Steve Howe

April 28, 2008

What do you do when you feel like there’s something missing? When I was a kid my answer to that question often had a lot to do with baseball. Say it was a late Sunday morning, nothing on TV, the sports section read, the Sunday list of batting and earned run averages all but memorized, the older brother distantly ensconced in a science fiction tome, the parental figures weeding in the garden or working on the never-quite-done house or living in a faraway New York City apartment. I’d get this vague Sunday ache, this feeling like something was missing. I had two ways to numb it. Either I used a tennis ball and various outside surfaces of the house to disappear into the alternate universe of one of the solitaire baseballesque games I’d invented, or I walked the half a mile to the general store and bought more baseball cards.

I stopped collecting baseball cards in 1981, when I was thirteen. The Los Angeles Dodgers won the World Series that year, aided in no small part by the work of Steve Howe, who performed brilliantly out of the bullpen in the regular season, pitched shutout ball in the two rounds of National League playoffs, and won one game and saved another in the World Series. The season before, he had won the Rookie of the Year award. As I did buy a few last packs that year, there is a chance that I would have gotten a 1981 Steve Howe card, providing with its spectacular stats and gleaming Rookie of the Year trophy icon one final joyfully numbing glimmer of promise. But if I had had a Steve Howe card in my collection, I guarantee you I would have written about it by now.

Maybe I stopped collecting baseball cards in 1981 because around that time I discovered another way, popular with many pubescent boys, to numb the feeling that something was missing. I augmented this new practice by continuing to serve as commissioner, press corps, fans, management, and players of all my solitaire baseball leagues. When I went away to boarding school at fifteen the constant presence of peers meant that I was able to (or had to) drop the latter practice; I continued the former practice, as I’m sure the rest of my peers were also doing, in hurried secrecy, performing the necessary ablutions in showers or bathroom stalls or when the roommate stepped out for a while. This was apparently not enough for me, however. Maybe I always need a couple means of escape from the feeling that something is missing. Anyway in my second year at boarding school I began getting high.

The handful of bullpen aces who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame have all been right-handed. Add the still-active Mariano Rivera and Trevor Hoffman, and the question of who is the best right-handed reliever in history has plenty of worthy candidates. The question of the best left-handed reliever to ever play major league baseball is much murkier. There have been some, such as Cy Young award-winners Sparky Lyle and Mark Davis and one-time single-season saves leader Dave Righetti, who have produced great seasons or a great but somewhat brief span of seasons, and others, such as John Franco and Jesse Orosco, who have produced admirable career stats while never really dominating. The closest a left-handed closer has come to producing a career including both dominance and relative longevity comparable to those of the right-handed firemen in the Hall of Fame is Randy Myers, but Myers received just one vote in his lone year of Hall of Fame eligibility. And any lingering claim Myers might have had to the title of best left-handed reliever was likely obliterated when Billy Wagner passed him on the career saves list in 2007. Wagner probably only needs to likewise pass the workmanlike John Franco, which he could do with two more productive seasons, to stake an inarguable claim to the title of best lefty reliever ever. But one has to think there could have been another, more imposing body of work standing in Wagner’s way if only Steve Howe could have figured out a way to deal with the feeling that something was missing.

I don’t get high anymore. It tapered off in college when I started finding that it clouded up the thinking I needed to do to write. But I still sometimes feel that there’s something missing. Say it’s a late Sunday morning, nothing on TV, no work to go to, the books in the shelves all seeming in that moment unreadable, no fantasy sports managing left to do, no tin roofs or garage doors to build with the help of a tennis ball into alternate baseball universes. I get this ache. I got it yesterday and did what I usually do if I’m able to. I go for a walk. I walked all the way downtown and back, picking up a couple books at the main branch of the public library. On these walks the aching feeling that something is missing dissipates, but sometimes it never quite fully disappears. Yesterday was one of those times, so even after I’d been walking for seven or eight miles I still felt it. Then finally, as the walk was nearing its end, I finally started noticing things. This is it: when I’m gripped with the feeling that something is missing I don’t see the world around me. I want to disappear to other worlds, yet though the disappearing numbs the ache it does not get rid of it, only temporarily buries it in gauze. Finally near the end of my walk I felt the gauze falling away from my eyes. There was blue in the sky. After a long, punishing winter the leaves were budding on the trees.

