Steve Howe drove from Montana to his new baseball home in South Dakota, hoping he’d left some old baggage behind.
It was a 1,200-mile trip from his home in Whitefish, and Howe wanted to put at least that much distance between his troubled past and his latest attempt to return to the major leagues.
The left-handed reliever, whose career was interrupted by seven drug-related suspensions, signed last month with the Sioux Falls Canaries, who open their season in the independent Northern League May 30.
South Dakota is a long way from New York, where Howe, 39, played last year before being released by the Yankees. He had an 0-1 record, a save and a 6.35 ERA in 17 games with a team that would go on to win the World Series.
Two days after being cut, Howe was arrested for carrying a loaded gun in his suitcase at Kennedy Airport. Last November, he pleaded guilty to gun possession and was sentenced to three years of probation and 150 hours of community service.
“If it had to happen, I’m glad he’s a private citizen and not a New York Yankee,” Yankees vice president and general manager Bob Watson said at the time of the arrest.
It was another low point in an up-and-down career that started as National League Rookie of the Year with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980. But Howe said it’s not the end of that journey, and that he’s had enough of bright lights and big cities for now.
“Part of the reason why I came to Sioux Falls, S.D., is because it is Midwest, heartland America, it is conservative, it is family-orientated. That’s what I model life after today,” he said. “I haven’t been this relaxed in a long time.”
Howe appeared to be physically fit and said he looked forward to a dual role as player and teacher in the minor leagues. His goal, however, is a return to the majors, this season if possible.
“I’m not going to pitch any different in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, than I would in New York,” he said. “I’m not going to pitch any different, I’m not going to approach the game any different. I don’t big-league people. I’m having fun.”
Howe was lured to Sioux Falls by team owner Harry Stavrenos, his former general manager with the Class A San Jose Bees. Managing Howe in 1986 was tough because of the depth of his addictions, Stavrenos said, but the decision to acquire him now was much easier.
“I fast-forward to this year and I look what’s been going on with him the last five years - I mean, when you’re as bad as he was, and now here’s the finished product, the finished human being, he’s really come a long way,” Stavrenos said. “As far as the baggage goes, he wouldn’t have any of that baggage if he just quit and went away. The baggage comes from keeping on trying and trying.”
Howe says he’s been clean-and-sober nine years, even though he pleaded guilty in 1992 in Montana to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy a gram of cocaine.
For 23-year-old Canaries pitcher Marc Mosman, Howe’s presence already has had an impact.
“He’s nothing like the stories that I heard, like him getting into drugs and being a problem, to me it didn’t seem to me that he’d even need to be on drugs,” Mosman said. “Just being around him, you pick up on stuff and learn stuff that he’s learned through his experiences.”
The Northern League is not where Howe yearns to be, however. He wants another shot at the big leagues.
Howe said the decision to leave the Yankees was his because he’d felt his role had been diminished. He said he wasn’t getting to pitch as often as he needed to.
“I was a warrior for them for six years. You will not hear me say anything bad about George Steinbrenner, and look how much bad you hear about him. He’s been nothing but great to me, my family,” Howe said. “Unfortunately, I could not fill the role they wanted me to fill.”
Watson said that, while it was true Howe wasn’t getting a lot of work, it was the team’s decision to release him.
Howe said there’s nothing he can do about people who have preconceived notions about who he is. He wants to focus on having fun and not on how he’s portrayed in the media.
“Dwelling on people who dwell on the negative, I have no place for those people,” Howe said. “I just want to pitch for someone who wants me to pitch for them.”
Or else it could be another long trip back to Montana.