Howe knows toughest pitch is facing himself


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Steve Howe was 33 yesterday, and that surprised some people.

"I made it," he said. "A whole lot of people lost bets on that one."

Howe is a non-roster pitcher for the New York Yankees. That surprises some people, too. And, of course, there are the ones, an entire new generation, who don't know enough about Howe to be surprised.

He is, to re-introduce him, the king of self-destruction.

From National League Rookie of the Year in 1980 -- yes, it was that long ago -- Howe became the player most often suspended (five times) in the history of all major-league sports.

His baseball biography most closely resembles a rap sheet. Drugs brought him down, but he's clean now, or so he says. Of course, he has said it so many times before.

He said it in Texas back in '87, and he went out one night in full view of the world and took a drink, violating his contract and his after-care program. The owner of the Rangers had risked a $250,000 fine to sign Howe, who promised he was clean. That was the last time Howe pitched in the major leagues, although he has pitched nearly everywhere else since.

"I don't know if there's anyplace left I haven't pitched," he said. "Maybe Vietnam."

But it's a new day. He's 33 -- "I made it" -- and he's starting over, and the Yankees, though cautious, saw his 90 mile-an-hour fastball and remembered the left-handed relief pitcher he used to be.

"I had a long talk with Gene Michael," Howe said of the Yankees general manager. "Obviously, he had some questions, some concerns, and we talked about them openly.

"Finally, I told him, 'Nobody ever questioned whether I could get people out. They wondered if I'd show up or not.' I can't be more honest than that."

He was suspended once after failing to show for a charity event. He was only chairman of the fund-raising drive.

So much history.

"I know it was me," he said softly.

Howe isn't always soft. In the old days, he was famous for his bravado. If any man ever did, Howe strutted. He loved being Steve Howe, being the closer, being the man. He loved knocking people down and striking people out and believing -- though maybe deep down inside he sometimes didn't -- there wasn't anyone he couldn't face down.

The one person he couldn't face down, of course, was Steve Howe. And how that cost him.

"You know," he said, "it's nobody's ambition to be successful in life and then get hooked on drugs or alcohol. Nobody says this is how I want to end up.

"Some people make it. Some people don't. Some people die. Len Bias, Don Rogers, the list goes on and on."

His eyes had gone moist.

"Some people lose everything," he said. "Believe me, I know."

When he was 21 years old, he came to the big leagues, playing for the Los Angeles Dodgers, and became a star before he knew what it meant. For Howe, it meant a sped-up lifestyle. It meant cocaine. It meant he lost everything, except a wife who stuck by him then and has until today. She helped get him through this.

"I've been clean for two years," he said. "Two years on Jan. 22."

People wanted to believe that before, and they gave him a chance -- if only because of the 90 mile-an-hour heat. They gave him a million chances, and he blew every one. On Feb. 20, he came to show the Yankees why they should give him one more.

"I worked out," he said, smiling now the Howe smile that used to be semi-famous, "and I turned some heads. Came back the next day and turned some more."

They say he has a chance to make the team. Just watching him in the clubhouse, you can see how much he wants it. He looks like the old Howe, kidding with his new teammates, telling them stories of the old days, of how he has come back from exile.

At one point, the conversation turned to the two players who walked out of the Cincinnati Reds' camp.

"One year and they're walking out," Howe said, shaking his head, to teammates standing nearby in the Yankees clubhouse. "They don't understand."

If nothing else, Howe understands. He understands what it means to not have baseball. He understands what it means to be a pariah.

"What hurts the most," he was saying, "is that people think I'm a bad guy. I hear about people in baseball saying I led players astray. I was a closet user. I hid everything I did. The only person I ever hurt was myself."

And now he's back. Maybe this time he'll make it. Somebody wants to give Howe an opportunity, and even that, for some people, is unacceptable. How many chances does he deserve?

"What I tell people," Howe said, "is that I'd give your son a chance. And I would. You talk about a new lease on life. I've got one in the New York Yankees. Whether or not I make the team, I've won because I'm here.

"I got here because enough people loved me, because enough people said they loved me in spite of myself. I had hit bottom. I had lost my vision, lost my desire. Finally, something clicked in me, and I understood what I had to do."

As he talks, you want to believe him. He's a likable guy anyway, and when you look him in the eye, you see the suffering there and you see the need to be believed, and, if you knew him when he was young and innocent and so sure of his own invulnerability, you can't help but root for him. This is the kind of story, after all, where we can use a few more happy endings.

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