Steve Howe, who died this week in an early-morning traffic accident, was one of the most memorable Dodgers, and one of the most frustrating and tragic. The Dodgers didn't have a bad 1980s — they were the only baseball team to win two World Championships in that decade — but I'll bet they would have been much more successful if this great lefthanded closer could have stayed sober.
Rookie of the Year in 1980, key to the 1981 team's triumph, Howe entered drug rehab after the near-miss of the 1982 season, was suspended several times in 1983 (but still managed to earn 18 saves with an ERA of 1.44), missed 1984 entirely after the baseball commissioner suspended him, returned in 1985 but was dumped in July after failing to show up for a couple of games.
After bouncing around the minor leagues and a few false starts with major league teams from 1985-91, Howe had a renaissance with the New York Yankees in the 1990s, but only after enduring another cocaine-related suspension in 1992. Substance abuse continued to give him serious problems even after his baseball career was over. Howe's was a case that traditional rehab methods could not cure — although I have no knowledge of whether he was still a user at the time of his death.
Losing Howe in 1983 forced the Dodgers to scramble to replace him, left-handed relievers of that quality being rare beasts. Before the 1984 season, they traded a promising starter, Sid Fernandez, to the Mets for left-handed reliever Carlos Diaz. Diaz was a flop, while Fernandez had a good career, and helped pitch the Mets into the 1986 World Series. Before the 1986 season they traded catcher Steve Yeager — admittedly an old coot by this time — for lefty reliever Ed Vande Berg, but Vande Berg wasn't the answer either, and was released after one season.
Bullpen failures plagued the Dodgers in the post-season throughout the 80s, most notably in 1985, when Howe's replacement as closer, Tom Neidenfeuer, gave up two game-winning home runs in consecutive games against the Cardinals, costing LA another World Series shot. Howe, who played with a combination of nervous energy and steely focus, might have fared better in these high-pressure situations. But it was not to be.
To me, Steve Howe was an emblematic figure of the early 1980s as I experienced them. Everywhere I went, all I heard about was cocaine. I know cocaine played a factor in the thwarted careers and busted families of some talented people I worked with. I can think of other friends who got themselves into very stupid and dangerous situations thanks to cocaine, and are lucky to be alive today. Almost without exception, cocaine made people act like jerks. Was anything more boring than being forced to listen to someone prattle on as if they were a genius, when in fact they were just high on coke? I was no Nancy Reagan, but I hated what cocaine was doing to Los Angeles.
Robin Williams' famous line of the era was "Cocaine is God's way of saying you're making too much money," but the people I knew who got involved with cocaine didn't have Robin Williams' income to fall back on. A lot of heartbreak in the 1980s thanks to cocaine. Maybe Steve Howe's Dodger career is only a small heartbreak in the grand scheme of things, but I took it personally. I wish his talent had given him a better, happier life.