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The Death of Steve Howe

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Though I never met him, the death of former major league pitcher Steve Howe, 48, in an early morning, single vehicle, freeway accident in Southern California last week hit me hard and low. I always thought of Howe — whose career as a left-handed closer began so promisingly as Rookie of the Year for the Dodgers in 1980 before stuttering then stalling out after SEVEN suspensions for drugs and alcohol — as sort of my vastly more talented doppelganger.

Steve Howe was just a few months older than I; we were of similar size, and we were both left-handed pitchers. Though my career peaked in high school, Howe was the Dodgers’ closer by the time he was 22. I always rooted for him to get his career, then his life, back together long after he became much better known as a bad joke and an embarrassment than as a sensational pitcher. I never gave up on the guy – perhaps because it would have felt like giving up on myself.

I too had my problems with substance abuse all through my late-teens and twenties. I can’t believe I never hurt myself or anyone else given the HUNDREDS of times I drove under the influence of alcohol over a period of about 15 years. The extent of my fortune and the severity of the consequences should my force field of luck falter, finally hit home on a late summer night in 1989.

For several years I had been telling myself that I was a better DJ when I drank – I relaxed, got into it more. I also got sloppy, ruined equipment and records, flirted with women I had no interest in, and said stupid things. But I could ignore that.

That night, my friend, the manager of a long-gone dance club carved out of the Sea Lion restaurant in Malibu, was going away to law school and I had just become separated from my first wife. So, for very different reasons, we raised many a glass together throughout the evening as I had entertained a gathering of tourists and locals while waves scenically danced against the breakwater and splashed upon the club’s large picture windows.

With the drinking finally finished and the club closed, I brushed my teeth and scooped up a finger-full of peanut butter out of the jar I kept in the truck to mask the odor of alcohol. I chuckled at my own cleverness.

I wound my way south through the misty twists and turns of Pacific Coast Highway at 3:00 AM as it snaked down toward Sunset with my brain buried under the sweet, humming insulation of too much alcohol.

Grinning vacantly, I took another hairpin turn at a reasonable but exhilarating speed and spied traffic cones ahead forcing me toward the center of the road. Oh bother.

I came to a near-stop behind several other cars just before the Sunset intersection. The cones ambiguously either wanted us to turn left onto Sunset or to continue south in the far left lane. Some cars turned onto Sunset, some went on ahead. I chose the second option.

Around another bend, frantic activity and grim faces in uniforms confirmed that we had made a mistake. At least I wasn’t alone in my error. The night was lit hallucinogenically with ambulances and police cars flashing and clashing their garish, assaultive lights.

A few cars ahead, a figure waved emphatically for the line of cars to turn around. As I slowly backed to turn around, a blinding light shone in through my driver’s window and a gruff knock followed. Startled, I stopped and rolled down my window.

“What the hell are you doing? Can’t you follow directions? Don’t back that way, you fool.” An unexpected note of panic, or fear cut through the officer’s voice.

I mumbled apologies and things about following other cars and this and that. The cop smiled and held his hand up for me to be silent.

“Have you been drinking peanut butter cocktails all night? I think you’ll be spending the evening with us, buddy.” The cop sounded strangely calm and almost kind. “Straighten this thing out and get out of the car.”

I turned the truck so that it again faced south, my original direction. My headlights shone on the ambulance in front of me and on a long white, billowing object on the ground between my truck and the ambulance. A sudden wet gust up from the breakers blew the white covering off of the object, over the ambulance, and fluttering into the darkness.

Immediately before me was a red, blue and white object that, in a sickening jolt, I realized was a dead, male body. It — he — was impossibly broken and naked except for socks and shoes. Mortified, I turned away. The officer and I stared at each other in silence.

The officer told me that the body was an 18 year-old kid who had been playing a perverse form of chicken with a buddy by mooning passing cars from the ocean side of the road. The competition had led each incrementally into the road itself.

A Porsche had come around the blind bend at 85 mph and turned the kid into puree. The driver and the mooners had been drinking – just like I had. In that moment of horror, a calm certainty came over me that I had to stop drinking. I felt very lucky, very ill, and very guilty at the same time sitting there in police custody.

I don’t take any particular credit for this decision – it didn’t even feel like my decision to make. It felt like unavoidable received wisdom. Not that there aren’t people who make the other choice, or who refuse to choose, which is the same thing. I stopped completely for about eight years, and have found over the last several years that I can drink lightly, not want more, and be okay; but I needed all of that time off for my body, brain and soul to recalibrate themselves into something resembling “normal.”

“For unknown reasons,” A California Highway Patrol statement said, Howe’s pickup truck — traveling westbound at about 70 mph at 5:30 a.m., April 28 on Interstate 10 near Cactus City — left the roadway, entered the median and rolled numerous times before coming to rest on its roof. Howe was not wearing his seat belt and was partly ejected from the truck. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Results from toxicology tests have not yet been released.

