Lethal mix

February 20, 2003

Sometime after pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed at the Orioles' training camp Sunday, a bottle of a potentially dangerous dietary supplement reportedly was removed from his locker. The bottle - containing ephedra, a popular weight-loss and energy-boosting herb - was recovered, but the instinct to remove the uncomfortable evidence was telling.

Major League Baseball, and particularly its powerful players' union, has for too long treated unregulated supplements as just a public relations problem. As Mr. Bechler's death Monday unfortunately underscores, it's a life-and-death issue that can no longer be ignored by baseball - or, as in ephedra's case, merely studied by the federal Food and Drug Administration.

Mr. Bechler was a 23-year-old minor-leaguer with big-league potential. He came to this year's Fort Lauderdale camp with enough extra weight that he had trouble keeping up - to the point of receiving a talk from O's manager Mike Hargrove the day before he dropped with heatstroke symptoms.

Lab results aren't in, but a Florida medical examiner already has found Mr. Bechler hadn't eaten much, had liver problems and hypertension, and was taking Xenadrine, in which ephedra is packaged with a caffeine-like stimulant. This product, plus heat and humidity, plus being out of shape and overweight, were a highly risky mix.

Akin to legal amphetamine, ephedra has been used in Chinese medicine for at least 5,000 years to treat respiratory problems. In recent years, the herb has been aggressively marketed as a weight-loss supplement. It also ends up in various recreational street drugs.

Ephedra has been linked to more than 100 deaths nationwide, including that of a National Football League player and 33 in the military. The Food and Drug Administration has received far more reports of adverse reactions to ephedra than any other supplement. But the agency has been slow to act, withdrawing proposed regulations and deferring any action until a review panel reports this spring.

The NFL, U.S. Olympic Committee and NCAA - not to mention military commissaries - have banned ephedra. The O's don't tolerate it among their minor-leaguers. But ephedra is not covered by baseball's new drug-testing policy, a farce that essentially just surveys steroids to determine if there's a problem.

The larger problem here is that competitive sports has become an all-out arms race with vast payoffs for the biggest, fastest and strongest, potential fortunes that for many easily eclipse the risks of steroids or ephedra. Increasingly, even high-schoolers are said to be seeking out the same edges.

Given their potential liability, some dietary supplement makers already are moving away from producing ephedra products. Mr. Bechler's death likely will hasten that - and increase pressure on the FDA to ban ephedra. Meanwhile, it's dangerous and disgraceful for Major League Baseball to not already have such a ban.

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