Latest news about Howe simply sad, but not simple

BASEBALL

December 22, 1991|By PETER SCHMUCK

TC

The headline said more than I wanted to read:

Howe faces cocaine charges

New York Yankees relief pitcher Steve Howe was arrested last week after allegedly giving a Drug Enforcement Agency informant $100 for a gram of cocaine. He pleaded innocent in federal court and was scheduled for trial.

In this country, a person is considered innocent until proven guilty, but this situation is not that simple. Nothing has ever been simple for Howe, whose promising baseball career already has been interrupted by five drug-related suspensions.

The headline was particularly depressing because I covered the first of those suspensions . . . and the second . . . and the third. Howe's drug addiction first became public knowledge when he was a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the team I covered from 1981-83.

That was back when cocaine still was a glamour drug -- nose candy for a new generation of professional athletes who had more money than they knew what to do with. That was before a DEA investigation in Pittsburgh shook major-league baseball to its foundation. Howe was, in a dubious sense, a pioneer of sorts.

The Dodgers tried to help. They successfully had intervened to assist pitcher Bob Welch in his fight against alcoholism. Their employee assistance program had become a model for the rest of professional sports, but Howe would be a much greater challenge.

He underwent treatment and came clean, only to fall back into the black hole of cocaine abuse again and again until he dropped out of baseball and -- for a time -- out of public view.

He came back to pitch for the Minnesota Twins and the Texas Rangers, each time dropping out again. Then, through the miracle of baseball's inconsistent drug-abuse policy, Howe was granted a final chance, with the Yankees, and appeared to be making good.

The last time I saw a headline with his name in it, he had just signed a new contract with the Yankees. He had lost it all and gotten it back. How often does that happen? Who could help but be happy for him?

The newspapers are full of stories about promising athletes who use drugs and throw their futures away. Maryland basketball star Len Bias made the ultimate statement about the danger of using cocaine. He was not the first to die. Not the last.

Howe, the National League Rookie of the Year in 1980, was beginning to look like one of the lucky ones. He came back to sign a 1992 contract that guaranteed him $600,000 and would have made him a millionaire if he had reached all his incentive plateaus.

0$ All he had to do was stay clean.

The Baltimore Orioles got two well-known pitchers for Christmas, and got both for about half of what it would have cost to sign one Kirk McCaskill. The starting rotation is complete, and the club still has one of the lowest payrolls in baseball.

Yes, Mr. Jacobs, there is a Santa Claus.

Right-handers Rick Sutcliffe and Storm Davis arrived just in time to bring some holiday cheer to frustrated Orioles fans. The timing was right, and so was the price.

Sutcliffe, if he's healthy and productive, could be the experienced, 200-inning pitcher the club was looking for to anchor the youthful rotation. Davis is a former 19-game winner who has some adjustments to make if he is to be a winning pitcher again. The Orioles are gambling on both of them, but the risk is modest and the possible payoff substantial.

If both come through, it doesn't take much (maybe a quart of eggnog or two) to envision the Orioles as a legitimate contender in the American League East. They should have Glenn Davis healthy for the whole year. Cal Ripken will be coming off the best all-around season of his career. Ben McDonald and Mike Mussina should be in the mix from Day One. The new Camden Yards stadium will boost both morale and revenue.

But this off-season reconstruction project has not been undertaken in a vacuum. The Orioles have made modest improvements, but there is some question whether they have gained any ground on their divisional competitors.

Yes, Mr. Oates, there is a Grinch.

Toronto Blue Jays general manager Pat Gillick is trying to ruin everything. He signed World Series hero Jack Morris to a rich, multiyear deal and added Dave Winfield to an already productive offensive lineup.

The Boston Red Sox also appear to have made a significant off-season stride, coming to agreement with left-hander Frank Viola. In short, both divisional front-runners have made bold moves that figure to keep the Orioles in their place.

*

The odd man out in last week's flurry of free-agent signings might have been right-hander McCaskill, who was negotiating with the Orioles and Red Sox until both teams came to terms with other free-agent pitchers on Thursday.

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