Steve Howe died at 48 when his pick-up truck rolled over in the wee small hours of April 28 in Coachella, California. Riverside County authorities said he was doing 70 mph. They even drug-tested him in death. The autopsy was inconclusive but the toxicology report has been sent to a lab for analysis and one day this summer we’ll hear or read a brief item to the effect that Steve Howe, once the best relief pitcher in baseball, rookie of the year when he came up with the Dodgers in 1980, did or didn’t have an illegal metabolite in his system.
I liked Steve Howe a lot. I interviewed him and then hung out with him in 1986, when he was pitching for the San Jose Bees, a motley collection of rehabbing ex-major leaguers (including Mike Norris, Ken Reitz, and Derrel Sconiers), four Japanese prospects who spoke almost no English, and ordinary D-league professional baseball players.
Howe grew up in Pontiac, Michigan and his social group was “pretty tough guys.” He told me he didn’t do drugs or alcohol as a teenager, although all his friends did. He laid off because he thought pot might take the edge off his athletic skills (he knew he was great) and alcohol reminded him of his dad, whom he did not admire. He first did coke one night in New York City after pitching against the Mets. A woman offered him a hit and thought it might be okay for him because “it reminded me of all the Ritalin I’d done as a kid. I said, “But you just said you didn’t do drugs or alcohol as a kid.” He repeated that he hadn’t. Ritalin, in his view, was “medication” because it had been administered by a school nurse and prescribed by a physician!
Ritalin is the brand name for methylphenidate HCl, a form of speed designed by chemists to be just different enough from amphetamine for exclusive licensing by Ciba-Geigy, the drug company now known as Novartis. Ritalin use had flattened in the late 1970s after Peter Schrag and Diane Divoky published their brilliant expose, The Myth of the Hyperactive Child; but by the mid-1980s it was being pushed successfully in the schools, its use justified by a pharmacological falsehood, i.e., that it had a “paradoxical effect” on the young, calming them down. In fact Ritalin has the classic effect of speed –riveting one’s attention on whatever is directly in front of one’s face, and causing all the expected side-effects, such as sleeplessness, loss of appetite and increasing jitters as it wears off. Ritalin and similar stimulants are now prescribed daily for five million American kids.
After hearing Howe’s story, I went to the UCSF library and looked in vain for a study correlating Ritalin use in childhood and cocaine use in adulthood. I contacted a UC Berkeley psychology professor, Nadine Lambert, who had begun looking into it. She shared her preliminary findings in what would become a 30-year longitudinal study: Ritalin use seems to predispose for stimulant use down the road. It’s just common sense: give a kid a “medicine,” the effects of which are supposedly good for them, then take it away at age 16, and of course a certain number are going to try to reproduce those familiar “positive” effects. Lambert got the picture: Ritalin is a quick fix used with the consent of overwhelmed parents and for the benefit of overwhelmed teachers. Attention does more for kids with “attention deficit disorder” than does Ritalin.
As this is going to press Saturday, May 6, the San Francisco Chronicle arrives with Nadine Lambert’s obituary. Lambert “died when her car was struck by a dump truck near campus… Lambert was instrumental in advocating the view that school psychologists should work with teachers to improve the classroom environment to help children succeed, a more successful intervention than simply pulling students out of class for testing or counseling because the number of school psychologists is so limited.
“Professor Lambert also published a controversial study in 1999 showing that children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who were treated with stimulant drugs such as Ritalin were more likely to smoke cigarettes earlier and more heavily and were more likely as adults to abuse cocaine. Her findings -based on a 30-year study of 492 children, half of whom had ADHD- raised questions about the risks of Ritalin and similar drugs.”
When I met him in ’86 Howe had just moved to Whitefish, Montana, which he thought would be a great place to raise a family. The local Drug Warriors insulted him in 1999 when he offered to be one of the four coaches on his daughter’s school softball team and the Whitefish Superintendent of Schools, a man named Dan Peters, turned him down. Howe said at the time, “I’m kind of dumbfounded by the whole thing. Right now a lot of damage is being done to these kids and to the program. And for what reason? I don’t know.” Howe appealed to the County Superintendent to overrule Peters’ ban. The County Superintendent ruled that she didn’t have jurisdiction because the appeal wasn’t filed with her office within 30 days of the original dis. Howe and the Whitefish Softball Association (the other parents) appealed to the State Superintendent who affirmed that the original appeal had not been filed on time.
So Whitefish wasn’t such a great place, after all. At the time of his death, according to his obit, Howe was living in Valencia, California. He was driving home from a business trip to Arizona. The business involved making and marketing “an all-natural high-energy soft drink.” A drink he himself could have endorsed.
When Howe was telling me the story of how he first came to use cocaine on a sun-baked diamond in San Jose 20 summers ago, his lawyer was standing by, smoking a cigar. At a key point the lawyer cut in with a commentary: “Okay, you’re a kid in New York alone, you’ve just won the big game, you’re a hero, but you’re alone in a hotel room with nothing to do but read Schopenhauer. A beautiful woman calls and says, ‘Come fuck my brains out.’ What would you rather do–you’re a kid in New York–go fuck a beautiful woman or stay home alone and read Schopenhauer?”