business, and that’s what this is, a business.”
Lasorda shared his opinion of Howe’s substance abuse issues after his dismissal.
“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.”
The Minnesota Twins gave Howe a chance later that summer.
While with the Twins, Howe did an interview on the television program Nightline with host Ted Koppel.
During the interview, Howe stunned Koppel by admitting that cocaine was not just part of his life, it was his life.
“Life in general and people and places and things and success a lot of times are people’s problems,” he added.
Not long after the television appearance, Howe disappeared from the Twins for 72 hours.
When he returned, the Twins showed him the door.
Wandering the Proverbial Desert
The next team to sign Howe was the San Jose Bees of the Independent League in 1986.
After over a month of terrible outings, Howe failed another drug test in May and was suspended.
Upon returning a month later, he failed another test in July and was given his release.
A Japanese league team, the Seibu Lions, wanted to sign Howe, but eventually pulled their offer after finding out about his past.
In late July of 1987, the Texas Rangers signed Howe to a minor league deal.
Estaba leyendo que un día como hoy, en 1987, los @Rangers firmaron como agente libre a Steve Howe y así el zurdón voló de Villahermosa, para integrarse a los texanos, luego de quemar la @LigaMexBeis con los en aquel entonces Ganaderos de Tabasco… Traka Traka pic.twitter.com/HgxU8wOico
— Dioscorides Zurita (@DioscoZurita) July 12, 2021
New MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth threatened the Rangers several times not to sign Howe, but the club ignored his requests.
Howe pitched like his old self for the remainder of the ‘87 season and Texas signed him to a $1 million contract for 1988.
He never received a dime of the Rangers contract after he relapsed again in January of 1988.
Howe’s alcohol use and failure to attend a workout with the team spelled the end.
Not only did the Rangers release him, Howe was indefinitely suspended by MLB.
“It just shows the power and sinister nature of addiction,” said Rangers pitching coach Tom Grieve “He gave up a contract for $1 million.”
For the next three years, Howe drifted in and out of baseball.
Amidst rehab for a shoulder injury, Howe pitched for independent teams in Montana and California.
He would be reinstated by then MLB Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1990, but no teams offered Howe an opportunity.
During his time away from the majors, Howe and his agent kept in touch with Yankees general manager Gene Michael.
They promised the GM that Howe was clean and ready to play.
However, Michael rebuffed all attempts for a try-out.
Taking matters into their own hands, Howe, his wife and agent showed up one day at New York’s training camp.
Howe asked for an opportunity to prove his worth.
In an attempt to humor him, the Yanks tasked a catcher to throw with Howe for a few minutes on a side field.
What they saw shocked the coaching staff.
Howe was on his game.
— Chris Morris (@BurrowDweller73) March 10, 2020
The following day, he was signed by New York and Michael immediately went on the defensive in response to reporters’ questions.
“He’s getting a chance because he’s good. There’s always a need for left-handed pitching,” Michael told reporters.
Suddenly, Howe was the come-back story of the year.
During an interview, he expressed relief for getting another opportunity to play the game he loved.
“This is what partially has kept me going, the dream that I might come back, “ he said. “Everybody likes a success story, a comeback story. It restores the hope of people who might be down.”
In 1991, Howe pitched a limited season with the Yanks and had a 3-1 overall record with three saves and a 1.68 ERA.
He did well enough that New York signed him to a one-year, $600,000 deal for 1992.
Suspended (and Reinstated) Again
The good vibes lasted until December.
While traveling in Montana, Howe was found by sheriff’s deputies to be in possession of cocaine.
He had also been involved in a single vehicle collision with a light pole and fled the scene.
As both cases were pending, Howe pitched for the Yankees in 1992.
He put together a 3-0 season with six saves and a 2.45 ERA before MLB came calling.
Commissioner Vincent lowered the hammer and banned Howe for life stemming from his repeated substance abuse.
— WSJ New York (@WSJNY) June 24, 2014
It was the seventh time Howe had been suspended from baseball.
Of course, the “lifetime” suspension did not last long.
Thanks to an arbitrator, Howe was reinstated in November of 1992.
Final Years with New York
One of the conditions of Howe’s return was the requirement that he would have to submit to drug testing every other day.
The frequent tests were enough of a deterrent that Howe stayed clean.
For the next three years, he would be a dependable asset for the Yanks.
In 1994, he was the team’s primary closer and posted 15 saves and a 1.80 ERA.
Howe lost the closer job in 1995 to John Wetteland and was moved to a set-up role.
He was not effective as a middle reliever and ended the season with a 4.96 ERA.
1996 would be the end of Howe’s ride in the big leagues.
— Julio Vazquez (@MrTicaSlayer) January 4, 2019
After a horrific start to the season (12 runs in his first 17 innings), he was released in June.
Meanwhile, New York would eventually win the World Series later that year.
In 1997, Howe tried a comeback with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League.
The comeback was short lived and Howe retired for good.
During his 12 years in the bigs, Howe had an overall ERA of 3.03, 91 saves and a 47-41 record as a starter.
He appeared in one World Series, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and was an All-Star in 1982.
Retirement and Death
After exiting the game, Howe started a framing business based in Arizona and also founded an energy drink business.
He primarily worked in the Lake Havasu area and would return to his home in Valencia, California.
On April 28, 2006, Howe was returning home when his truck swerved off the road, entered the median, and rolled several times before coming to a stop.
Because he was not wearing a seat belt, Howe was ejected from the vehicle and killed.
A toxicology report later showed methamphetamine in his system.
Howe was only 48 at the time and was survived by his wife, Cindy, and two children, Chelsi and Brian.
Despite the struggles that plagued him during his playing career, Howe was remembered fondly by those that knew him.
“I wish more people knew Steve Howe the way I knew him,” Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman said after learning of Howe’s passing. “His struggles in life were well documented, but he always tried to fight through them, and I will always respect that.”