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Baseball Needs To Act On Over-the-Counter Drugs

Feb 19, 2003 | USA Today

Once again baseball has turned its back on a killer drug. But this time a young, promising Baltimore Orioles pitcher has paid the price.

If owners and the players union need a wake-up call, this is it.

While baseball officials mourn Monday's death of 23-year-old Steve Bechler, they should put aside their ridiculous differences and ban such over-the-counter drugs, which can be so harmful.

Bechler, who reported to the Orioles spring training camp in Fort Lauderdale overweight and out of shape, was taking Xenadrine, an over-the-counter diet supplement containing ephedrine.

Dr. Joshua Perper, Broward County medical examiner, said Tuesday that the drug probably contributed to the heatstroke death of Bechler.

Drugs containing ephedrine are banned by the NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee.

But not by Major League Baseball.

And sadly, that probably won't change anytime soon.

If the NFL, NCAA and IOC are able to outlaw certain drugs, why not baseball? Do more players have to die?

Owners and players have been battling each other since the 1980s over drugs, both legal and illegal.

Consider this: Rob Manfred, management's top negotiator, tried unsuccessfully during last summer's collective bargaining negotiations to get drugs containing ephedrine banned. The union said no.

Manfred confirmed that fact Tuesday night but refused additional comment.

Commissioner Bud Selig said: "I'm deeply saddened by the death of Steve Bechler. My deepest sympathies go out to his wife and family. All of baseball shares this enormous grief."

When asked whether there's any plan to look into this drug, Selig ended the interview. "I'm not going to talk about it."

"I'm not going to say anything until after the funeral and the burial. It would be inappropriate," union chief Don Fehr told the Associated Press.

The problem is that Fehr and his constituents are philosophically opposed to banning any substance that is available to anyone at health food stores and other places.

But when he testified at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing June 18, he emphasized that certain substances "are fully legal under federal law and are sold over the counter at health food and other stores all across the nation, without even the simple protections of a warning label or an age restriction."

Fehr added it might well be time for the federal government to take action about such products. "We would welcome a re-examination by Congress or the Federal Drug Administration," he said.

Ah, yes.

Forget for a moment about feuding owners and players.

Bechler's death should trigger action by Congress or the FDA. That's where action can — and should — be taken and not end up in a stalemate as most drug problems have within baseball.

This is so reminiscent of the Pittsburgh drug trials in the mid-1980s, when cocaine was the issue. Players were fined and suspended, and some went to jail. But random drug testing wasn't approved.

In 1998, when Mark McGwire chased Roger Maris' season home run record, he made androstenedione famous when he said he used the muscle-enhancing product.

And last summer Ken Caminiti admitted using steroids en route to the National League MVP Award in 1996 and estimated that half of baseball's players took the illegal substance.

Use of steroids became part of a drug-testing policy adopted as part of the new basic agreement. A study on the effects of andro was commissioned, but the substance wasn't banned in the agreement. Instead, owners and players agreed to lobby Congress to get andro and other supplements banned.

"If a patient of mine came to me and asked whether he should take androstenedione, I would caution against it simply because we don't know what the long-term effects are," said Benjamin Leder, the Harvard endocrinologist who headed a joint study for MLB and the union.

Manfred says when players arrive in spring training each year they're presented a 15-page booklet titled Steroids and Nutritional Supplements.

Bold type on the cover states: "No player should take any substance reported or claimed to improve training capacity, to increase strength and endurance, or to improve performance without first consulting his personal physician or a physician knowledgeable in these areas."

Nearly all of page 12 addresses ephedrine. "It is extracted from a Chinese herb variously called 'Ma Huang' or 'Ephedra.' In this form it has also been known as 'herbal ecstasy.' "

This passage stands out: "There have been a number of severe side effects reported related to the drug, including high blood pressure, rapid heart rate, seizures, strokes, heart attacks and death."

Wonder if Bechler had the booklet — and read it.

Even if he did, he was driven to compete.

"When you're an athlete, you obviously work very hard to try and maintain a certain level," Philadelphia Phillies first baseman Jim Thome said. "What happened is so unfortunate."

It could have been avoided had baseball — and the government done a better job.

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