Dodger broadcaster Rick Monday, a former teammate of Howe’s, told the LA Times, “He seemed to constantly struggle to figure out how to get his life in order. But no matter how bad things were, Steve always found a ray of sunshine.”

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.themetalshow.com/blog Matt Wardlaw

    Eric,

    I missed the news about Steve’s death.

    Quite a story you have presented here.

    Glad that it has a happy ending on your end.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    When I saw the headline, I thought you meant the geezer from Yes.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Matt, so far anyway!

    Chris, you are so not American.

  • http://w6daily.winn.com/ Phillip Winn

    A masterpiece. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    That is so true, Eric.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Phillip!

    Chris, Recognition is half the battle.

  • http://jeliel3.blogspot.com JELIEL³

    Phew… I thought Steve Howe (The Guitar God) had died…

  • Eric Olsen

    he’s way over 48 and probably can’t hit 50 on the radar gun

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    There’s hope for us all, Mr Olsen!

  • zingzing

    you mean, it wasn’t an over-the-hill, zonked out has-been who died? damn it, i really want Yes to go the way of the dinosaur. oh yeah… that happened 30 years ago…

  • zingzing

    no offense to the pitcher. fuck Yes. sheesh. cape wearing freaks.

  • Eric Olsen

    zz, so you’re not outraged Yes isn’t in the Rock Hall?

  • zingzing

    um… who cares about a hall of fame? i don’t really think about the place.

  • Eric Olsen

    so you’re a nihilist?

  • zingzing

    no… why do you ask? i don’t care for Yes or the idea of a “rock n roll hall of fame…” but does that make me a nihilist?

  • Eric Olsen

    I have heard many nihilists often denigrate both the Rock Hall and Steve Howe, the guitarist

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Much like Howe, who was himself in denihil.

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    No, he was in Yes!

  • http://alienboysworld.blogspot.com Christopher Rose

    Oh yes he was.

  • zingzing

    i am not your typical steve howe-rock hall hatin hater. but, really, i don’t care if you want to label me a nihilist. whatever.

  • http://www.djradiohead.com DJRadiohead

    EO, this reminds me of our conversation and your piece about your friends in TN: humanizing the tragedies in the newspaper. Well done, Sir.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Josh, or at least making it about me!

    ZZ, just messing with you – joke!

    Chris, you’re talking to yourself.

    Suss, classic line

  • zingzing

    e.o.–you must have missed the joke in mine… maybe it wasn’t a very good joke… nope… it wasn’t… oh well… i don’t care anymore…

  • Eric Olsen

    ZZ, sorry, get it now, my bad! The Internet doesn’t convey nuance very well.

  • Dawn

    I am so thankful that you were the observer that night, not the observed.

    Great writing, as usual!

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Dawn, I am too but still feel bad about the whole thing

  • Bob Maus

    Steve Howe was insane, he battled an addiction that was stronger than reason.

    No sane man would give up every boy’s dream to snort cocain, unless they were insane.

    I shared this same insanity, but was given a miracle and have been sober and clean for almost 20 years.

    I was always a fan of Steve Howe, and continue to be. My prayers are with his family.

  • Eric Olsen

    thanks Bob, it’s terribly sad for Steve – I’m glad you were able to come out on the other end – best wishes!

  • Diane

    When someone has a drinking problem there is no such thing as tapering back or cutting down on the drinking. Alcoholism is a desease! There are only 3 ways around this…Soboriety, insanity or death. Steve Howe paid the ultimate price for his drinking with his life. He may have been drinking. I wonder if he ever thought about going to AA or did his wife ever consider Al-Anon or the kids going to Alateen? It’s a family desease. It is a shame that he’s gone. He was a great pitcher.

  • Dawn Funck

    Thank you for taking the time to mention the death of Steve Howe. I was a classmate of his through junior high and high school and knew him to be an great guy. Through the past 30 years his cocky and good natured attitude never wavered in spite of the bad press. Those of us who had known him at any point always knew that he had it in him to pull out of his problems and we never doubted that he would do so. It never occurred to any of us that he wouldn’t have time to go on. I believe that it hit all of us below the belt when we got the news of his death. It is an amazing thing to me now to find that even people who hadn’t known him were affected the same way. I thank you for writing about it.
    The most important thing that needs to be said about Steve is that he never stopped. He never lost sight of where he wanted to be and never stopped working toward it. The addiction that kept getting in his way surely kept knocking his life around, but he never stopped working and he never gave up. His pitching was a talent and he utilized it astoundingly because he knew that he was born to PLAY BASEBALL. His record stands on its own. But on a personal note, please know that he was a warm and outgoing, good natured, cocky guy who took time out to often talk to people… even one of the class nerds…