Steve Howe, inadvertent executioner

2019-03-25 SteveHoweYankees
Steve Howe.

The Hardball Times has published a striking retrospective of the late Steve Howe, the uber-talented, uber-troubled, uber-addicted relief star of the 1980s who could tie hitters into knots but couldn’t untie the knot of cocaine addiction. And, who inadvertently sealed commissioner Fay Vincent’s doom in 1992.

“We can’t know for certain just what cocktail of mental health issues, genetic disposition, and poor choices led to Howe’s struggles in baseball,” writes Mike Bates in the Hardball Times essay. “But we do know playing baseball for teams that were not equipped to help him get better did not work . . . [T]he problem more than anything else: teams that wanted their player back more than they wanted their player to be well.”

What Bates didn’t address was how Howe’s seventh drug-related incident pushed Vincent out, at last, after the owners continued fuming over the commissioner’s intervention in the 1990 spring lockout, collusion, realignment, revenue sharing, and threatened losses in broadcast monies.

Allowing that baseball’s business might have been a powder keg not of Vincent’s making, Vincent’s tendency, as John Helyar noted in The Lords of the Realm: The Real History of Baseball, was to sit “passively waiting for issues to become a mess instead of getting ahead of the curve on them.” Enough of the owners then thought Vincent was somewhat out of control. Without even trying, Steve Howe helped convince them. And if you didn’t read Helyar’s book you might have missed the details.

Vincent magnanimously allowed the former Dodger relief star (and the National League’s 1980 Rookie of the Year), practically the poster boy for baseball’s cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, back into baseball in time for the 1991 season. His agent, Dick Moss couldn’t find takers including Yankee general manager Gene Michael until Howe and his wife just up and made their way to the Yankees’ spring camp.

Howe convinced someone to provide a catcher so he could show what he still had. The lefthander threw for ten minutes, got himself a non-roster spring training invite, and pitched his way into a new contract.

Considering Howe’s past, that achievement that defied belief. “He’s been clean for two years,” Michael told the New York Times at the time. “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.”

“Our kids adore him,” Howe’s wife, Cindy, told Times columnist Ira Berkow, when Howe pitched his way from the Yankees’ Columbus (AAA) farm into a May call-up. “Everybody likes him. Even my parents, who suffered along with me. Steve’s a wonderful, caring, loving person. He’s just goofy and flaky and likeable and lovable. He’s just been very sick.”

Starting that May, Howe was better than even his vintage self in more ways than one. He appeared in 37 games, finished ten of those games, posted a 1.68 earned run average and a 2.34 fielding-independent pitching rate, and had a sub-1.00 walks/hits per inning pitched rate, until he suffered a hyperextended left elbow that finished his season in August.

Starting 1992 he was almost better: his twenty gigs through 6 June produced a 2.45 ERA/2.69 FIP with a 0.55 WHIP and a 4.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio, -.36 from his 1991 ratio. But it was something that happened during the 1991-92 off-season that took him out: his Montana drug arrest in December 1991. In June 1992 Howe pleaded guilty to trying to possess the drug, and Vincent finally banned him for life as a seven-time loser.

The players’ association filed a grievance based on Howe’s having been clean in numerous 1992 drug tests. Howe’s own agent Dick Moss handled the union’s side of the grievance and, during the 30 June hearing, engaged three Yankee officials—Michael, manager Buck Showalter, and a vice president named Jack Lawn—as character witnesses. Vincent was not amused.

You could forgive Vincent for thinking that Howe was a truly lost cause who’d just made him look foolish. But the way he struck back unnerved everyone around the game, the Yankees in particular. Banning Howe was one thing, but trying to force Michael, Showalter, and Lawn to change their testimony with a strong-arm disciplinary threat was something else entirely.

Showalter was in his Yankee Stadium office preparing for the day’s game against the Royals when Vincent called him and ordered him flatly to be at the commissioner’s office at eleven that morning. “We have a problem,” Vincent said, “with your testimony yesterday.” The same message was communicated to Michael and Lawn, after Showalter panicked to Yankee publicist Jeff Idelson (the future president of the Hall of Fame) and Idelson called Michael at home.

Equipped with a car phone, and after picking up Showalter and Lawn, Michael called the attorney Vincent rejected in a previous, non-related matter, Bob Costello. Costello told Michael there was no transcript of the Howe grievance hearing and, by the way, don’t go into Vincent’s office without a lawyer unless you’ve been taking suicide lessons.

“Keep in mind when you’re in there that there’s only one reason to call you on such short notice,” Costello warned. “Whatever you said yesterday displeases this guy. He wants to bring you in there and have you contradict what you said . . . And I’m telling you, when you decide not to talk about what our testimony was, he’s going to threaten you with discipline.”

Michael, Showalter, and Lawn thought together, more or less, he wouldn’t dare! Oh, yes he would. Vincent told each that he’d “effectively resigned from baseball” because they’d dared to “disagree with our drug policy” by standing as character witnesses for Howe. As he was quoted as telling Showalter, “You work for baseball; you work for this office when you sign a contract.”

