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A Career Of Living Dangerously
Richard Hoffer
February 03, 1992
Steve Howe's 1991 comeback with the New York Yankees was astounding, which makes the latest skirmish in his battle with cocaine all the more confounding
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February 03, 1992

A Career Of Living Dangerously

Steve Howe's 1991 comeback with the New York Yankees was astounding, which makes the latest skirmish in his battle with cocaine all the more confounding

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In the mornings Steve Howe would run his hands over the body of his car and wonder if he'd hurt anyone the night before. This is a ragged and disappointing life, he'd think, feeling his fenders. To the rest of the world, his career in cocaine seemed purely a self-destruction. Six chances baseball had given him! The sheer unrepentance of his life was spectacular. Yet, looking for dents and dings, Howe suspected there were plenty more people at risk than just himself. The thought would make him dead tired.

But what was he going to do? Stop? Just say no? The easy platitudes—the good sense of sobriety—deserted him in an awful defiance of his talents and luck. Here was the one platitude that remained: ''You're terrified to fail," he would say of the addiction, even during that wondrous comeback with the New York Yankees last season, "and afraid to succeed." Even that psychology sounded cheap. But what do we make of it now, this week, with Howe once again scheduled to face ugly questions about cocaine, as he sits in a Montana courtroom instead of on top of the world?

The necessary arrogance of Steve Howe was not always chemical, but it was, one way or another, entirely artificial. Even as he broke in with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980, he seemed all smirk and swagger, staring down the press, poking fingers in chests and just generally aggravating people. Remember what he once said to a blathering Al Campanis, the Dodger general manager? "Play clam, Chief." A rook! Of course, he'd tell you later, he had been frightened beyond comprehension. If you had seen him and his young wife, Cindy, on the team bus that year—and what player traveled with his wife?—all dressed out in polyester in a sea of Dodger silk, so hopelessly out of it, so alone, just staring straight ahead, you might have guessed at his terror.

The user always has a story that makes sense of his addiction, that makes the idea of Howe's passing his hands over sheet metal in later years seem a natural behavior. The first time he used cocaine, really used it, was upon being named Rookie of the Year. He'd fooled around with the stuff before, but he hadn't needed cocaine to pitch. Hadn't needed anything to pitch. He was so focused, so revved up on the mound that any additional stimulation would hardly have been helpful. But the idea of speaking into 50 microphones at a press conference that day crippled him with nausea. "Other people may be willing to look like a dick from time to time," he said later. "But not me." He ducked into the men's room of Little Joe's, Tommy Lasorda's favorite venue for press functions of this sort, and scored his first meaningful hit. Howe then met the press and was calm and poised. The newspapers the next day were very approving, he felt. So cocaine, the new closer in Howe's life, got its first save. A long career was predicted.

As that career unfolded, the cocaine, season by season, lost its therapeutic qualities. From 1980 through '83, Howe was one of the game's most brilliant relievers, his ERA dropping even as his binging increased. But thereafter he was in and out of baseball, more out than in. He missed team planes, snorted on the team bus, snorted in the bullpen, disappeared for days at a time. He was suspended again and again, bounced from rehab center to rehab center and finally, when his 92-mph fastball could no longer cloud even a G.M.'s judgment, banned.

The scale of his failure was impressive. Short of killing oneself, it would be difficult to imagine a man doing more damage to himself than Howe did. He was a public monument to self-destruction. But by 1988, he was gone. All that was left was the question: How had he lasted so long?

Of course the real horror had been private and persisted beyond 1988. If you thought Howe had screwed up his baseball career, you should have seen what he did to his home life. Cindy came to realize that if she didn't go to the games with him, she couldn't count on his coming back. "I couldn't even send him to the grocery store," she said last summer. "It might be three days until he got back with the food." Once after Steve received $1,400 for a speaking engagement and had promptly disappeared, Cindy awoke to find him returned and crouched in the backyard of their California house, vomiting in the grass. He made it indoors but collapsed into a fetal position, twitching. Cindy hustled him off to a private hospital in the high desert for 10 days. This was right before spring training in '85.

The cocaine was inspiring a talent for torment that Cindy, who had known Steve since she was 17, could not have imagined. He had made every addict's eventual discovery: That his habit was all someone else's fault. In this case, his wife's. When Cindy confronted Steve after a four-day binge, his first such disappearance from home, Steve threw it right back at her. "Maybe if you wouldn't be so demanding," he told her, "I wouldn't have to stay out." The cocaine had imparted genius, on the spot. It was the perfect thing to say to a young and insecure wife, a woman already adrift in the world of major league celebrity. They don't call addicts users for nothing.

Cindy was a born victim, all innocence and devotion. Howe had met her while he was still at the University of Michigan. He had gone to Anchorage, Alaska, to play summer ball and had seen her at a party there. His first reaction was unkind: Here's a "little blonde teenybopper" bouncing around drinking Kool-Aid. Still, she seemed attractively rambunctious. While it wasn't a typical date, they once raced high-performance cars through Anchorage until Cindy crashed a curb and bent an axle. There was something to that. After three weeks of this kind of courtship, they were engaged. She was still in high school.

But the education she got, once Steve found cocaine, was strictly postgraduate-level. He left her several times, partly to demonstrate that she was at fault and to gain some leverage in their relationship, partly to enjoy a guilt-free binge. In 1983, just hours after Cindy gave birth to their first child, Chelsi, Steve disappeared again.

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