Deadly Diet

From Associated Press

Steve Bechler pitched in 117 minor league games before finally making it to the majors last September. Baltimore bullpen coach Elrod Hendricks thought the promotion was long overdue.

"I was happy for him. A lot of other guys were getting rewarded for not doing anything, and I thought he was one of our top prospects, stuff-wise," Hendricks said. "We looked at him and said, 'If this guy puts it all together, he could be in the starting rotation by '05 or '06."'

But Bechler died of heatstroke Feb. 17, and the tragedy has raised questions not only about dietary supplements but also about the pitcher's training regimen.

He was in Baltimore for a voluntary monthlong workout session during the winter but showed up only a few times.

"The guys that were there were supposed to be in shape by the time we started spring training. Unfortunately, he didn't show up all the time," Hendricks said.

Averaging one workout per week, the right-hander did little to rid himself of the 10 to 15 pounds he had added since the end of the 2002 season.

"I questioned him one time, and he never really gave me a definitive answer. He just shrugged his shoulders," Hendricks recalled. "You'd like to think that if Steve showed up on a regular basis, he would have been in decent shape coming in here."

Bechler reported to spring training overweight and out of shape. After getting scolded by Manager Mike Hargrove and several coaches, Bechler went on a crash diet. He didn't eat much, and is believed to have popped diet pills in an effort to drop the weight.

"He tried to lose it all in two days," Hendricks said, shaking his head.

Bechler, 23, died a day after collapsing during a workout under the hot Florida sun. In a preliminary autopsy report, Broward County chief medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper linked the death to the use of a diet supplement containing ephedra.

A bottle of Xenadrine RFA-1, which contains ephedra, was found in Bechler's locker after he collapsed.

In addition to revealing that Bechler had an enlarged heart, high blood pressure and an abnormal liver, Perper said there was very little solid food in the pitcher's digestive tract.

"All of those factors contributed to his demise," Perper said.

Bechler reported to camp weighing close to 250 -- nearly 60 pounds more than his playing weight as a high school pitcher in Oregon.

"He told me, 'I messed up.' He wanted to change his work ethic," teammate Matt Riley said.

Desperate to get his weight down, Bechler apparently exacerbated the problem by taking Xenadrine.

His death has created a furor over ephedra. Over-the-counter diet pills are frowned upon by the Orioles, but ephedra is not banned by major league baseball.

"It's definitely an eye-opener," Oriole pitcher Pat Hentgen said. "You have all these diet supplements out there on the market, and it's pretty obvious they had a direct impact on his death. You'd have to be a fool not to look at it and think about it."

In an effort to keep his weight down a year ago, Oriole outfielder Jay Gibbons carefully watched his caloric intake and used Xenadrine RFA-1.

"I never had any problems with it, dizziness or anything like that," Gibbons said. "But people react differently to it."

The tragedy has caused several baseball officials, including Oriole owner Peter Angelos, to call for a ban by major league baseball of ephedra. It has also changed Gibbons' view of the supplement.

"I'm not going to promote this product after what happened, that's for sure, and I probably won't take it again," he said.

The Orioles conducted an internal review of on-field procedures when Bechler collapsed and concluded the trainers acted in rapid and proper fashion.

"The field coverage remains the same, the fluids we have out there remains the same. Our attentiveness to the players and our policies remain intact," trainer Richie Bancells said.

The mood in the Orioles' clubhouse, however, has changed dramatically.

"When something like this happens, you tend to appreciate life a little bit more. Sadly, tragedies to do that," second baseman Jerry Hairston said. "Guys in here are thinking about life a little bit differently now."

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