All three made a point of telling Vincent they weren’t talking against baseball but for Howe himself. Which must have been ticklish enough for Lawn, a former Marine who’d formerly worked for the Drug Enforcement Agency. But when Vincent asked why Lawn even wanted to testify, he replied, “If a month from now I pick up a paper and see that Steve Howe killed himself, at least I would have known I tried to help.”

When Lawn told Vincent he was sworn to tell the truth, and “only testified in accordance with my conscience and my principles,” Vincent shot back, “You should have left your conscience and your principles outside the toom.” Helyar wrote that the “stunned” Lawn “fumbled in his shirt pocket for something to write on. He wanted to remember Vincent’s words precisely.”

After doing so on an index card, Lawn told Vincent he supported baseball’s drug policy when asked and didn’t contradict Vincent’s suspension power. Vincent’s aide Steve Greenberg actually told Lawn he “should know when you testify that you should say only certain things.” But when Greenberg demanded to know why Lawn spoke of drug addiction as a disease and why he went to bat for Howe? “Well, as I learned in the Marine Corps,” Lawn replied, “you don’t abandon the wounded.”

After debriefing Showalter, Michael, and Lawn by phone after the meeting, Costello called another lawyer with whom he’d been manhandled by Vincent on other Yankee business, Don Amorosa, and Costello gave it to him straight: “This guy has cooked his own goose.”

Vincent’s insistence on the immediate dressing down meeting meant Showalter didn’t get back to Yankee Stadium until four minutes before the game’s first pitch. And it hit the New York press like the grand slam the Royals’ Wally Joyner smashed in the second inning, making it 6-0 Royals. And, like the three-run homer Matt Nokes hit in the bottom of the seventh to help secure the staggering 7-6 Yankee comeback win.

That comeback win was less on the writers’ postgame minds than Vincent’s showdown with Showalter, Michael, and Lawn. Showalter had to stop at a Yankee official’s office to talk about the meeting and the threats and didn’t get to the dugout until the second inning, after Joyner—himself a former Rookie of the Year (with the 1986 Angels)—hit Tim Leary’s 2-0 service over the right center field fence.

Amorosa faced the press after the game and fumed that Showalter, standing right there, wouldn’t surrender to “intimidating tactics by Commissioner Vincent.” The New York scribes couldn’t have cared less if Vincent wanted to mop the streets and the subways with the then-banished Yankee owner George Steinbrenner, but keep your meathooks off the Showalters and Michaels who were trying to re-tool the Yankees back toward greatness.

The press pressure forced Vincent to back off his discipline threats. (He’d originally told all three Yankees they’d have to wait until the following Monday, five days later, before he’d let them known whether he’d execute them.) It also compelled him to order notices in baseball’s clubhouses saying nobody should fear discipline or retaliation from testifying with candor in grievance hearings.

But it also lit the powder keg of Vincent’s own execution. Those owners already itching to dump Vincent got new impetus and allies by his “manhandling of the Yankee Three,” Helyar wrote. “More no-confidence [in Vincent] memos came across [Brewers owner Bud Selig’s] fax machine. The conference callers turned to two big questions. One: How much support did they need to fire Fay Vincent? Two: Could they legally fire him?”

The answers were, in order: A two-thirds majority; and, yes, as long as they paid Vincent for the rest of his contracted term. Vincent said publicly he’d fight to the bitter end if there was one, but privately he discovered he’d lost key survival support from among former holdouts he’d personally helped solve knotty problems in the recent past. He saved the owners the trouble of firing him by resigning in September 1992.

Howe was reinstated after all. Arbitrator George Nicolau ruled that baseball failed to test Howe “in the manner it promised based on Howe’s documented case of attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder,” as Forbes‘s Marc Edelman wrote in 2014. Howe had a none-too-great 1993 but got himself named the Yankee closer for 1994, having a splendid season, the near-equal of his striking 1991-92 work.

But he had a none-too-great 1995, was moved back to a setup role for 1996, and was released in June 1996 after 25 appearances and an obscene 6.35 ERA. He tried one more season in the independent Northern League, with the Sioux Falls Canaries, but called it a career after that 1997 season, after the Giants backed away from signing him following an airport incident in which he was found with a handgun in his luggage.

“Steve Howe was good to me,” now-Hall of Fame Yankee closer Mariano Rivera remembered in 2013, seven years after Howe’s death. “Steve Howe was real good to me. Always was there, making sure I was doing the right things and motivating me always to do what is right and to go with everything that you have.”

Howe could help anyone except himself. There are those who can overthrow drug addiction successfully and those who can’t no matter how often and how hard they try. Howe couldn’t.

Almost ten years after his baseball career ended, working his own framing contracting business in Arizona, Howe was leaving California for home when his pickup truck rolled over in Coachella, ejected him, and landed on him, killing him at 48. Toxicology reports said there was methamphetamine in his system.

The obituaries said everything about how Howe sealed his own fate and almost nothing about how he inadvertently sealed Fay Vincent’s.

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