The back of the card at the top of this page is barely readable, the stats and text faded and covered in dirt. Some fragments are readable: “not pitched in the major leagues for three years . . . personal problems . . . scintillating 1.52 ERA.” By squinting I can make out the years he pitched, gaps between years like missing cards in a baseball card collection. He kept getting suspended for using cocaine, then kept getting reinstated because he had what may have been the best left-handed arm to ever grace a bullpen. This card, from 1992, was by the time it appeared already outdated in its politely oblique recounting of his travails, as Howe had been busted once again at the end of 1991 for cocaine possession, a misstep that would earn him a lifetime ban from commissioner Fay Vincent. The ban didn’t stick, and Howe returned the following year, then in 1994 posted yet another of his astonishingly effective seasons (1.80 ERA, 0.875 WHIP). It was his last hurrah, and after two relatively ineffective campaigns he was dumped by the Yankees, and two days after that was arrested at JFK airport for carrying a loaded .357 Magnum. While driving drunk he got in a bad motorcycle accident the next year, and a couple years later was suspended from coaching his daughter’s softball team. Howe stayed out of the news for several years after that, a gap that implied that he finally found a way to deal with the feeling that something was missing. But two years ago today, while under the influence of crystal meth, Steve Howe flipped his pickup truck and died.

Just a couple blocks from my apartment, my long walk nearly over, I finally noticed that birds were singing. They had been singing the whole time, but I hadn’t heard them. While listening to this new sound, I noticed something, a piece of trash, embedded in the snow-beaten mud of a sidewalk rectangle of would-be grass. I took two steps past before backtracking. It was a baseball card. I couldn’t tell who it was but my first guess was that it was the card of a recent player, someone that I would not have any significant connection to. I kneeled down and pried it free from the mud.

When I saw the name I got the same feeling, not felt by me for decades, that my collection was built upon, that excitement of finding a desired new card, a name that I knew but that was not yet part of the collection, that feeling that a hole was being filled, that what was missing had been found. I brought the card home and added Steve Howe to the Cardboard Gods.


  1. 1.  Wow. Steve Howe is certainly the most fragile of all the Gods.

    There’s a lot that’s familiar in this story for me, particularly the rise and fall of getting high – from something needed to something that was more trouble than it was worth.

    Great read.

  2. 2.  One of the things I miss the most about my current life is the opportunity to have long, long, (attempted) mind-clearing walks.

    Did this card go through the wash?

  3. 3.  2 I would guess that “embedded in the snow-beaten mud of a sidewalk rectangle of would-be grass” (par. VII) for any length of time could have the same effect as going through the wash. What happened to it before he found it (including washes) Josh could not know. I am sure he himself did not let it go through the wash.

  4. 4.  I’ve enjoyed most everything I’ve read of yours, but this one was just amazing/fantastic/incredible. Thank you for continuing to share your talents.

  5. 5.  2 : “I want nothing between me and the ground/I just want to wander, and walk around.” -Jonathan Richman

    3 : Right. Fittingly enough, the world beat the crap out of this card. In the short time it’s been in my possession, I haven’t even flicked off a clump of mud.

    4 : Thanks, nickb. I appreciate that.

  6. 6.  Another great post. Josh, you are a must-read in my daily review of blog postings.

  7. 7.  In the early 80’s I’d watch Steve Howe in the Dodger bullpen. He looked physically awesome even warming up but routinely his focus was somewhere else. During many warmups, he’d flirt openly with whatever girl was leaning over the bullpen rail. Maybe it’s just semantics, but I always thought he was trying to get away rather than seek something.

    Josh, your columns have become my addiction.

  8. 8.  It always seems to be a Sunday when I get a feeling that something is missing. I have fought Sundays my whole life.

  9. 9.  Josh: I stumbled upon this website a few weeks ago. I have now lost hours of work productivity by going through your archives. Having grown up during approximately the same time and collecting cards and spending innumerable hours playing Statis-Pro Baseball (1978 edition) during that time, I find your writing to really, really hit home. Thank you.

  10. 10.  What a coincidence, to find at 16 year old Steve Howe card in your path and be able to write about it on the two year anniversary of his death!

    Did that coincidence freak you out? I mean, you, the person on earth most likely to write about a baseball card if you found it randomly, and Steve Howe, who died two years ago today? Wow.

