The Tragic Tale of Steve Howe

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Left-handed pitchers are the cats of Major League Baseball because it seems like they get nine lives. No one put those lives to the test more than Steve Howe.

(Jed Jacobsohn/Getty)

The Dodgers drafted Steve Howe with the 16th overall pick in the 1979 draft, sending him and his golden left arm right to Double-A out of the University of Michigan. After 13 minor league starts to finish the year, Howe made the big league roster out of Spring Training the next season as a reliever. By the end of April, he was Tommy Lasorda’s closer.  At 22 years old, Howe threw 84.2 relief innings across 59 appearances and pitched to a 2.66 ERA. He saved 17 games and beat out Bill Gullickson and Lonnie Smith for the NL Rookie of the Year Award.

The work stoppage limited Howe to just 41 appearances and 54 innings in 1981, though he still saved eight games and pitched to a 2.50 ERA. The Dodgers beat the Yankees in the World Series that year, with Howe throwing 3.2 scoreless innings to clinch the title in Game Six. His first All-Star Game selection followed in 1982, as he threw 99.1 innings across 66 appearances, saving 13 games and posting a 2.08 ERA. At 24 years old, Howe had three stellar big league seasons, a Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star Game berth, and a World Series title to his credit. He was a certified star, but then everything started to fall apart.

During the 1982-1983 offseason, Howe underwent treatment for cocaine addiction. He returned in time to start the season, and was his usual dominant self. He allowed just two unearned runs in his first 14 appearances and 22.1 innings, but on May 29th he had to re-enter treatment for his cocaine problem. The club fined him $54k and then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn placed him on three years probation upon his release from treatment in late-June. Two weeks later, the club suspended him after he showed up late to a game, but drug tests came back clean. He was reinstated the next day.

Howe was again brilliant down the stretch, pitching to a 2.14 ERA in 32 games and 46.1 innings after returning to the club following his midseason treatment. Five days after throwing two perfect innings against the Astros on September 19th, the Dodgers suspended Howe indefinitely after he missed the team’s flight to Atlanta. He also refused to take a drug test.

“Howe was unable to give satisfactory reasons for his failure to call the Dodger office to explain the circumstances,” said then-Dodgers vice president Fred Claire. “Howe was asked to take a urinalysis test to detect the presence of prohibited substances, but he refused to take the test.”

The commissioner’s office started an investigation, and Howe’s lawyer advised him to sit out the rest of the season. His Narcotics Anonymous sponsor confirmed that he was under the direction of physician but not at a rehab clinic.

“One thing I can tell you, Steve is not on narcotics,” said Roy Bell, Howe’s attorney. “I can’t afford to have Steve stressed out any more by the fans, the media, the pressure. I don’t think he can take the emotional strain.”

(Photo via

On December 16th, 1983, Kuhn suspended four players for one year due to their use of illegal drugs. Howe was one of the four, but unlike the other three players (Willie Wilson, Willie Aikins, and Jerry Martin, all of the Royals), his case would not be reviewed on May 15th. He’d have to wait the full year. The players union was understandably upset, and they ended up filing grievances on behalf of all four players. Howe eventually settled his grievance and agreed to miss the full year.

“My doctor, my therapist and fellow members of my recovery program have urged me to take more time before subjecting myself to the high emotions and stress of a pennant race,” said Howe in a statement following the settlement.

After sitting out the 1984 season, Howe returned to the Dodgers in 1985 and showed the kind of rust you’d expect after a year-long layoff. He owned a 4.91 ERA though mid-June, then was placed on the restricted list after the team determined he was “incapable of handling his assignment” He failed to show up for a game against the Braves a week after arriving late for a game against the Astros. Drug tests came back negative, however. One week later, the club released him.

Left-handers will continue to get chances though, and a month later the Twins signed him. Howe threw 19 ineffective innings for Minnesota (6.16 ERA) down the stretch, then admitted to team officials in September that he’d relapsed. They released him the next day. Howe spent the 1986 season as an unaffiliated player in the minors, essentially auditioning himself during a 49-inning stint with the Single-A San Jose Bees. The Rangers signed him to a minor league contract in July of 1987, and he went on to throw 31.1 innings (4.31 ERA) for Texas after being called up in early-August.

