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Baseball Needs To Step Up To The Plate On Issue of Ephedra

Feb 21, 2003 | The Tennessean While major league baseball buries one of its own, the alleged national pastime also buries its head in the sand.

Steve Bechler, a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles' organization, died this week from complications of heatstroke that caused multi-organ failure. Bechler's body temperature soared to 108 degrees after he collapsed during a workout at spring training.

The medical examiner said Bechler was taking a product that contained ephedrine, the active ingredient in ephedra.

The response of baseball's alleged leadership: They stepped out of the batter's box.

This is how baseball always seems to handle its toughest issues. It is the U.N. of sports. Why take any firm stance when you can appoint a commission, draft a resolution or ask for a delay?

Other sports entities exercise greater common sense. The NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee have banned ephedra. The NHL and NBA have joined baseball as holdouts.

Major league owners actually skirted the issue of banning ephedra-based products last year but ultimately deferred when the players' union balked. Since then, they have rationalized that these products can be legally purchased over the counter, so they should not be banned.

This just in: You can buy Clorox at the grocery, but that doesn't mean it's OK to mix it with Gatorade for a real picker-upper after running a few wind sprints.

Ephedra derived from the herb Ma Huang has been around for centuries and has been used for everything from weight loss to promoting an energy boost. But Steve Watterson, the Titans' strength and conditioning coach, says the effects of ephedra ''have increased dramatically because of how it's being made and the dosages that are being used'' in the past decade or so.

Watterson noted the dangers of mixing what he called ''the elite athlete'' and ephedra.

In a condensed version, Watterson put it this way: ''We train athletes to recover from exertion, to get their pulse rate down after a workout. We measure that. But if your body is trying to recover and cool down but there is a substance present in the body that is fighting to create more heat, there are problems.''

Even before the NFL listed ephedra as a banned substance, Watterson said it was not widely used by Titans players, even those with weight problems or those in search of an energy boost or some other physical edge.

Why? ''The effect on short-term memory is not good, which is certainly a concern. There are also concerns about dizziness, gastrointestinal problems, things like that, not to mention that it has been linked to heart attack and seizures.''

Those with any social conscience recognize there is a link between pro athletes and young athletes. When Mark McGwire was consuming androstenedione in pursuit of longer long balls, sales of the so-called ''legal steroid'' increased dramatically among young athletes.

But baseball still doesn't get it. The owners and players are at such odds that they can't even agree on something as simple as identifying and banning substances like ephedra that have no logical place in the game.

It's too late for Steve Bechler. Now he is just another sad baseball statistic.

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