Commissioner Fay Vincent said Wednesday that Steve Howe's seventh drug and/or alcohol-related suspension from baseball should be Howe's last--but it may not be.
Vincent announced he was permanently banning the New York Yankee pitcher in response to Howe's June 8 guilty plea in Montana to a misdemeanor charge of attempting to purchase cocaine.
Vincent's ruling came after arbitrator George Nicolau, hearing Howe's appeal of the commissioner's initial indefinite suspension, ordered the commissioner to put a time frame on it.
Nicolau, responding to a grievance filed through the Major League Players Assn., will now resume the hearing next week and could either support the commissioner's ruling, overturn it or modify the length.
"There is not just cause for a lifetime suspension, but we're not surprised by the commissioner's ruling," said Dick Moss, Howe's baseball attorney. "We were under the impression he had his mind made up last week, which is why we advised Steve not to meet with him."
Nicolau had given Vincent 14 days to make a decision if Vincent personally met with Howe to hear his side and seven days if he did not. Moss said they chose the accelerated route because of their belief that a meeting with Vincent was useless.
"It's very frustrating," Moss said. "I can't really comment because the situation is being appealed and I'm not going to argue it in the papers. On the other hand, Steve is getting a lot of bad publicity."
Howe, of course, has been getting a lot of bad publicity for a long time.
Vincent, in making Howe the first player to receive a permanent ban for substance abuse, pointed out that the 34-year-old left-hander has the longest disciplinary record of drug abuse offenses in the history of baseball.
It dates to 1982 when Howe, two years after winning the National League's rookie of the year award with the Dodgers, went into drug rehabilitation for the first time.
"It is my judgment that Steve Howe has finally extinguished his opportunity to play major league baseball," Vincent wrote in a five-page decision. "The record amply demonstrates that he has squandered the many opportunities given to him that he can comply with baseball's unequivocal policy where illegal drugs are concerned."
Vincent said in his decision that he felt Howe's record warranted a lifetime ban when the pitcher requested "one last chance" in December of 1989, but that he decided to give him that chance providing he agree to random testing.
Howe made a successful return with the Yankees in 1991. He was 3-1 with three saves and a 1.68 earned-run average last season, but he was arrested on Dec. 19 in Kalispell, Mont., on the attempted possession charge and was later charged with a second misdemeanor count of cocaine possession. He had continued to pitch effectively for the Yankees until Vincent issued his indefinite suspension in response to Howe's June 8 plea.
Howe entered what is known as an Alford plea, according to Moss, to avoid the financial and emotional drain of a trial, but it did not mean he agreed with or accepted the prosecution's facts in the case. The most compelling facts, Moss said, should be that Howe neither used nor possessed cocaine in this instance.
Vincent, however, addressed the Alford plea in his decision, writing that the Montana magistrate asked Howe if he understood that his Alford plea was still a guilty plea and that Howe said he did.
In addition, Vincent wrote, Howe acknowledged to a direct question from the magistrate that he had attempted to buy cocaine and that the magistrate had noted "there was a sufficient factual basis to support the guilty plea."