Want to know the awesome thing about Steve Bechler, Matt Riley asks: You could joke with him about anything, “And he would never get mad.”
Even his weight, the scourge of his young baseball career, was fair game. Friends, coaches and managers would tell the big boy from Oregon that he had to drop weight and work harder, but in baseball most communication comes in the form of wisecracks, not heart-to-heart chats. Even Bechler would make a few jokes at his own expense.
In any profession other than professional sports and even in pro sports 20 years ago Bechler would be seen as just a large man with an appetite befitting his size. “Look at any of us we’re not small guys,” his brother Mike says.
But Mike Bechler went into banking and Steve Bechler became a professional baseball player, and baseball in the 21st century does not allow for sloppiness or extra weight – ask the Mets’ Mo Vaughn or the Yankees’ David Wells, whose weight issues have defined their careers. Bechler was a good enough athlete to become the Baltimore Orioles’ third-round draft pick in 1998 when he was only 19 years old – and one of the best pitchers to come from the state of Oregon but after five seasons rising through the minors, the jokes about his 250-pound frame were starting to get through.
“We would always kind of let him know and the coaches would warn Steve that you have to come in shape to make this team, because when you get up to this level, up here in the big leagues, it’s cutthroat,” Riley says. “And if you’re not in good enough shape there’s somebody else that will be in better shape and will come in and take your job. I think Steve finally understood that.”
There were days this spring when Bechler would sit at his locker with his head in his hands, telling Riley and his other friends that he really wanted to drop the weight this time; last Sunday, Bechler left the clubhouse, headed out to work with the rest of the team, collapsed and then died of heatstroke at 10:10 the next morning.
An autopsy found almost no solid food in his intestines, a sign that he had probably not eaten a regular meal for two days. According to Broward County medical examiner Joshua Perper, Bechler was also taking the ephedrine-based weight-loss supplement Xenadrine RFA-1, which Perper listed as a cause of death even though toxicology reports won’t be back for two more weeks.
Perper based his statements on interviews with at least a half-dozen Orioles employees and players, as well as Bechler’s widow Kiley, who is 7 1/2 months pregnant. “I have no doubts,” Perper said in his office this week.
Every capsule of Xenadrine RFA-1 is “stacked” with caffeine and ephedra, an herb that contains the stimulant ephedrine. Xenadrine RFA-1’s manufacturer, Cytodyne Technologies, advertises it as, “a revolutionary thermogenic diet formula clinically proven to dramatically increase the rate of fat loss significantly more than diet and exercise alone.”
No one on the team is sure when Bechler started taking Xenadrine, whether he consulted a doctor or trainer about it or if he took it the day he collapsed from heat exhaustion with a body temperature of 108 degrees. He had collapsed twice from heat exhaustion in high school, his mother told the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, and Perper’s autopsy showed that Bechler’s heart and liver were enlarged at the time of his death.
But the rising awareness of ephedra’s risks were not enough to discourage a 23-year-old who was reminded every day that he needed to lose weight, a young player on the verge of making a Major League Baseball team and all the money and fame and glory that comes with it.
Manager Mike Hargrove pulled Bechler aside last week to tell him he had to bear down and work harder, though Kiley says her husband was energized by the talk. “He really did it right,” she said.
Riley, a trim, tattooed 23-year-old who used ephedra before he was warned off it, tried to encourage his teammate.
“I went over to talk to him as a friend and let him know to keep his head up and it was early enough to make the changes and do what he needed to do,” he says. “It seemed like he was willing to make those changes at that point and that’s why he you know ran himself to death Sunday.”
Riley said he did not know that Bechler was taking Xenadrine, but after his death, he says Kiley Bechler told him she knew her husband was taking the stimulant and had warned him about it.
“I know she wanted him off it. She knew his medical history and knew the potential danger that Xenadrine could cause,” Riley says.
But for all his talent, humor and desire, Bechler was not the hardest worker in camp. Xenadrine might have its dangers some are even listed in tiny print on the bottle but it promised to do for him what his willpower did not.
Even with all the other possible contributing factors to Bechler’s death the humidity, his empty stomach, potential heart and liver problems Orioles team physician William Goldiner simply does not believe that ephedra was an innocent bystander.
“He wasn’t morbidly obese, he’s still 23 years old. How many 23-year-olds die of heatstroke after running a few drills in the morning?” Goldiner asks. “This is just not dehydration with heat stroke. His temperature was 108. The body is actually cooking itself.”
There has been a backlash against ephedra since Congress passed the Dietary Supplements Health and Education Act (DSHEA) in 1994, largely deregulating the industry. Many supplement manufacturers now market “ephedra-free” products that tout their lack of ephedrine, although experts say other stimulants such as “Bitter Orange” often replace the epehdra. Even Cytodyne has a new version of Xenadrine on the market called EFX: “Best of all, it works without containing ephedrine!” trumpets the ad on the Cytodyne Web site.
Bechler apparently used Xenadrine last August when he pitched with the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings. A friend who did not want his name used said he saw a bottle of the supplement in Bechler’s bag but did not ask him about it.
Coach Andy Etchebarren says he did not know Bechler was using it. He said the team assigned Bechler to a strength and conditioning coach and that the results were dramatic. “He lost weight and got up to running 20 minutes straight, from five,” Etchebarren says. “He started to pitch much better after that.”
But Etchebarren was adamant that Bechler had never used any type of supplement. “Absolutely not,” Etchebarren says. “If I had heard or found him using any such product, I would have turned him over to the DEA.”
The DEA would not have done much for him. Ephedra is legal and is not even banned in baseball, although commissioner Bud Selig’s office said this week it will start talks with the players’ union to discuss banning it or regulating its use. The NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee have already banned ephedra and products like it.
Bechler’s former teammate Ryan McGuire, now with the Yankees, says that if Bechler was using Xenadrine last year, he showed no adverse effects from it. Bechler apparently kept his pills, like his worries, to himself.
“I never saw any problems with him. Never saw any of that stuff around,” McGuire says. “I don’t even think I saw him saying, `Who, it’s hot,’ like in late innings of a start or something.”
It pains Mike Bechler to think that his brother will be remembered as the young player who died after he took a diet supplement.
Mike Bechler does not want to talk about ephedra, not just yet. He has spoken out about its dangers since his brother died but has been advised by his brother’s agents not to discuss the issue publicly. He says it is too soon to consider something like a lawsuit, although Kiley Bechler has retained an attorney and will consider legal action, according to sources.
But Mike Bechler does want the world to know that there was more to his brother than a tragic death.
“Look how much he accomplished by the age of 23. How many 23-year-olds can say they did what he did? He got to make it to the majors,” Mike Bechler says. “It meant a lot to him to be in New York last year for (the anniversary of) 9/11 and to see all that. He was more than just a ballplayer.”
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