O's absorb, reflect on tragedy

Hargrove: Experience doesn't ease pain, shock of Bechler's sudden death

`Don't know how to react'

Teammates describe him as easygoing, dedicated

Orioles

February 18, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERALE, Fla. -- Nothing could have prepared Orioles manager Mike Hargrove for the news that pitching prospect Steve Bechler had died of a heat stroke yesterday morning, not even the tragedy Hargrove experienced at spring training 10 years ago.

Hargrove was entering his third season managing the Cleveland Indians on March 22, 1993, when three of his team's pitchers were involved in a boat crash on Little Lake Nellie, about 25 miles west of Orlando. Bobby Ojeda survived the crash with severe head injuries, but Tim Crews and Steve Olin died.

Now, it's Hargrove's job to pull the Orioles back together the way he did with Cleveland 10 years ago, but experience won't make it any easier, he said.

"I don't think anybody has a formula for that," Hargrove said. "Every situation is different. You go through one, and you hope it's the only one you do go through. Obviously, in this case it's not."

Bechler, who died at age 23 from what doctors are calling multi-organ failure caused by heat stroke, was remembered yesterday as a happy individual who loved baseball and loved his wife Kiley, who is expecting the couple's first child in April.

Bechler spent most of last season at Triple-A Rochester. The Orioles called him up in September, and he made three relief appearances, posting a 13.50 ERA. This spring, he was likely headed back to Triple-A, where there was hope he would continue his progression into a major-league starter's role.

He took part in the team's offseason workout program in Baltimore, but club officials had been reprimanding him about his poor conditioning.

Bechler passed a routine physical Thursday and made it through Friday's workout without incident. On Saturday, Bechler was struggling, so Hargrove removed him from the running drills and lectured him about the need to get in shape -- not just for the Orioles, but for the sake of his own family.

Dennis Allen was Bechler's coach at his Medford, Ore., high school, from which Bechler graduated in 1998.

"He was 180-185 pounds. I heard he was up to 245 now, and he never was near that when he played for me," Allen said.

Said Hargrove: "Our workouts are designed early on to ease people into things. It's not, `We're going to drive you into the ground the first week and then rebuild you.' It's an active workout, and you're expected to put effort into it. ... To have something like this happen out of these workouts is shocking."

Hargrove spent several hours at the hospital Sunday night, as did pitching coach Mark Wiley and Orioles vice president Mike Flanagan. At 9 yesterday morning, Orioles physician Dr. William Goldiner addressed the team. Kiley Bechler also said some words to her husband's teammates.

"They told us about the situation, and everybody was in shock," said Orioles pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. "It's hard to think that you saw him yesterday. After they told us, you don't know how to react. ... It's hard to see his wife. She's pregnant. My wife is pregnant. It just really hurts everybody."

Goldiner, Kiley Bechler and Flanagan rushed back to the hospital shortly after the meeting. At 10:10 a.m., Bechler was pronounced dead.

Twenty minutes later, Hargrove pulled his team off the practice field, throwing an arm around Matt Riley, another Orioles pitching prospect and one of Bechler's closest friends on the team. Inside the clubhouse, Orioles executive vice president Jim Beattie delivered the news.

Players started making their way from the clubhouse, many with tears in their eyes and looks of disbelief on their faces.

"He was just a very easygoing guy," said Orioles pitcher Sean Douglass.

"It's just tragic what happened. He has a kid coming and he's not going to get to see it."

Douglass, who pitched with Bechler last season at Rochester, said he tried to help him with his conditioning.

"I knew he wanted to work harder and be in better shape," Douglass said. "I told him, `If you need someone to run with, I'll run with you all the time.' I always saw him doing his running."

Allen, Bechler's high school coach, remembered his former player's dedication.

"Steve had a lot of natural talent. He threw it by people, and was such a competitor that he insisted on pitching a state playoff game one time after he had been sick the whole way on a three-hour bus ride to the game," Allen said. "He wouldn't let me take him out of that game. We didn't win that game, but it wasn't because he didn't pitch well."

Lopez is also no stranger to tragedy. He came up through the San Diego Padres organization and played with Mike Darr, who died in an automobile accident at Padres spring training camp last year.

"It was really a sad situation [with Darr]," said Lopez, who joined the Orioles last spring. "That day, I started thinking, what would I do if that ever happened to one of my teammates. Well, today, it happened to us, and it's unbelievable."

After canceling the rest of the workout, Hargrove told his players to come back this morning at 8:45, at which time they'll confer about practice today.

"There are certain things you can do to support people, and you've got to allow them time and space to do that, and you also have to be there as a group and as a family," Hargrove said. "As much as this is a business, if you break down the time, we still are together more than we are with our families during the season, so you do become a family. You just have to depend on each other and do the best you can."

Sun staff writer Bill Free contributed to this article.

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