Saturday, May 06, 2006

In Which Rose Ponders Steve Howe's Mortality (And Makes It All About Her)

I was working on a draft of a piece about going into the season with the team you have rather than the team you wish you had when I saw the headline about Steve Howe's death. If you're reading this from the Dodger front office and were hoping to get my thoughts on what's up with the pitching, this isn't your day. (Though since I'm here, I will suggest that Carter and Hamulack be reserved for relief situations in which giving up a run or two won't hurt anything, at least until they get some confidence going. You're welcome.)

I've been trying to write about Steve Howe since April 28. It took me a while to figure out why the words weren't coming.

Growing up when and where I did, no one ever had to warn us about the dangers of sex and drugs. (Rock and roll took care of itself.) This was when AIDS mowed its way through Hollywood and Silverlake, the local consequence of something so big that Ronald Reagan finally had to acknowledge that it was happening. We had only to look around us to see what could happen if you weren't careful with sex or IV drugs.

In the White House, Nancy Reagan was chirping, "Just Say No". In reality, we had Steve Howe.

Rookie of the Year, 1980. Great guy, when he wasn't using.

A few years later, my seventh-grade health teacher drew a diagram of the human nose on the chalkboard. "See this cartilage?" he said, pointing to the thin strip that separated the nostrils. "Steve Howe snorted so much cocaine that there's a big hole in his." Was that true? I don't know. But it was a lot more effective than "Just Say No".

Steve Howe crashed and burned. Our teachers looked at us sternly. We students in the Highly Gifted program were, we were told, the best and the brightest. Top half-percent on whatever scale they used. College-bound. Expected to do great things, like Steve Howe was. We were not to screw this up like he did.

Just as our teachers conveniently ignored the fact that we'd have to navigate high school before we got to college, I think baseball as a whole tries to forget that when you give young people a certain degree of fame and lots of money, they have certain opportunities. In the early- and mid-eighties, cocaine had to have been an awfully hard opportunity to ignore.

Over the next decade or so, Howe was in and out of the major leagues -- a suspension here, an overturned ban there. By all accounts, he was a mentor to younger players, but at the end of the day he wasn't someone that a major league team could afford to keep around.

In the decade or so after those junior high school warnings, I had a series of derailments of my own. Just as Howe must have had a biological predisposition to addiction, it turns out that I have a biological predisposition to depression. The results were the same: Me lying there on the couch like a college-educated lump, the people around me wondering how I'd gone from bright and funny and promising to... that. Some people tried to support me. Some people thought they were helping when they told me to snap out of it. It was about as helpful as telling Steve Howe to just stop using drugs.

It's tempting to take an individual and turn him into a symbol that illustrates one's own take on the thing that retrospectively defines them -- which, of course, is exactly what I am doing. The commentaries I've read over the past week tend to fall into two categories: Either Howe was an addict whose long, downward spiral couldn't be stopped even with treatment; or he was an idiot who blithely threw it all away without a thought for anyone else. Neither tack addresses the notion that, as my grandmother would say, some people have a harder row to hoe.

In time, I got better. Not well -- I don't know if I'll ever truly and permanently get there -- but better. It's kind of ironic: For my entire adolescence, I was warned away from illegal mood-altering substances, but as an adult I'm the poster child for legal ones. And yet, if I hadn't initially sought treatment, and if I hadn't stuck with it all this time, I'd probably still be out of commission. Or worse.

To hear the people who knew him tell it, Howe had managed to pull it together over the past few years. But maybe he still needed that rush that comes with taking a potentially fatal risk. A risk like driving his pickup truck at 70 mph without a seatbelt. Some risks are more mundane than others.

The quotes from Steve Howe's former teammates and managers sound hollow. Not empty, mind you; hollow, as if the speakers had known for years that someday in the not-too-distant future, they'd be called on to talk about this very subject. It was just a matter of when, and how. That kind of dread gets exhausting.

A couple of days after Steve Howe died, I met a guy who, not too long ago, had been a highly-regarded pitching prospect. He was still in the minors when his arm failed him. To hear him tell it, he wasn't at all upset about this, because it meant that he could pursue his real dream: Acting. He still loves and appreciates the game, of course. And he keeps coming back to one aspect of it.

"Baseball," he said, "is the only thing I can think of where if you only succeed three out of ten times, you're considered great."

"But if you only succeed two out of ten, you're a failure," I pointed out. "It's an awfully thin line." Had we had longer to talk, I would have also pointed out that the numbers are different for pitchers. Pitchers can falter here and there, but if they outright fail seven times out of ten, they're just plain failures.

Was Steve Howe a failure? As a baseball player, I guess you could say he was. As a person? Not as far as I'm concerned. There are those who'd say that he was, but I think they might be forgetting that sometimes, a successful legacy is hard to see in the immediate aftermath of a spectacular downfall.

I'll get back to juggling statistics next time. For now, please make sure to wear your seatbelt, even if you're not planning to drive an unstable vehicle at high speeds. Life is risky enough as it is.