The Rangers had given Howe a one-year, $1M deal for 1987, but the contract was terminated after he violated the terms of his treatment program and failed to show for a mandatory offseason workout in January. Alcohol, not cocaine, was the problem this time. A comeback attempt in Mexico went nowhere, and it wasn’t until March of 1990 that then-commissioner Fay Vincent allowed Howe to return to the minor leagues under the condition that he participate in a strict aftercare program. He was still banned from the Major Leagues until 1991, however.

Howe spent the 1990 season as an unaffiliated player with the Single-A Salinas Spurs, though he missed time with minor shoulder tear and a not so minor blood clot in his lung. He threw 17 innings for the Spurs, then another 31 in winter ball in Mexico. Howe had not pitched in the big leagues for three full seasons, but then-GM Gene Michael invited him and Len Barker to work out for the Yankees in February of 1991. Barker didn’t show much of anything, but Howe impressed enough that the team officially invited him to camp as a non-roster player.

“He’s getting a chance because he’s good,” said Michael. “There’s always a need for more left-handed pitching … He’s been clean for two years. I asked a lot of people a lot of questions about him, his makeup, the type of person he is. I feel there’s been a lot worse things done in baseball than bringing Steve Howe back. If it was my son or your son, you’d want to give him another chance.”

(Jonathan Daniel/Allsport)

The Yankees were trying to replace the departed Dave Righetti, their long-time lefty closer who signed with the Giants as a free agent. Howe looked sharp in camp, but the team opted to send him to Triple-A Columbus to start the season. His contract allowed them to do so for up to six weeks. He allowed one unearned run in 18 innings for the Clippers, then was rewarded with a callup when the team decided to release the dreadful Andy Hawkins in early-May.

Howe did not allow a base hit in his first 4.1 innings for the Yankees, briefly usurping Steve Farr as closer. He threw 48.1 innings across 37 appearances that year, posting a 1.68 ERA. The old Steve Howe was back, but unfortunately that applied to more than just baseball. The two sides agreed to a new one-year, $600k deal with incentives after the season, but less than two months later he was in trouble again. Howe was arrested six days before Christmas at his home in Montana for cocaine possession, a felony charge. He was arraigned and released, and the Yankees stood by their troubled southpaw.

Federal prosecutors later amended the charge to attempted possession of a dangerous drug, a misdemeanor. The team invited him to a January promotion event at the Javits Center, which was followed by a not guilty plea in February. A few days later Howe struck a light pole with his car and fled the scene, resulting in a $125 fine. His trial was postponed from March 30th to May 5th, and a few days prior to the trial the two sides struck a plea deal. As part of the deal, he pleaded guilty to the attempted possession charge.

While all that was going on, Howe was pitching for the Yankees, and rather effectively as well. He allowed just six earned runs in his first 20 appearances (22 innings), saving six games in seven chances. He wouldn’t appear in another game all season. On June 8th, Vincent banned Howe from baseball for life as a result of the guilty plea. The union filed a grievance claiming the suspension was “without just cause within the meaning of the basic agreement and arbitration panels’ decisions in the area of disciplinary suspensions.”

The grievance went to arbitration in November, which resulted in Howe’s reinstatement. The Yankees brought him back for the 1993 season, and as part of the terms of his reinstatement, he was drug tested every other day. Howe missed time with an ankle injury that season, but otherwise stayed out of trouble. He threw 50.2 innings across 51 appearances, though his ERA was unsightly 4.97. He returned to the Bronx in 1994, missed some time with a groin injury, and pitched to a 1.80 ERA in 40 innings. He’d saved 15 games in 19 chances before the work stoppage. As a reward, the Yankees exercised their $2.3M club option and kept him for 1995.

Howe, now 37, was required to maintain “legitimate employment in a structured environment” per the terms of his probation stemming from the 1992 drug charge, so the Yankees put him to work in the ticket office during the strike in early-1995. He earned a $772 a week living allowance. Frustrated by the strike, Howe spoke about retiring or crossing the picket line and becoming a replacement player in March, but he did neither. The strike ended on April 2nd, and Howe reported to camp with all the other Yankees.

(Bob Sherman/AP)

The recently acquired John Wetteland took over at closer while Howe struggled in middle relief following the work stoppage. He posted a 4.96 ERA in 56 games and 49 innings, and rumors surfaced in July that he was distributing amphetamines to teammates. Nothing ever came of it, though. Howe returned to the Yankees in 1996, but at 38 years old and with a drug-abused body, he was basically done. He allowed a dozen runs in his first 17 innings of the season, and on June 22nd, the Yankees released him.

