VERO BEACH, Fla. — The letter arrived unsigned. That kind always does.
"Stevie baby," it began, "I've been waiting a year and a half for this, you chemically dependent bleep. . . . "
You get the idea.
Steve Howe got an idea, too. Instead of tearing up the letter, or throwing it away, he Xeroxed it and passed out copies in the Dodger clubhouse.
Some comebacks are braver than others. Steve Howe, fighting dragons imagined and real, reached for one of the only weapons he has left. He went for the laugh.
"He's scared, although he'd never tell you that now," a friend of Howe said.
"He is, after all, the most publicized drug case in the history of sports. But I'll tell you this: He's giving it one hell of a good shot to make it. And he's got a good message for anybody who tries that stuff."
That stuff is cocaine, which rarely comes as expensive as it did for Howe. A year out of his career, hundreds of thousands of dollars out of his pocket, scars on his marriage, his reputation and his psyche.
You could say that Howe has a score to settle. But in this game, breaking even isn't good enough. It's winner take all.
Steve Howe, whose elbow surgery has limited him to light tossing, stood on the mound at Field No. 2 in Dodgertown, throwing to Todd Maulding, the team's batting-practice catcher, at a photographer's request.
"Could you throw it a little lower?" the photographer shouted. "The ball is going out of the frame."
Howe's next pitch reached the plate on one bounce. He glared at the photographer. "Is that low enough for you?" he snapped, then broke into a big grin.
Turning to the bleachers, he addressed the few fans, the retirees and sun-starved New Englanders who come here each spring. "How was that, gang?" he said. They cheered.
Howe isn't giving interviews, but he is hardly remote, signing autographs, joking with teammates and engaging in casual conversation with reporters.
"Mentally, he's the best I've ever seen him," said Tom Niedenfuer, a teammate in the bullpen and also a friend.
"He's like a little kid after missing a year. A little nervous, too."
Howe has not pitched for the Dodgers in a game since September, 1983. On the 23rd of that month, he was suspended for a second time by the Dodgers. Then, in December, baseball Commissioner Bowie Kuhn suspended him for the 1984 season for violating baseball's drug rules. Howe filed a grievance with the players' association that was settled last June, but it was agreed that Howe should spend the rest of the season rehabilitating.
The Dodgers, who have been subjecting Howe to urine tests--twice a week this spring--say Howe has been clean for months. When he ran the hill-- the workout devised by running coach Jim Bush on the 17th Street bridge here--Howe wore a Narcotics Anonymous T-shirt that read: "Mean 'n Clean."
Howe's drug use is not a forbidden subject here. Howe brings it up himself, frequently. "The only difference between me and the other players is that I have to take a little bottle with me to the bathroom," he joked in the training room.
Pitching coach Ron Perranoski is one of Howe's closest friends. They often drove in to Dodger Stadium together from the Valley. And even last season, when Howe couldn't play, he would go to Perranoski's house, just to talk.
"He talks about (his addiction) freely," Perranoski said. "That's good therapy.
"He really is trying, a super effort. Like anything else, it's a sickness, and he realizes it.
"But this is the best I've seen him handle it, the publicity and all. The first time (he came back) he was hyperventilating, he was so damn nervous."
It was Country and Western night at Dodgertown. Out behind the swimming pool, a bonfire cast a soft light . Steaks , ribs and chicken sizzled on the grills. A small dance floor had been set up in front of a stage, where a local band called Southern Charm played soft country ballads. Steve Howe and his wife, Cyndy, wearing cowboy hats , as were the other guests, joined several other couples gliding slowly across the floor to the sound of the steel guitar. For the entire dance, the smile that illuminated Cyndy Howe's face never left. "Steve has a total support system," said Fred Claire, the Dodgers' executive vice president. "He has a lot of good people around him--Jim Hawkins, Cyndy. . . . "
Hawkins is Howe's attorney and confidant. Cyndy is Steve's wife and mother of their 22-month-old daughter, Chelsie Leigh. They expect to celebrate their sixth wedding anniversary June 16.
"You can see he's happier," said Mark Cresse, the Dodger bullpen coach. "He's talking a lot about his family, too, a lot more than he ever did."
In previous months, there had been lots of talk about Howe's marriage: Cyndy's admission that she, too, had used cocaine, and reports that Steve, shortly after the birth of their daughter, had moved out on his own.