Steve Howe was a promising young reliever when he broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980. But although he had the presence and poise to become a star in the bigs, his quick success with the Dodgers was tempered by his even quicker spiral into the world of substance abuse. Howe ended up battling his inner demons as much as opposing batters, and at the end of his career, his most impressive statistic was his record number of drug-related suspensions (seven).
A flame-throwing rookie with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Howe tallied up 17 saves in 1980, breaking Joe Black‘s club rookie record for saves. The first-year also notched seven wins with a 2.65 ERA, and was awarded Rookie of the Year honors at the close of the season, beating out Bill Gullickson of the Expos.
The reliever pitched considerably well with LA for the next two seasons, getting quality time out of the bullpen, registering ERAs in the mid-2.00s. 1983 started on a high note, as Howe held his opponents scoreless through his first 14 games. But then on May 29, 1983 came another “high note” — Howe checked himself into a drug rehabilitation center to get treatment for cocaine addiction. In the winter before, the reliever had received help for substance abuse, and this relapse would be an omen of his inability to kick the habit. Howe was released from the center in late June, but was again suspended in late September after missing a club flight to Atlanta and refusing to take a urinalysis test. Howe actually finished with admirable stats, 18 saves and a 1.44 ERA, but despite his prowess on the mound, Howe was seen as trouble.
After Howe tested positive for cocaine three times in November, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the 1984 season to protect the “image of baseball.” Howe wasn’t the only player going to the sidelines for substance abuse, as Royals players Willie Wilson, Willie Aikens, and Jerry Martin all failed their own tests, setting off a trend in the 1980s that would see dozens of players enter clinics and absorb suspensions and fines.
Howe came back in 1985 with the Dodgers, appearing in 19 games before they released him in July. The reliever was picked up a month later, when the Minnesota Twins were searching for help in their bullpen. Howe floundered there, earning a 6.16 ERA over 13 games, and was released in September.
Howe’s next five years read like a page out of Kerouac’s On the Road. Howe jumped between two independent teams, a Mexican League team, the Texas Rangers, and unemployment, interspersing his organized baseball stints with collapses into drug dependency. In February 1991, Howe signed a minor-league deal with the New York Yankees, and as the tradition with donning the pinstripes, attempted to clean up his act.
But Howe was nailed again in June 1992, this time for purchasing a gram of cocaine in Montana. Commissioner Fay Vincent gave Howe a lifetime ban for violating a drug aftercare program, and the righty became the first player ever to be given a lifetime ban for substance abuse. That November, Howe was reinstated when an arbitrator argued that the pitcher depended on the cocaine for helping him with his Attention Deficit Disorder. The Bombers re-signed him, and after a brief stint in the minors, he was back at Yankee Stadium.
After the rest of the Yankee bullpen collapsed in 1994, Howe was given the job as full-time closer. He responded with aplomb, recording a 1.80 ERA and 15 saves. The next year he flopped, and his ERA rose three runs as he was relegated to set-up man. After going 0-1 with a save and a 6.35 ERA in 17 games in 1996, Howe was released.