Two days after being released, Howe was arrested at JFK Airport when security found a loaded .357 Magnum in his suitcase. His probation was over by then, and he ultimately pleaded guilty to gun possession and was sentenced to another three years’ probation and 150 hours of community service. The Giants had agreed to sign him, but backed out following the arrest.

Howe attempted a comeback in 1997 with the Sioux Falls Canaries of the independent Northern League, but after 13.2 innings, he gave up. His baseball career was over. The former World Series clinching closer retired with a 3.03 ERA and 97 saves in 606 innings spread across 17 years and 12 seasons. In 229 games for the Yankees, he pitched to a 3.57 ERA in 227 innings. Baseball-Reference lists Howe’s career earnings as $8.525M, a pittance compared to what he could have earned if it wasn’t for his addiction and seven suspensions.

A motorcycle accident put Howe in intensive care with collapsed lungs and a ruptured trachea in August of 1997, and he was later charged with drunk driving in connection to the accident. Charges were later dropped because prosecutors determined that his blood test was obtained improperly, however. He recovered and managed to stay out of the public eye for nearly a decade.

Howe, who was married with two kids, got into the energy drink business and owned a company in Arizona after baseball. He was driving from Arizona to his home in California on April 28th, 2006 when his pickup truck left the road and rolled several times in the median. Howe was ejected from the vehicle and killed. Toxicology reports showed that he had methamphetamine in his system at the time of the accident. He was 48. Having come back from seven drug-related suspensions and one motorcycle accident, Howe’s ninth life was his last.

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  • Robinson Tilapia

    You rooted extremely hard for Howe to pull through because you knew how damn good at baseball he could be. The demons were just too much, though.

    When Howe was good, we was awesome, and he was one of the brightest spots of some tough times for the Yanks.


    • Trent

      Demons my eye. The guy was a drug addicted bum. White trash with a nice paycheck. He deserved everything he got. I don’t feel sorry for anyone who keeps getting chances like he did and just snorts or drinks them away.

      • KnowtheTruth

        Casting a stone? Are you without sins – I think not…Shame on you Mr. Righteous

  • Robinson Tilapia

    “he was awesome.” Sorry.

  • Andy in Sunny Daytona

    I’m no drug expert by any means, but it seems like cocaine in Los Angeles during the 80’s was no joke. He probably got his coke from the guy Paul Reubens played in “Blow”.

    Maybe not.

    • Cris Pengiucci

      I remember Howe’s time with the Yankees well. It seemed odd he kept getting more chances despite his drug issues, however this was the 80’s/early 90’s, and drugs, cocaine in particular, was quite popular. While he did seem to get harsher treatment than others, he always found a way back in. What a shame that he ruined his career.

      I noticed this line and it stuck out. In 1982 Howe threw

      99.1 innings across 66 appearances

      What closer would do that now? Time were different in many ways.

  • Brian in NH

    “Left-handed pitchers are the cats of Major League Baseball because it seems like they get nine lives. No one put those lives to the test more than Steve Howe.”

    are you sure its not because of the hilarious videos people make of them? not to mention the countless cheezburger memes.

    • Robinson Tilapia

      I can haz Royce Ring?

  • RetroRob

    Sorry story with a tragic ending, but great write-up.

    One thing I wonder is why the Dodgers made him a reliever. He was a power lefty, #1 draft pick, #16 overall, who went straight to AA, who pitched quite effectively as a starter. Teams back then didn’t use #1 picks on players they thought were going to be relievers, yet that’s exactly what the Dodgers did the following spring training.

    I’m guessing he filled an immediate need as a reliever, but I wonder if the Dodgers made a mistake doing that. I always wondered the same about Billy Wagner.

  • Slu

    Great article and great series of retro articles. It has been nice to revisit my formative years as a Yankees fan. I was 10-20 from 86 to 96, so I remember a lot of this quite well. My worthless baseball card collection from this time also helps!

    • Robinson Tilapia

      Damn you, Topps, Fleer, and Donruss, for allowing all of us pre-teens to have the same exact great idea at the same time.

      *Throws entire 1985 set out window*

      • Forhorn Leghorn

        How many Shooty Babbitt’s did you have from the 1982 Topps set? I had at least 30.

