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The Age of Excellence: Untold story

On the day of Steve Howe’s death, his son took the baseball field for Valencia High

Posted: December 25, 2009 11:08 p.m.
Updated: December 26, 2009 4:30 a.m.
Valencia senior Brian Howe, right, is greeted by varsity coach Jared Snyder, left, after Howe recorded the final three outs in the Viking’s’ 12-2 win over Burbank. Valencia senior Brian Howe, right, is greeted by varsity coach Jared Snyder, left, after Howe recorded the final three outs in the Viking’s’ 12-2 win over Burbank.
Valencia senior Brian Howe, right, is greeted by varsity coach Jared Snyder, left, after Howe recorded the final three outs in the Viking’s’ 12-2 win over Burbank.

Editor’s note: In the summer of 2006, I visited the immediate family of the late Steve Howe on a couple of occasions. Also, over the course of that summer, I interviewed friends and family of the former Major League Baseball pitcher and Valencia resident, with the intention of writing a story on him. The inspiration for the story was his son, Brian Howe, who, after learning of his father’s death on April 28, 2006, played in a baseball game for Valencia High School. The story was never told. Until now.

The spring day started gloomily on Summer Grove Place.
The sky above was a cotton-covered grey.
It was April 28, 2006 — Cindy Howe’s birthday and Brian’s seventh-to-last game as a high school baseball player.
The night before, Steve Howe assured his wife he’d stop making these back-and-forth, late-night trips to and from Arizona.
His final trip was that April 28th — on his way to see his son Brian’s high school baseball game and celebrate his wife’s birthday.
Dragged through the black-and-white print of newspaper front pages and leading off sports news programs, the 12-year Major League pitcher started a new life in an unassuming Valencia home.
He lived with his wife, Cindy, and 18-year-old son Brian in a peach-colored, two-story house on lamppost-lined Summer Grove Place.
On Fridays, Howe would drive home from Arizona, where he was developing multiple businesses, to watch Brian pitch.
A left-hander, Brian was playing more outfield than pitching in his senior year than as a junior.
Howe was almost unrecognizable from his playing days. His face was weathered and his voice was gravelly from a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1997.
He wasn’t so much a new person as he was a person who nobody really knew.
Howe was characterized as a loser who could never kick his drug habit.
Howe was front-page filler during and after his career.
But he was also a father and husband.
His battles with addiction coincided with his battles to keep his family life stable.
He died on a lonely Coachella highway at dawn, before the public knew the difference between the public and private Steve Howe.
Days later, his daughter Chelsi, an aspiring singer, composed a song about her father.
The title — “Story Untold.”

Howe was a boy of summer, playing baseball on the diamond he and 20 other neighborhood kids constructed on a hill above Dubuque Street in Clarkston, Mich.
His whole early life was spent outdoors, as the family didn’t have a TV.
Howe’s younger brother, Jeff, said his first memory of Steve was of him snow-sledding and playing hockey.
And baseball.
“You can’t remember a day go by when I was young that we didn’t play ball every single day,” Jeff recalled.
Howe had two other brothers, Chris and Michael, and a sister named Kathy.
They lived in a modest house, with the four boys sharing a bedroom.
Their parents, Virgil and Barbara Howe, worked long hours at a General Motors plant in Pontiac, Mich. They were just teenagers when they married.
Howe’s later addiction was traced back by outsiders to his youth.
Virgil was later accused of having his own addiction — alcohol.
Former San Jose Mercury News writer Mike Antonucci spent time with Howe in 1986 when the pitcher was trying to rebuild his career as a member of the minor league San Jose Bees. Antonucci wrote an article that was published July 20, 1986.
Howe was quoted as saying his addiction was genetic.
“You basically don’t have a chance in hell if you have one or more people in your family who are alcoholics,” Howe said.
Antonucci paraphrased Steve in the story, saying Virgil “was drinking up so many paychecks that the family was having enough trouble just coming up with a combined house and car payment of $84 a month.”
Virgil later sued the Detroit Free Press for defamation when it ran the article on July 23, 1986.
Jeff and Chris Howe both admitted that their father was a drinker, but said his drinking did not influence the kids or affect the family.
“My dad hardly ever had a beer at home,” Jeff said.
Chris explained the culture of 1960s Michigan as being blue-collar. Kids would go to school and play sports while the parents were working long hours in the factories.
Fathers would go to the bar and relax with a drink.
As for drugs, Chris said they were around the community.
“When we were in high school, there was a lot of pressure,” he said. “A lot of marijuana. A lot of cocaine. That’s what it was in suburbia Michigan. ... It was prevalent. But Steve was a jock. He never touched any of that stuff until he went to the University of Michigan.”
Howe lived the dream his father couldn’t.
Because Virgil started a family so early, he gave up on his aspirations of becoming a professional athlete to concentrate on paying the bills and putting food on the table.
“I’ve heard it from everybody,” Jeff said. “Anytime I meet one of (my dad’s) friends, they tell me what a phenomenal athlete he was. Had he pursued it and not had kids, he would’ve been a pro ball player.”
Instead, it was Howe who pursued it.

