Sunday, April 30, 2006

Howe's Death Sad, But Not Surprising

Steve Howe: Always pitching screwballs in life

I'm not a gambler, but I wouldn't have given you a plugged nickel on a bet that Steve Howe would have lived a long life.

Howe, 48, the Clarkston (MI) High School and University of Michigan graduate and former big league pitcher, died early Friday morning when his truck rolled over in California. The single
vehicle crash is under investigation -- just like how most of his major league career was spent.

Howe was handled very poorly by the sport that employed him. He was given chance after chance, following suspension after suspension, due to his chemical and alcohol dependencies. He was treated exactly how you should NOT treat an addict: With repeated welcomes back, when instead his baseball career should have been shuttered forever. Then maybe he would have worked harder to kick it. As it was, baseball always had the ruler out, ready to slap on his wrist, and Howe must have known it.

The self-destructive athlete, or coach, or manager, is aptly described because that's exactly what happens -- sooner or later. We may have been saddened at the news of Billy Martin's death on Christmas Day 1989, in another single vehicle accident -- this one involving alcohol, but how many of us were shocked? Or even mildly surprised? Were we stunned when Martin's drinking buddy, Mickey Mantle, died from a destroyed liver?

Those are just two examples, and in just baseball. Those that live hard usually die hard. It's never more true than in music, movies, and sports -- careers in which money is plenty, opportunities are tempting, and caution is discarded.

The time of Howe's death -- 5:55 a.m. local time -- and the fact that it was a single vehicle rollover, suggests possible alcohol or drug involvement. It wouldn't be anything close to a surprise, of course, for Howe was suspended several times by MLB for drug and/or alcohol abuse. In between penalties, however, Steve Howe was a pretty good pitcher -- a lefthander who was the 1980 Rookie of the Year. He stuck in the big leagues thanks to pitching lefthanded and for his ability to work effectively in the late innings. Unfortunately, Howe wasn't able to work as effectively at his own life.

Another Dodger who attended a Michigan school, Bob Welch (Eastern Michigan University), also had his share of off-the-field problems -- brought on by his alcoholism. But Welch sought out help, overcame it, and resumed his career to the tune of 17 seasons. With Steve Howe, you never got the feeling that he truly and seriously confronted his demons head on. And with MLB constantly swinging the door open for him, why should he have? Baseball was an enabler. Howe was suspended six times during his career, before finally being permanently kicked out by Commissioner Fay Vincent in 1992.

After his ban, Howe had to undergo testing to determine whether he had a medical disorder.

"I'm just jumping through hoops," said Howe at the time. "I've done what I've been told to do through the whole thing. I've upheld every bargain. I don't look at this one way or the other. I'm just tired of the whole situation."

Read those words again, and you'll see why he was doomed.

So Steve Howe is dead, not making it to 50 years of age, and baseball should be partly held accountable. Even if the investigators of the crash that killed him determine that no alcohol or drugs contributed to the accident, that doesn't change the fact that MLB failed itself -- and Howe, too -- by not taking a more strict approach toward his repeated offenses. For even if the crash that killed Howe Friday was simply an unfortunate accident, it won't take away from the feeling that if it wasn't this, it would have been something else that did him in before he became an old man -- something that would, indeed, have been caused by illegal use of substances.

It always gets the self-destructive, in the end -- unless an attempt at intervention is made. Then maybe they have a chance at cheating death a while longer.


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