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Baseball's Laughable Drug-Testing No Longer Funny

Feb 21, 2003 | Florida Today

Laughable. That's what they called the drug policy baseball adopted late last summer, when it rallied in the bottom of the ninth and scored on a new collective bargaining agreement.

A sport with inflatable superstars, all pumped up with performance-enhancing drugs, decided it was time to get tough on drugs.

Yeah, right. Surely you jest. Baseball? Tough on drugs? Ha, ha. That's a good one.

No, instead of getting tough on drugs, what the owners and players union did last summer was enact a drug policy with enough holes in it that experts called it laughable.

Yes, laughable.

Only there is no laughter today.

Only tears.

Steve Bechler is dead, dead at 23 before his baseball career and his life could ever really start.

In time, the autopsy report on the Baltimore Orioles' promising pitcher will give us the full details. But that autopsy report won't have any sentences in it about a grieving mother and a distraught wife seven and a half months pregnant with the Bechlers' first and forever only child. Those details are left for obituaries.

What we expect to hear when the medical examiner issues his final findings is that the herbal drug ephedrine or ephedra, or Ma Huang contributed to Bechler's death.

We've heard a lot about ephedrine lately, in and out of the sports world.

It's popular, and it's legal. Look at any fitness, health or nutritional magazine, and you'll see ephedrine dominating ads as a weight-loss stimulant, especially the product Xenadrine, which was found in Bechler's locker. Yes, ephedrine is everywhere. Except in the NFL, the NCAA and the Olympics. In those three arenas, it is banned.

Remember last football season, when the NFL suspended Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers for the final four games because he tested positive for a banned substance? Ever wonder what he tested positive for to receive such a stiff sentence? Was it steroids? Cocaine? Marijuana?

Try ephedrine.

In spite of missing four games, Peppers played well enough to win The Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year Award. Julius Peppers is 23. In fact, he was born exactly two months to the day after Steve Bechler, Bechler on Nov. 18, 1979, and Peppers on Jan. 18, 1980.

Julius Peppers' whole career, and life, is still ahead of him.

Steve Bechler's is not.

The NFL tests and suspends players for using ephedrine.

Major league baseball does not.

But this is not just major league baseball's fault. Not hardly. The brunt of blame falls on the Major League Baseball Players Association, also known as its union. The union has done wonderful things for baseball players. A batter can hit .250 and a pitcher can lose more games than he wins, and both can still earn millions of dollars.

But shouldn't the union be about more than just money? Shouldn't safety also be the union's concern? Most unions or maybe we should say real unions want to protect its people. Most unions not only make safety an issue, they demand it. But not the baseball players union. They fight it. That's why, in the sporting world's evolution of drug testing and safety, baseball is still dragging its knuckles along the ground.

Players are free to ingest controversial drugs like ephedra and the only punitive damage is that you can die. You won't get suspended for a fourth of a season, like Peppers was, but they might have to carry you out of camp in a body bag.

The way ephedra works is that it generates heat. It increases the heart rate and boosts energy and metabolism. Most companies go a step further and mix it with caffeine, usually under the guise of another herb called guarana.

It is a prescription for disaster.

Sometimes death.

When Rashidi Wheeler, a 22-year-old Northwestern University football player, collapsed and died two years ago, ephedrine was found in his system. That same summer, Korey Stringer, a veteran lineman with the Minnesota Vikings, collapsed during a practice and died. Though ephedrine wasn't conclusively found in his system, it was found in his locker.

An autopsy also found ephedrine in Florida State football player Devaughn Darling's system after he collapsed and died while engaging in workouts.

But maybe football is different than baseball. After all, training camps are far more intense, and they are held in the heat of August, not March.

Baseball is safer.

Right?

Wrong.

It was only 81 degrees with 72 percent humidity when Bechler had to be helped off the field in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., suffering from the early symptoms of heat exhaustion. His body temperature rose to 108 degrees, and his organs, one by one, shut down.

When Pat Bechler arrived in Fort Lauderdale from Oregon, so she could take her son's body home, she asked: "Why was he allowed to take stuff like that? I don't understand it. The other sports banned all that crap. I don't understand why the major leagues don't."

What will baseball its owners and its union tell her?

And, equally as important, what will it now do?

A lot of people are watching, waiting. Lawyers are lining up, and sadly maybe that's what it will take.

Before Monday morning, when they pulled the sheet over Steve Bechler's body, what motivation did baseball have to implement a drug-testing program with teeth? And not just for ephedrine, because that isn't the worse of it.

But for steroids and androstenedione and other performance-enhancing drugs that have the top shelves in player lockers looking like the pharmaceutical counter at your local drug store.

Yes, what is the motivation?

Perhaps we should ask instead what the lack of motivation is?

Owners want players who are bigger, faster, stronger. It means increased offense, bigger gates, more money.

Agents want clients who are bigger, faster, stronger. It means bigger contracts, larger commissions, more money.

Players want to be bigger, faster, stronger. It means better statistics, fatter contracts, more money.

As always, it's all about money. It's all about worshipping at the altar to the God of Greenbacks.

The sport has no shame. Look at pictures of premier sluggers like Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and, before he retired, Mark McGwire. Look at photographs of them early in their careers, and then in recent years. And then ask yourself if it is all the product of hard work in the gym? Maybe it is. But until baseball cleans up its act, and implements a real drug-testing program, it will always lack credibility. And when you don't have credibility, the next thing you don't have is relevance.

The perception rightfully so is that baseball is guided by greed, that it is money hungry from top to bottom.

The experts laughed when baseball adopted a porous, pathetic drug policy last summer. Players laughed, too.

They thought, just like always, that they would laugh all the way to the bank.

Instead, they find themselves laughing all the way to the cemetery.


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