  11. 11.  6 , 7 , 9 : Thanks for the kind words!

    8 : I agree. Sunday’s the trickiest day in some ways.

    10 : Yeah, I didn’t know he died on this date until I poked around a little on the Internet while I was writing this. Pretty weird.

  12. 12.  Josh,

    I’ve been away from your site for many, many months now. As I’ve written on your earlier pages back in (I think) August and September, my life hit rock bottom. Clearly, the lowest point in my life. I’ve suffered over the past 7 or so months. Deeply so.

    The chain of earth shattering events included: my father passing away, my wife telling me she wants a divorce on the day of my father’s funeral, my wife stealing and selling my prized 70-plus year old paintings (6 of them) created by the Hollywood artist I had written about and published my book about, my wife poisoning my children so that they turn against me, my wife raiding our camp to steal everything from boats to kayaks to furniture, and then venemously vilifying me in the courts in her quest for the most disgustingly greedy court order imaginable.

    The trial is over now. For that, I thank all the gods. I await the final order, and expect the worst. Even though the court order will make the marriage final, I see in the short term the following: property foreclosures and bankruptcy (due to my wife’s 16 years of excessive credit/deficit spending, and her refusal to sell our primary home, or to get a full-time job). I’ve been on a three month leave from work just to deal with this chaos, as well as my emotions.

    Any way, that’s why I’ve been away. So, when I read this Howe piece, it blew my mind. It was one of the best I’ve read. It has unbelievable meaning on so many levels. It made me feel good!, in that, I had returned to some of the best damn writing on the Internet (after being away too long), as well as, by returning to your site after being away so long . . . it suggested that I was making some progress, to some extent, just getting back to some of the things that I love so much. Josh, today, I feel you have lent me a hand, trying to pull me from my quagmire. For that, I thank you.

    So, I’m delighted I’ve returned to Carboard Gods, the place where we all learn more about our ourselves, our jouney and purpose in life, and all is casted and harmonized through the lens of our childhoods, and our beloved baseball cards that we collected in our precious youth.

    On a final note, I encourage people not to “judge” Steve Howe for his shortcomings and his failings. People like Howe, and my father, were flawed, as we all are . . . it’s just that some are more flawed than others. We can feel sad about their predicaments, and their failings, but I would hope that we would be better served learning from those who have lived in such a reckless manner, than to cast moral judment on their inate predilications.

    Peace Josh . . . you rock. Whatever you do . . . don’t ever stop writing.

    Your friend,

  13. 13.  12 – The combination of Josh’s post and your comment is … I can’t even describe. I wish you all the best.

  14. 14.  12 : It’s great to hear from you again, Catfish. I’ve wondered how it was going with you. Sounds like it’s been really roguh. Here’s hoping the stormiest days are behind you.

    Wise thoughts on Howe, too. Thanks for sharing those.

  15. 15.  A tremendous read, Josh. Mysterious and transcendent.

  16. 16.  I can’t really speak after reading Catfish’s post, but can only wish you the best, my friend. After my sister’s current boyfriend (wonderful guy) went through a horrible divorce with a woman who was basically mentally ill and put him through hell, it still didn’t look like he would be any less than royally screwed over. But justice and logic prevailed in his case. May it do so in yours as well.

    As for Steve Howe, this story always makes me teary eyed as well. I had a particular attachment to him, above all the other many players who also suffered tragic fates/ends at some point, because he came of age as a player at the same time I basically came of age as a Dodger fan, at about 9, 10, 11, those years. He was a big part of their 1981 World Championship, as you note, and was just a joy to watch on the mound. When I later heard about some of his off field troubles, it basically didn’t compute for me. I was too young to understand, I just assumed he’d always be there, always be pitching until he was too old to do it and then retire, like all the other players. I didn’t understand that drugs were a sickness and that he was chronically and then critically ill. Not until about the year Howe died, when I also nearly lost a friend to a drug-related accident, did I realize the dark depths people could sink to. Interesting how all these stories, personal and cultural, intertwine in our memories.

    Anyway, thanks for your piece.

  17. 17.  Fantastic piece. Not much more I can add….

    I think my Thursdays are your Sundays.