  • Mike

    Minor typo in the list of Royals suspended: It’s Willie Aikens, not Willie Atkins.

    • Mike Axisa


    • Forhorn Leghorn

      not to nitpick, but its actually “Willie Mays Aikens”!

  • Matt :: Sec110

    “He was driving from Arizona to his home in California on April 28th, 2006 when his pickup truck left the road and rolled several times in the median.”

    Anyone else think this sounds weird…he car “left the road”…like it just out of nowhere what thrown up into the air and into the median…did he lose control? fall asleep? swerve?

    • Jimmy

      “he car ‘left the road’…”

      Also sounds funny.

      • James d.

        It’s police terminology, somewhat, but I think it’s often used when it’s unclear or impossible to know whether it was the result of a swerve, falling asleep, etc.

        • Matt :: Sec110

          fair enough, makes sense, it just sounded funny either way.

      • Matt :: Sec110


        • Jimmy


  • Opus

    I remember a quote of his where he said telling a cocaine addict they can’t use drugs is like telling someone with diarrhea they can’t use the bathroom.

  • Robinson Tilapia

    I will honestly say that I hope these features become more than something to fill the time during a slow news stretch. Much of what I’ve read in the past week is really among the best writing I’ve seen on this blog, or on any Yankee blog. We spend a lot of time dissecting, and re-dissecting stats and, while there is of course a time and place for that, looking back at even the not-so-distant past and pulling out those interesting historical nuggets we may have already forgotten just makes for great reading. I’ve now read this particular post about five times over.

    Would still love to see a similar piece on the rotation pieces that came and went between ’89 and ’92.

    • Fernando

      +1. Agreed, this has been a welcome chance to fill in the slow news stretch. It’s also been great to read articles/comments that have nothing to do with Jesus Montero. Yes, I know I just mentioned him, but it’s good to get a break.

  • Alibaba

    I cannot but wonder what could have been if he did not get addicted. What a waste!

  • Matt DiBari

    Met Steve Howe in Baltimore in 1995 when I was eight years old. We happened to be staying in the Yankees hotel and I was an autograph hound. When we spotted Howe, my dad warned me that he might not be the nicest guy, but still let me ask for an autograph. He was in the middle of a conversation, but still signed for me, which was a marked improvement over guys like Reggie Jackson (who ran away) and Boomer Esiason who was just a total [insert curse word here]

  • gageagainstthemachine

    I’m a Yankee fan born and raised in Montana (during those awful late 80s-early 90s years). I remember him coming up in the news several times related to drugs. Not the way you want your favorite team in the world to make your local newspaper.

  • Scott

    It’s unfortunate to see talent go to waste but I don’t see his case as “tragic”: this is a guy who, unlike 99% of folks with additions, had every advantage — from instant access to high-quality treatment, to a high-pay high-status job he could keep reporting to on his 2nd through 8th chance. He blew it; this record of near-instant relapses looks like someone who never even tried to stay clean – unlike high-effort addicts who regrettably relapse occasionally but nowhere near this constantly. It’s notable that Howe died while driving high, and his car-smash-leave-the-scene stunt obviously was a driving under the influence too; so I think we should view him as a serial drunk driver, not someone worthy of our sympathy — because it’s just good luck that he killed himself before killing anyone else.

    • KnowtheTruth

      Wrong, Everyone is worthy of our compassion… Addiction is something that you cannot begin to understand unless you yourself have to deal with it… What is really sad about Steve Howe was that no one within his family or circle of friends took the initiative to get involved and set him on the right road. Everyone wants to be around people when everything is going well, but when things are not right that is the only time when you find out who is for real and who will be there when you need them to be…

  • Sue

    What is so mis understood is so many including my own brothers, Steve and countless other males who were raised in the 60’s & 70’s who were diagnosed as “hyperactive” now called ADD we’re placed on Ritalin, this is a powerful drug that was cramed down these children’s throats from a young age until they turn 18, every single day. Then magically at 18, they cut off these drug addicted children, the doctors, parents and schools created, so now they don’t feel right, so they self medicate, on marajauna, Cocaine or whatever they can get there hands on. Steve was a wonderful humane being with a very supportive wife and family. He had many friends and was a good guy. I see the same situation happening to the foster children, these poor kids end up homeless on the street – they don’t have a support system once they turn 18.

  • Chaahhlie

    Awesome piece.