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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Remembering Steve Howe: 1985

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After last out, '81 World Series


It was the summer of 1985. The nation and world witnessed the musical spectacle of Live Aid for African hunger relief on July 13th. This was followed shortly thereafter by the MLB All-Star Game, hosted in Minneapolis three days later. That contest was a joy for me to attend with my great buddy from high school days - so many iconic players (see lineups at previous link) from that era - but the game itself was an incredible snore fest as excitement goes. Minneapolis' Prince was still riding a wave of pop music stardom after his 1984 "Purple Rain" release. It was an undeniably dynamic music scene flowering for Twin Citians, as the world had seemingly become smaller, more unified, and right in their own backyard. Pride, purple and otherwise, was gushing statewide for a population with a chronic need for affirmation and national praise.  That is made obvious in this All-Star pregame 30 min. newscast video from WUSA's (NBC-Minneapolis) broadcast of July 16.



Developments with the local nine at the H.H.H. Metrodome were also part of that equation.


The Tom Kelly era of  prosperity had not yet arrived. The club was merely trying to find a way to win, but getting to respectability was a long road for the Class of '82.


Go ahead. See if you can guess who
was the Twins original 2nd sacker in '61.
(box link at BBRef.) 

Meanwhile, the 1985 season began as a year of hope for Minnesota, which ultimately became one of frustration for the Twins organization and it's fans. The 1984 team had tantalized fans with a playoff run, ultimately falling apart on the season's last weekend like a cheap umbrella in a driving rain (see link, Gary Gaetti story). Then, after the team started out with a 27-35 W-L record under Billy "Slick" Gardner, the Twins made Ray Miller the new manager on June 21st. He brought with him his reputation as the long-time, successful Orioles pitching coach, handy since the first order of business was improving the pitching staff. Frankie Eufemia was the only pitcher with an ERA under 4.20, and the staff overall sat at 4.97. There would be no overtaking the division leading K.C. Royals with that collection of arms. Remember: that record was compiled before the start of the Jose "The Chemist" Canseco / steroids era...

 Clearly, Miller was not a man short on confidence in himself as a pitching Svengali.  His corporate, "all-business" approach appealed to the Twins business hierarchy of Owner Carl Pohlad and team president Howard fox. His predecessor, Billy "Slick" Gardner," was too bourgeois, too glib for their tastes. Miller, instead, was a man of ambition and slick ideas. His cozy relationship with the press and managerial ambitions had put off Baltimore pitchers and fellow coaches. His first idea was to upgrade the talent on Twins pitching staff.  Bert Blyleven was reacquired on Aug. 1 from the Indians, and his pitching was an immediate shot in the arm for the young Twins. But Miller and the braintrust had another move in the works:



If Miller meant  that Steve Howe hadn't been caught red-handed by police searchlights and sirens, scoring blow in some abandoned warehouse district by that "drug-free for 19 months" reference, well...he was technically spot-on. Point being: the Twins were desperate for pitching, and were gambling they could keep Howe on the straight and narrow in calm, bucolic Twins Territory. Miller had been a Miracle Maker with  those elite Baltimore staffs, after all. He might have told you so himself. No matter that Howe's rap sheet was prolific by then. Or that he had pronounced himself clear of his abuses on multiple occasions (only to relapse again and again) and had been suspended by Bowie Kuhn for the entire 1984 season. He was available, and still had a great arm at 27. The Twins were so tantalized by his ability and track record, seeing him only as a left-handed stud commodity, instead of the sick man he was. Desperate times, desperate measures, and the Twins had a new set-up man for Ron Davis.





Vintage Ray. I had to smile reading that last quote - remembering how he could deliver that clinical, thoughtful quote for the media that was long on style, high on the BS meter...


Howe's first appearance as a Twin was fabulous, especially when you consider he'd been off the mound and away from live hitters for 44 days:



Miller pitched Howe 6 times in his first ten days after joining the Twins roster. Considering the layoff, that's a considerable workload; you can't help but think the Twins manager was so tickled, he couldn't help but keep running out his shiny, new toy. As a consequence, Howe was hung with the loss three times in that period - during which time he had to be working out the rust. He'd have these sterling 1-2-3 innings, but also innings where he'd be victimized by his lack of knowledge of AL hitters like Cecil Cooper, or Alvin Davis. A mixed bag, but his talent was obvious. 

With the exception of that first game, we really didn't have a large enough sample size of Howe's past effectiveness over a long period. Witness his Twins stats in summary:

YearAgeLgWLERAGGFSVIPHRERHRBBIBBSOWPBFERA+WHIP
198527AL236.16135019.028161317210194721.842
Generated 1/7/2012.
BF - Batters faced ERA+ -100* [lg ERA/ERA] Adjusted to the player’s ballpark(s).
WHIP - (BB + H)/IP For recent years, leaders need 1 IP per team game played


[View his game-by-game appearances at 
The Steve Howe Files - Classic Minnesota Twins]


That brings us to the night of September 12, 1985. 


The Twins gave Howe permission to appear on ABC's Nightline. I remember watching that episode that evening, feeling particularly proud of Howe for having the courage to go on the show and talk with Ted Koppel and fellow guest Pete Gent about his addiction. The current, widespread use of cocaine, and The Pittsburgh Seven were the context for the episode. His answers were intelligent, and searingly honest. Cocaine, he said, was not the problem in his life. It was life itself:
"Life in general and people and places and things and success a lot of times are people's problems," he said. "At least it was for me.  My sole existence of what I did in life was what I did on the ballfield.. ..When nothing else matters and you don't feel that you're going to be able to perform up to your capabilities and someone gives you an avenue to deaden that pain ... you're going to do what you can do so that people are going to like you and accept you."

