Yankees' Howe Banned For Life

NEW YORK - Steve Howe, suspended six times in the past for substance-abuse problems, has become the first player to be banned from baseball for life because of drugs.

Commissioner Fay Vincent issued the penalty yesterday, writing that the New York Yankees' reliever "has finally extinguished his opportunity to play major-league baseball.

"The record amply demonstrates that he has squandered the many opportunities given to him to prove that he can comply with baseball's unequivocal policy where illegal drugs are concerned," Vincent said in a five-page decision.

The Players Association will contest the ruling in an arbitration hearing, expected to begin Monday.

"The suspension is without just cause," said Gene Orza, the union's associate general counsel. "No one here was surprised by the result."

Originally, Vincent had given Howe an indefinite suspension after the pitcher's guilty plea to a drug misdemeanor charge in a Montana court earlier this month. Howe appealed that ruling and arbitrator George Nicolau ordered the commissioner to be more specific.

Vincent, who had permitted Howe's request for "one last chance," when he allowed him to play in the minor leagues in 1990, said he felt at that time that the pitcher deserved a lifetime suspension. "I decided to give him one more chance," the commissioner said.

That chance resulted in Howe pitching for the New York Yankees last season, when he was 3-1 with a 1.68 earned-run average in 37 games. Then, on Dec. 19 in Kalispell, Mont., Howe was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of attempted possession of cocaine. A second count of cocaine possession was added later.

Howe, 34, continued pitching for the Yankees until June 8, when he pleaded guilty to the attempted possession charge. Within hours, Vincent issued his indefinite suspension, the seventh of Howe's career.

"I have requested that Mr. Howe come in and speak to me about these latest developments," Vincent said. "But he has declined to do so."

Howe was 3-0 with six saves and a 2.45 ERA this season. He was to make $600,000 this season, plus incentives.

Howe, NL rookie of the year for the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980, underwent the first of many drug rehabilitations two years later. His problems have followed him to major-league stops in Minnesota and Texas and through a comeback bid in the minors.

In December, 1989, he contacted Vincent's office asking for another chance. In yesterday's decision, the commissioner quoted from the letter Howe sent him at that time.

"I have a responsibility to myself, my family and to baseball and to the fans to conduct myself in a manner that promotes strong morals and good sportsmanship. If I cannot do that by remaining clean and sober, then I myself will walk away from the game."