  18. 18.  That’s a great piece Josh.
    This card of Steve Howe looks like it’s been in Richie Hebner’s pocket for quite a while.
    Knowing the story, this card is like a piece of art. I’ve been sitting here studying it, being with it. Re-living the days, seeing in my mind’s eye Howe getting ready in the bullpen for the Dodgers with music from the group Canned Heat playing in the backround on a bright, hot sunny day, with Dave Stewart by his side.
    Tommy the manager in denial, “It’s not a disease!”.
    Peter O’Malley wringing his hands.
    Poof, Steve Howe is gone.

    Sometimes it just feels like something’s missing, then there are other times when you know it.
    That ache, that vauge ache …
    I wish that I knew how to banish it, but I can just make it hide for awhile. Taking an action like going for a walk does help.
    It always seems to come back though.

  19. 19.  What a great read this was! I am 43 and was fortunate enough to be a ballboy and clubhouse attendant for the Dodgers from 1982 to 1984. I saw the wonderful sides of Steve Howe as a player and person during those years. Unfortunately, I was also there when his inner troubles began to surface. I remember when he missed the team photo and showed up late to the game one night in 1983. He later missed one of the team flights prior to a road trip. I was only 18 and couldn’t understand what he was going through. I rooted for Steve Howe, the person, after he left the Dodgers. It hurt me when I would read about his relapses in the news, especially after his playing days were over. I wondered if there was really anybody out there to help him now that his baseball career was over. And I was saddened by his death a few years ago. The Dodgers celebrated the 25 year anniversary of the 1981 championship team prior to one of their games in 2006. Steve Howe missed that ceremony by a few months. His two kids showed up in his place.

  20. 20.  18 : “This card of Steve Howe looks like it’s been in Richie Hebner’s pocket for quite a while.”


    19 : Thanks a lot for sharing that inside-the-clubhouse view. Your mention of his “wonderful sides” reminded me of the following quote from Bob Melvin:

    “Everybody who hasn’t played with him didn’t know what kind of teammate he was. He was kind of the captain of the bullpen out there.”

  21. 21.  Some further thought on the notion, mentioned in the post, of the “best left-handed reliever of all-time.” I figured no one could argue that Howe can be in that discussion in anything other than a hypothetical “what if?” kind of way, but on second thought I think there’s one actual, concrete, and very important way he actually shines in comparison to the other lefty relievers mentioned–the ability to get out left-handed batters. As this is the skill most left-handed bullpen pitchers are valued for, it stands to reason that Howe is among the best ever at his role. In his career, even with all the turbulence, he managed to hold left-handed batters to a .258 on-base percentage and a .296 slugging percentage. This is better than the career marks of Franco and Myers, and about equal to Wagner (.267, .276).

    So say you were building an all-time team. Wouldn’t you want a guy in your bullpen who could come in and get a vital out against a the other team’s top left-handed bats? (Presuming, of course, that the suspension of the laws of nature that allowed you to build such a team across the ages also omitted the existence of cocaine.)

  22. 22.  This post and the threaded comments are the best the web has to offer.

    As Brent said, the idea that this particular Steve Howe card fell into your hands are the coincidences that make life so interesting

  23. 23.  Hang in there, Catfish. Here’s hoping blue skies are ahead.

    Josh, marvelous read — and the coincidence Brent noted makes it all the more goose-pimply. Here’s hoping that, wherever he is, Steve Howe has found what he was missing.

  24. 24.  I had Steve Howe. Not like that (!); he was on my Strat team, and indeed, his card against leftie batters was invaluable. It made many a less-than expert managerial decision look like genius when I put him in against a leftie.

    I always liked Steve Howe, and I followed his career and hard times with great sympathy and pain. I like this post even better – it really blew me away. I think you got it exactly right. What an unbelievably good piece of writing.

    What is that missing part, that phantom limb that aches on Sundays? Ya can’t spackle the missing part or assuage that phantom pain with coke, or weed, or anything else. It’s just there and always will be. it’s there but it’s not.

    “As I was going up the stair,
    I met a man who wasn’t there.
    He wasn’t there again today;
    I wish that man would go away.”

    I have liked that bit of doggerel about the missing since I was about 8. Probably around when I noticed baseball.

  25. 25.  Great post, Josh.

  26. 26.  Your writing cures those Sunday Feelings. Can’t find stuff this good anywhere.

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