 This excerpt from ╬ť╬╣nneapolis-Star Tribune writer Patrick Reusse takes the narrative from there. It's from his blog of July 23, 2011 at 1500ESPN.com; it had the tragic backdrop of Amy Winehouse and Derek Boogard as background context:
"...Steve Howe was mentioned earlier because I've always looked at him as the poster boy for athletes that made claims of sobriety and attempts at treatment that were in actuality complete frauds. 
I was covering the Twins' road trip to Chicago and Cleveland in mid-September of 1985. The Twins had signed Howe, already a renowned cokehead, five weeks earlier. 
The Twins were flying to Cleveland after the game of Sept. 12. Howe was given permission by the Twins to appear on a "Nightline'' panel that night, then fly into Cleveland the next day. The subject was cocaine abuse among athletes. Pete Gent, the former Dallas Cowboy receiver and a recovering addict, was also a guest. 
Howe went to the Chicago television studio, talked about his recovery, then went searching for cocaine. He didn't show up in Cleveland for three days, and then asked the Twins for his release. 
Twin Cities reporters spent much time on phones from Cleveland hotel rooms, trying to find Howe. I did talk to Gent in Michigan. He didn't have a hint as to Howe's whereabouts. 
On the second night in Cleveland, reliever Ron Davis and I ran into one another entering and exiting an elevator. I asked the question of the moment: "Do you know anything about Howe?'' 
R.D. said that he and Howe had been out drinking a couple of nights earlier in Chicago - drinking well past midnight - but it was simply alcohol and Howe remained sincere in his attempt to avoid cocaine. 
I was 4 ½ years removed from treatment at that time. Relying on the information I received in 30 days at St. Mary's Rehab Center, I told R.D. that drinking large quantities of beer was not the best method for Howe to stay away from cocaine. 
And parsing out painkillers to be used in smaller quantities surely wasn't the best way for Derek Boogaard's enablers to greet him one day after his discharge from treatment. 
 P.S.: Howe died in a one-vehicle accident in Montana in 2006 at age 48. There was a trace of meth found in his system. "

Complete fraud? I prefer to think Steve Howe overestimated his ability to control his darkest passions, and that he had no idea what a deep hole he was in. While it's fairly lacking in human compassion, Reusse's post makes it abundantly clear that Howe's companions did him no favors; with no excuses - Steve's participating in the common, jock fraternity hi-jinks makes HIM responsible for his relapse. Ron Davis did not gag and carry him off on those excursions. But I have to wonder: had he the support system, with enlightended, college-educated teammates that players of today have, like Josh Hamilton (and now with Sean Burroughs joining the Twins) - what could he have done with the rest of his career?


Howe grew up in Michigan, in a lower, middle-class family. Going from that, the college atmosphere, and then straight to the media cauldron of L.A. during the cocaine boom, it had to have been a jolt.The history of the L.A. Dodgers is dotted with players who have been linked over time with chemical abuse: Don Newcombe, Lou Johnson, Pedro Guerrero, Darryl Strawberry, Manny Ramirez, Bob Welch, Kenny LandreauxAndrew Lambo... are also on the list with Steve Howe. Them and others I'm sure I've forgotten, playing in a great, beautiful city, but a tough one for young players to navigate...we all want to think we'd be the hard-headed ones, that wouldn't succumb to the pressures, the temptations.  That those other guys had some kind of weak chip. But how would WE handle fame, it pleasures and pains? I'm not sure I'd like to know that answer for myself. 


I'll let my friend, super Dodger Fan and blogger Evan Bladh of Opinions of Kingman's Performance close the post with his personal reminiscences (NOTE: not all links in Evan's piece are functioning - will remedy at some point!):




Dodger fan Evan Bladh (right),  Dodger legend
Tommy Lasorda, Bladh’s wife, Esperanza in 1998.

“Wow, Steve Howe….

In Steve's rookie year with the Dodgers in 1980, he was practically unhittable.  I remember him walking in from the bullpen with a swagger, a real confidence, and he was just a rookie.  He always seemed to have this smirk on his face.  The kind of look that said, "Go ahead and TRY to hit this."

A first round pick of the Dodgers in 1979, Steve had pitched the Michigan Wolverines to the College World Series in 1978.  He pitched for one half season in AA San Antonio and the next year he was the Dodgers closer and eventual rookie of the year [edit note: Howe became a focal point of the World Series Champ ’81 Dodgers bullpen, pitching the last 3.2 innings of the final game].  His numbers as a Dodger were astounding.  His problems with sobriety were tragic.

I can't help but think that if Howe had surfaced in another era…in an era where cocaine wasn't the rage that it was in the early 80's, he could have been a Hall of Famer.  Instead, he's the poster child for the drug abusers in MLB during the 1980's.

I had completely forgot about the "Nightline" situation and his failure to report back to the team after that national TV appearance.  The sad thing about Steve is that he just never could pull himself away from the drug.  He was truly ill and as much as he tried to sober up, I always had the feeling that he thought he could control his addiction and continue to function, even as a casual user.  I have nothing to back that statement up with, it's just an opinion.

I remember that many were simply fed up [with his situation]… I don't think there was much sympathy out there for him nor much of an understanding of addictions like there is today.

I looked back at some LA Times articles that chronicled Howe's departure.  All of the following was mentioned in his obituary on April 29, 2006:

 Howe asked to be released so he could get a change of scenary. "It came down to fight or flight," he said. "Certain people in this town had a lack of understanding towards me, and in this situation I chose the flight instead of the fight."

Lasorda's quote from that time shows how little his addiction was understood.   He said, "I'd tell him, "it"s against the law and it"s harmful to your body." He'd say to me, 'You're right, you're right.'  And then he'd go out and do it."


As good, ol' Herb Carneal used to end his broadcasts, 
I say too: "So long, everybody!" - TT

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