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April 08, 2014 7:19 am

LAWRENCE AT LARGE: The sad saga of Steve Howe

Written by Tom Lawrence

The story I often tell about Steve Howe is the time he threw a baseball at my head. But more on that later.

There’s a lot of stories about Howe, the talented but troubled pitcher who bounced in and out of the major leagues while battling cocaine and alcohol for 17 years.

The final story is the saddest: Howe was killed April 28, 2006, when he rolled his pickup in southern California and was thrown from the vehicle. He wasn’t wearing a seat belt and his truck was going about 70 mph when it spun out of control.

Howe died like he lived much of his life — fast and recklessly. Although he had repeatedly insisted he had left drugs and alcohol behind him, there was methamphetamine in his system when he died, tests revealed.

Howe was the National League Rookie of the Year as a Los Angeles Dodger in 1980 and pitched in the 1981 World Series, which the Dodgers won when he got the final out in Game 6. But his battles with booze and coke kept him from being as great as he may have been.

Howe was suspended seven times and received several “lifetime” bans that were always overturned. He was a running joke on national TV shows.

But Howe could throw hard, and he was so good that he hung around until 1996, when the Yankees released him before they won the World Series that season. He pitched briefly for the Sioux Falls, S.D., Canaries in the independent Northern League in 1997 before he hung up his glove for good.

I met him in 1998 when I was the editor of the Whitefish Pilot in the northwest Montana town, where he had settled with his wife and kids.

I had moved to Montana in July 1997 and first learned he was there when he wrecked a motorcycle a few weeks later, injuring himself and getting a DUI. Once again, he was his own worst enemy.

I played softball in the same league as Howe and once hit a ball over his head while he was playing right field. He later did the same thing to me in center field.

Howe said he just had to burn me since I had done it to him. It was a local softball league, but to Howe, it was serious business.

I saw him spend 20 minutes with his team in the dugout after a loss. It was a wet, cold night, but Howe went over the game in detail with his squad and urged them to do better. Most of us went home or to a nearby bar for a beer and a burger, but Howe didn’t.

I never saw him touch a drink in the five years I knew him and that was saying something: Whitefish was, and is, a hard-drinking town.

Howe had gotten into trouble there before, getting busted for coke in nearby Kalispell, Mont., after one season. In his autobiography, Howe wrote of his battle to get and stay sober. It was a constant struggle.

By the time I met him, he seemed to have it licked. Howe was holding religious gatherings in his home, helping to coach the high school softball team (his daughter was a star player) and trying to stay out of trouble.

We did several stories on him, including a lengthy profile in 1998 when he said he could still pitch in the big leagues and had teams offering him a job.

Howe also bragged of his domination of Mark McGwire, who was in the news that summer as he smashed 70 homers. I looked it up, and Howe was right. He had handcuffed McGwire.

Howe grinned and palmed a baseball when he told me he threw too hard for Big Mac. Hard-throwing lefty relievers were precious as gold then and now.

Howe threw too hard for me, that was for sure. One summer, a friend bought me five swings against the former NL Rookie of the Year, who was pitching to all comers as a fund-raiser for the local American Legion team. Fastballs only, he promised.

I missed the first, chopped a pair of balls weakly to third and then hit a fairly solid liner into left field. Howe did not like that, I could tell.

On the next pitch, he threw at my head. And smiled. A wide smile. The pitch wasn’t very fast, but it got my attention and lessened my interest in trying to take an aggressive cut.

On the last pitch, Howe threw a slow curve that I flailed at and missed. That made him laugh.

Howe was still competitive as hell. His dad raised him that way, and he was pumped pitching against Reggie Jackson in the 1981 World Series or against a chunky, graying 40ish newspaper editor on a high school field.

I left Montana in 2003 and lost contact with Howe. I hoped for the best for him — beanball or not. Three years later, I saw the news of his fatal crash.

He led a fascinating life, filled with ups and downs, highs and lows. His life was like his career — it ended far too soon.

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