Paul Tungate was coaching junior varsity football at Clarkston High School when he first met Steve, a 10th-grader and tough, scrappy linebacker at the time.
Tungate, also the school’s varsity baseball coach, had heard of Howe as a ninth-grader and knew he could pitch.
The coach brought him onto the varsity baseball team in the spring and used him earlier than he thought would need to.
Against rival Lake Orion High School, Clarkston’s starting pitcher, a senior, had given up two runs in the first inning. The bases were loaded, and Tungate called on the young lefty.
“He struck out the side with the bases loaded,” Tungate recalled. “That showed his composure and competitiveness. From that time on, I knew we had a pitcher.”
Between 1974 and 1976, Steve dominated the area, even facing rival and future 1988 World Series hero Kirk Gibson.
“Statistically, he was phenomenal,” Tungate remembered of Howe.
In Howe’s final two seasons, he was a combined 24-1, losing the one game, the coach recalled, 1-0.
Howe continued his success at the University of Michigan, where he was a two-time All-Big Ten selection.
“He knew what he needed to do,” said college roommate Tony Paxton. “You could tell he had a lot of confidence in himself, and he exhibited it. He walked up (to the mound) — ‘There’s no way you’re going to hit off me.’”
Paxton said Howe may have been confident on the mound, but he was kind and humble off of it.
He was protective of his friends and never flaunted his stardom.
Paxton pointed out that Howe was very much a representative of where he came from. So when Howe became a Major Leaguer, it wasn’t an easy transition.
“Think about that, you’re a kid that goes from having nothing to having millions of dollars,” Jeff said. “It changed him for a number of years.”
Howe was only 22 when he made his Major League debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980. That year, he went on to win the National League Rookie of the Year.
The next season, he recorded the final out of the World Series against the New York Yankees.
“Steve was a guy’s guy — really, really rooting for you,” said former Dodgers teammate and current Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim manager Mike Scioscia. “He would stick up for you on any issue. We joked around a lot, played cards, did a lot of stuff while we were playing, while we were traveling. Unfortunately, he had a lot in his life that happened very quickly. And although he was fearless, as far as playing the game of baseball, obviously he went down a road that nobody’s prepared for.”
Over a Major League career that spanned parts of 12 seasons, Howe was suspended seven times because of substance abuse.
In 1992, he was banned from baseball for life, though that decision was later overturned.
He finished his career with the Yankees in 1996.
His final statistics amounted to a 47-41 record, 91 saves and a 3.03 ERA in 497 games.
But he’d always be remembered for his substance abuse problems.
“I remember the very first treatment program,” said Howe’s widow, Cindy. “The Dodgers had talked about some of the problems. They wanted to give him help.”
But Cindy added that baseball pressured her husband: “Two things come to mind that really bother me — one is the way whenever they mention ‘seven-time loser Steve Howe.’ Where did they get that number? How do they come up with a way of describing him to everybody without even thinking. If they’re talking about 1982, 1983 when he was in and out of treatment, how do you say somebody’s a loser because you send them into a 28-day program and expect them to be cured and then take them out early and put them in a game because you have to win the pennant?
“He never had any sobriety.”
Cindy said her husband was a pleaser — whether it was his family or his baseball teams.
Once he got out of baseball, life calmed.
In his later years, Howe was developing businesses such as an energy drink company.
He would commute between California and Arizona, where the company was based and where the Howe family was living before it moved to Valencia in 2004.
Howe was driving back from Arizona to see his son play baseball on April 28, 2006.
“I was at school, so I went home for lunch and I walked through the front door and (my mom) and my sister were standing there just pale and had been crying. I thought my ferret escaped,” Brian recalled. “They just both broke down. ‘Dad’s dead.’
“I was like, ‘No way.’ I didn’t believe them. I went and got my baseball stuff and went to the field.”
Cindy and Brian later said they thought Howe was clean, but an autopsy revealed he had methamphetamine in his system.
Brian played six innings in right field that April 28 for the Valencia Vikings at Valencia High.
In the seventh inning, he took the mound.
A knee injury and the emergence of some other arms on the team limited his innings on the hill in 2006.
Yet Brian was given the opportunity to honor his father.
He struck out the first batter he faced before allowing two singles.
Brian then got the final outs of the game on a double-play groundout.

Today, Brian Howe is a junior pitcher at Montana State University Billings.
After high school, he went to Loyola Marymount University and College of the Canyons. But he moved with his family back to Whitefish, Mont. — the family’s home before the move to Arizona.
Chelsi just had twins.
Cindy has remarried and started her own business.
In 2009, Brian was 4-6 with a 4.33 ERA in 13 games. His goal is to play baseball professionally, just like his dad.
It has been more than three years since his father’s death. Brian, now 22 years old, reflected on that day and playing in that game.
“It’s a rough one,” he said this week. “I’m not really sure.”
Then he paused.
“Obviously, I’m glad I did it. Looking back, I’d do it again. It kind of came naturally.”


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