Who really was on side of Bechler?

February 19, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

STEVE BECHLER was 23 when he collapsed at the Orioles' spring training camp and died at a Fort Lauderdale hospital. The pitcher was about to become a father for the first time. His wife, who hopped a plane when a cell phone call informed her she needed to get to Florida fast, was at her husband's side Monday when he died.

Who else was on Steve Bechler's side?

Not Major League Baseball, which doesn't have mandated drug-testing for anything except illegal steroids - and even that new "policy" is a joke.

Come up with something to make this steroid image problem go away: That was the way baseball approached the players union in August, when labor talks had to include a crumb for fans who rightfully suspect baseball, and many of its hallowed records, is being discredited by players who cheat.

After attempting to pull the wool over the public's eye when baseball announced a new labor agreement that included a so-called drug-testing policy, baseball again mistook us for fools. U.S. Rep. John E. Sweeney of New York chided Major League Baseball's owners and players, saying they "punted" on the issue of drugs in baseball and put in place a weak policy to deal with steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs.

Sweeney has singled out baseball for what it hasn't done and will sponsor a bill to make baseball institute drug policies in line with those of the NFL and the International Olympic Committee.

"It's not a drug test. It's an IQ test," Dr. Gary Wadler, a Long Island internist and member of the World Anti-Doping Agency research committee, said about baseball's bogus drug-test survey.

"You would have to flunk an IQ test to flunk it," he added, saying players would find easy ways around testing positively and within two years, this year's new "survey" test would be abandoned.

But if baseball owners are willing to look the other way on drug policies that could diminish the power of home run hitters or the hurry-up recovery for pitchers or position players, what's the union's excuse?

Certainly the players union wasn't on Steve Bechler's side, which is strange for an association allegedly charged with protecting the careers, interests - the lives - of members like Bechler.

Instead, the union, through its leader, Donald Fehr, refuses to come up with tough rules designed to protect and punish members who need help understanding what ways are safe to establish or maintain yourself as a professional ballplayer and what ways are dangerous, or worse.

Yesterday, the unpleasant aftermath of a seemingly unusual baseball death unfolded in Florida. The medical examiner in Broward County who performed an autopsy on Bechler said it will take two weeks for toxicology reports to come back, but that along with hypertension and a liver problem, the use of a dietary supplement containing ephedrine contributed to his death.

What a shame to hear how Bechler reported to camp overweight - not in very good shape, according to Orioles manager Mike Hargrove. And yet we raise an eyebrow - not to mention some legitimate ire and loathing toward baseball - about ephedrine allegedly being found in Bechler's system when there is way too much evidence that says no one, not even an athlete, should rely on products containing the supplement.

Ephedrine, contained in supplements like Ultimate Orange or some other "wonder" substances at your local GNC, is not subject to FDA testing or approval. Dosages and potency are not reliable in this stimulant, just as they are not reliable in testosterone precursors like androstenedione.

"Every inexplicable death, every failed drug test - these are metaphors for a huge problem, and one that is growing," Wadler said, adding: "You have no idea what athletes are taking. The makers of these supplements make medical claims that this supplement does this or that - it's Madison Avenue jargon. Since the FDA does not regulate these products, an ingredient might or might not be listed. You don't know. The potency can vary. It's up to the consumer to take legal remedy to prove the safety of the product they've used."

Or maybe it is up to baseball - players and owners - to issue stern, substantive warnings, not to mention the threat of punishment to its players regarding these kinds of substances.

This is what we are left to consider: Did Bechler, under pressure to knock off some weight fast, attempt to take a fatal shortcut? It's a legitimate question for which baseball has no good answer because the sport won't institute a policy that says taking substances like human growth hormone or androstenedione is not tolerated. In this atmosphere of complicit condoning, it's only a matter of time before a baseball player dies from taking something that isn't illegal but is known to be dangerous, or worse.

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