Distance fails to ease Towers' pain

Orioles notebook

Close Bechler teammate last year, now with Jays, no less affected by death

February 21, 2003|By Roch Kubatko | Roch Kubatko,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - One day after the Orioles held a memorial service for teammate Steve Bechler, who died Monday from heatstroke, pitcher Josh Towers tried to clear his head of the tragedy 256 miles away.

Towers is grouped with the pitchers at the Toronto Blue Jays' spring training camp in Dunedin, Fla., a nonroster invitee who signed as a minor-league free agent after seven years in the Orioles' organization. Probably no one was closer to Bechler last season than Towers. They were part of the same rotation at Triple-A Rochester and felt like part of the same family.

Catcher Jayson Werth, a first-round draft pick of the Orioles before being traded to the Blue Jays, learned that Bechler was in critical condition Sunday after receiving a phone call from Matt Riley. He passed along the news to Towers.

Towers held out hope that Bechler was suffering only from heat exhaustion and would be fine after receiving enough fluids. But Bechler died at 10:10 a.m. Monday.

"My whole body went numb," he said. "Last year was our first full season together, but we always hung out in spring training. I still can't believe it happened."

The death haunts Towers even more when he considers that Bechler's wife, Kiley, is 7 1/2 months' pregnant. Towers and his wife, Kendell, are expecting their first child in May.

"When I was leaving the clubhouse," he said, "I heard one of the guys say, `I'm going home and hug my kids.' "

A scout remembers

John Gillette looked like a proud parent in September while he stood on the field at Camden Yards during batting practice and watched Bechler shag fly balls. Now, he's grieving like one.

Bechler was the first player he signed as an Orioles scout and the first to reach the majors. Wanting to soak up the moment, Gillette made the trip to Baltimore from his home in Kirkland, Wash.

Nothing could have prepared him for Sunday's phone call from scouting director Tony DeMacio, and news the next day that left him devastated.

"I was just floored," Gillette said yesterday. "I was in Phoenix at the time, hanging in my room and running everything through my head and not really believing it. Then when I talked to [Bechler's] dad, I couldn't handle it. That's when it really hit home.

"I was the first person to basically come in contact with his family from the Orioles. There's no way in heaven you can be ready for this."

Bechler's family has asked Gillette to speak at a memorial service in Medford, Ore., where the former third-round draft choice pitched in high school. "Hopefully, I'll be able to summon up the courage," he said.

Gillette's last conversation with Bechler came in September, in a phone call to Bechler at Camden Yards. Gillette no longer heard a cocky, immature 18-year-old with tremendous potential as a person and a pitcher.

"I could tell in his voice that he was becoming a man, and it really made me proud," Gillette said.

Father to son

Manager Mike Hargrove said Bechler's death had prompted him to expand a dialogue with his son, Andy, about the dangers of over-the-counter supplements.

"I've got a 21-year-old son," Hargrove said. "He's two years younger than Steve Bechler. I've already had six conversations with him over the dangers of those things."

Andy Hargrove, a junior at Oral Roberts University, is expected to be taken in June's draft.

Hargrove said in his conversations that he did not get the sense that ephedrine products were in common use among college baseball players. The substance is banned by the NCAA.

Johnson returns

Pitcher Jason Johnson returned to yesterday's workout showing no effects from Wednesday's diabetic episode, but he was uncomfortable with the attention it received.

Johnson was rushed off the back fields in a cart and treated by the paramedics and the Orioles' medical staff - in full view of reporters, photographers and a smattering of fans. He made a quick recovery and drove himself from the stadium, and later attended a memorial service for Bechler. But the incident received national exposure, in large part because the scene was eerily reminiscent of Bechler's.

A late starting time because of physicals caused Johnson, a Type I diabetic, to forget to reset his insulin pump. He was given a glucose-based paste and sports drink, and walked into the clubhouse about 20 minutes later.

A headline in yesterday's USA Today indicated Johnson collapsed, which he denied, and he said he didn't appreciate the extensive television coverage.

"This is something that's happened a lot," he said. "Everything's fine now."

Around the horn

Melvin Mora reported to camp after getting a flight out of Baltimore. ... Outfielder B.J. Surhoff, who rejoined the organization after signing a minor-league contract, reclaimed his No. 17 from catcher Geronimo Gil. Surhoff was wearing No. 39 in camp before swapping with Gil.

Sun staff writers Peter Schmuck and Joe Christensen contributed to this article.

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