In crisis, O's pull together in team effort

Many pitch in to help Bechler's wife, family

`It's a classy organization'

Flanagan, Beattie proud of show of compassion

February 21, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Angelo Russello has been a parking lot attendant during spring training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium since 1982, and when he heard Mike Flanagan wanted to meet with him yesterday morning, his first question was, "Who's going to man the gate?"

Flanagan said: "Don't worry. This will only take five minutes."

One day after the Orioles held a memorial service to honor fallen pitcher Steve Bechler, Flanagan called a meeting to thank everyone who helped the team during this difficult time. And Flanagan, the Orioles' vice president of baseball operations, meant everyone.

Flanagan wanted to thank the team's doctors and trainers. He wanted to thank the equipment managers who have sewn commemorative patches on the team's spring training jerseys with Bechler's No. 51.

He wanted to thank Orioles staff members and the city workers who run team's spring training headquarters. He wanted to thank Russello.

Still visibly shaken by Bechler's death, Flanagan said he was very proud of the way the Orioles family rose to the occasion to help the Bechler family during its time of need. With Flanagan and executive vice president Jim Beattie less than three months into their new jobs atop the baseball operations department, this organization learned a lot about itself this week.

"One of the things Jim and I wanted to do when we came in was delegate authority," Flanagan said, "and allow people to do their jobs at the highest possible level, from Angelo [Russello], the guard at the gate, to everybody who runs the ticket office, to the grounds crew, to the trainers, the doctors, the policemen who work at the ballpark."

When Bechler, a 23-year-old pitching prospect, collapsed from heatstroke during Sunday's practice, the Orioles had a crisis on their hands unlike many of them had experienced.

"The bottom line for us was, how did we react to the people that matter the most, which is first and foremost the Bechlers?" Beattie said. "And then, how did we react with our players and the people that Steve Bechler touched in the organization?"

Traveling secretary Phil Itzoe reached Bechler's wife, Kiley Bechler, on her cell phone as she drove cross-country and arranged to put her on the first flight out of Salt Lake City to Fort Lauderdale.

Before Kiley Bechler arrived at the airport at midnight, Ann Lange, the executive assistant who works with Beattie and Flanagan, volunteered to pick her up at the airport. "That was an incredibly difficult situation," Flanagan said.

With a winter storm in the Northeast clogging airports across the country, Itzoe found a way to get Bechler's parents and several other family members into town from Oregon as soon as possible. The Orioles sent a limousine to take Bech- ler's parents and siblings from the Miami airport to the hospital, but the pitcher died while they were en route.

Orioles owner Peter Angelos told his people to give the Bechler family whatever it needed. All travel expenses, meals and hotel costs were covered. Beattie said Angelos has also promised a significant financial contribution to help Kiley Bechler, who is expecting the couple's child in April.

"What people don't understand about Peter," said Orioles director of public relations Bill Stetka, "is he does so much good people don't know about. And he really wants no credit."

Flanagan spent Sunday night with Kiley Bechler at the hospital, rarely leaving her side, and Beattie went to work on helping with her financial situation.

Director of baseball administration Ed Kenney stepped in to handle the typical general manager responsibilities.

Stetka and executive director of communications Spiro Alafassos helped handle the national media crush accompanying the story, which has been even more intense because Bechler's death has been linked to use of the stimulant ephedrine.

By Wednesday night, the Orioles and their Fort Lauderdale crew had put together a memorial service for Bechler's family, complete with flower wreaths, pictures of Bechler and those jerseys with the black commemorative patch with the orange No. 51.

Earlier this week, Bechler's mother, Pat Bechler, said, "The Orioles have been great."

Yesterday, those thoughts were echoed by Russello and two others who were manning the parking lot gate.

"It's a classy organization," Tony Pecora said.

"They make you feel good about doing the job," Skip Lotz said.

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