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Ephedra Takes Heat

A medical examiner confirmed Thursday that ephedra played a ‘significant role’ in Steve Bechler’s death

Mar 14, 2003 | York Daily Record,

Confirming his own initial findings that an ephedra-based weight-loss drug contributed to the death of Baltimore Orioles’ pitching prospect Steve Bechler, the Broward County medical examiner released toxicology and full autopsy reports Thursday while adding another mystery to the Bechler saga.

“It is my professional opinion that the toxicity of the ephedra played a significant role in the death of Mr. Bechler,†said medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper.

Bechler, 23, died of multiorgan failure caused by heatstroke on Feb. 17, a day after collapsing during routine conditioning runs at Fort Lauderdale Stadium.

Analysis of blood, eye fluid, bile and liver revealed “significant amounts†of ephedrine, a stimulant produced from the plant ephedra, Perper said. The amount was consistent, he said, with the ingestion of three over-the-counter Xenadrine RFA-1 tablets that Bechler reportedly had taken the morning of his collapse.

Perper reiterated that Bechler also suffered from mild hypertension, excessive weight, abnormal liver functions and an enlarged heart. Those factors, in concert with Xenadrine, led to the death, “although it’s impossible to define mathematically the contribution of each one of the factors,†he said.

The biggest surprise Thursday, however, was Perper’s confirmation that the 6-foot-2 Bechler weighed 320 pounds at the time of death about 70 pounds more than he reportedly weighed on Feb. 14 at the Orioles’ camp.

In the 23 hours between his collapse and death, Bechler was continually pumped with fluids perhaps as much as a liter an hour and did not excrete them, Perper said. That could have added “less than 20†pounds to his body weight, he estimated.

But Perper said he has never been involved in a postmortem situation in which a body gained such a significant amount of weight. The only other explanation is that the recorded weight on someone’s part was done incorrectly.

“Their weight at the time or maybe our weight at the time was maybe wrong,†Perper said.

The Orioles stand by Bechler’s 249 pounds, which was recorded by strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop on Feb. 14, the day after pitchers and catchers reported.

“When he weighed in here on our physical day he weighed 249,†Bishop said. “Whatever happened in between that and the coroner’s reading, I don’t know.â€

Bishop said the scale the Orioles use is a year old, costs $600 and has been certified by the manufacturer.

Bishop estimated that Bechler put on about 10 extra pounds over the winter, as he rarely participated in offseason workouts. Bechler refused to be weighed during the winter; he was the only one of about 16 players to do so, according to Bishop.

Still, Bishop said he doesn’t believe Bechler topped 250 pounds, a statement supported by several others within the organization.

“I didn’t think he even weighed 249 pounds. I thought that was actually heavy,†said outfielder Larry Bigbie, who lived with Bechler this winter. “I didn’t talk with him about that. He pretty much kept his weight confidential. He wasn’t really proud of the fact that he was heavy, so he really didn’t let too many people know (an exact weight).â€

Several Orioles interviewed Thursday said their recorded weights in February were correct.

“It defies logic that (only) one person’s weight would be off by that much,†Bishop said.

Bigbie does not believe Thursday’s revelations will stop usage of ephedra-based products in clubhouses.

“I don’t use it, but people that do use it keep it confidential,†Bigbie said. “I’m sure they have their routine and if that’s part of it, I don’t think it’s going to change.â€

After Perper’s news conference, myriad groups e-mailed statements to reporters, including representatives of Major League Baseball, the players’ union, the attorney for Bechler’s widow, Kiley, and Cytodyne Technologies, makers of Xenadrine.

Commissioner Bud Selig continues to call for an ephedra ban, and the players’ union has discouraged its membership from using the products. The NFL, NCAA and Olympics ban ephedra, but it is legal and often used by athletes as an energy boost.

Xenadrine’s manufacturer, which was represented at the news conference by a paid consultant posing as a media member, continues to claim it should not be blamed.

“The fact that the medical examiner found traces of ephedra in Mr. Bechler’s system does not mean that Mr. Bechler died from ephedra. He died from heatstroke,†said Shane Freedman, the company’s chief legal officer in an e-mailed statement.

But David J. Meiselman, Kiley Bechler’s attorney, points to the drug manufacturers for “the dangers of this poison.â€

“We look forward to holding those who profit at the expense of our health accountable for Steve Bechler’s death,†Meiselman said.

For Bechler’s parents, however, the toxicology report and subsequent rhetoric offered no consolation.

“This doesn’t bring any closure to us,†said Bechler’s father, Ernie, in a phone call from his Medford, Ore., home. “We will never have closure. Our son didn’t have to die.â€

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