Orioles follow painful path with tragedy

Likes of Cards, Padres have thrived, fallen after recent deaths of players

'93 tragedy still pains Hargrove

Bechler's death touches all O's, prospects the most

February 22, 2003|By Joe Christensen | Joe Christensen,SUN STAFF

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With Steve Bechler's memory in their hearts and his number on their sleeves, the Orioles stepped back into Fort Lauderdale Stadium yesterday, with the American flag waving high above center field, no longer at half-staff.

The first week of spring training robbed the Orioles of the normal joys that accompany a new season because it took the life of Bechler, a fun-loving, 23-year-old pitching prospect from Medford, Ore.

Bechler made just three appearances with the Orioles last season and was likely headed to Triple-A Ottawa this year, but veteran players who barely knew him were deeply saddened Monday upon learning he had died of heatstroke.

Those who had come through the minors with Bechler were devastated.

"Obviously it affects everybody differently in here," said Orioles first baseman Jeff Conine. "You might get by it on a baseball level, but on a human level, he's part of this family, and we can't replace that."

No two tragedies are exactly the same, but as the Orioles try to move forward, they can draw lessons from how other teams have handled sudden loss.

On Feb. 15, 2002 -- almost one year to the date Bechler died -- San Diego Padres outfielder Mike Darr died after rolling his SUV near the team's spring training complex in Peoria, Ariz. In an interview last month with the San Diego Union-Tribune, Padres outfielder Phil Nevin said the club never recovered.

"When it happened, we all said we'd come together and not let it affect us," Nevin said. "But it was a huge blow, much more devastating than I could have imagined. As much as you want to say, `It'll have no effect,' it ripped our hearts out. It made things tough."

Darr was 25 when he died, but young and old Padres players alike had grown to love his free spirit. As a baseball player, he was just starting to blossom, becoming an everyday major-league player in 2001.

Bechler started 2001 at Single-A Frederick and established himself as a durable Triple-A pitcher last season before making his major-league debut Sept. 6. He posted a 13.50 ERA in those three relief appearances, but the Orioles saw potential.

"Steve was a young guy who didn't have a lot of time up here," Orioles outfielder Jay Gibbons said. "For the young guys who came up with him, this is really tough. I only played with him a couple months. It doesn't hurt any less, but I definitely think the Darr situation was a little different."

The St. Louis Cardinals went through a series of tragedies last season, losing pitcher Darryl Kile, Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck and Darrell Porter, a former World Series MVP. Yet that team pulled itself together and advanced to the National League Championship Series.

In a pure baseball sense, Kile was a huge loss because he had averaged 18 wins and 230 innings over the previous two seasons. In an emotional sense, Matt Morris spoke openly for weeks about how he was having a hard time coping with Kile's death.

"It's something that's not easy to deal with," Cardinals pitcher Woody Williams told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this week. "I know for a solid month after [Kile's death], it was hard on everybody. Guys would just break down."

But Williams notices change this spring. Kile's memory remains, but instead of bringing sadness, it brings smiles.

"It's not something that should be taken lightly," said Williams, who was very close to Kile. "But now we joke about him. It's `DK did this,' or `DK said that.' "

In time, Bechler's closest friends might reach that stage, too. John Stephens went and consoled Bechler's parents in their hotel room a few hours after his death. Larry Bigbie, Matt Riley and Sean Douglass have run the gamut emotionally.

All four of those players are in big-league camp now but will likely be sent to the minors before the Orioles head north next month. The emotions might not linger the same way they did for the Padres or Cardinals last season. And it will probably be different than it was for the Minnesota Vikings, who lost starting offensive tackle Korey Stringer to heatstroke at their 2001 training camp.

Still, Bechler won't be forgotten. Not by anyone who sat in the clubhouse Monday morning, when Kiley Bechler -- 7 1/2 months pregnant with the couple's child -- addressed the team shortly before he died.

"The old saying, `Time heals all wounds' -- that's not true," Orioles manager Mike Hargrove said. "The wound kind of scabs over, and you put it in its place, and then you drag it out when you need to think about it."

Hargrove knows this better than anyone in the clubhouse. On March 22, 1993, he was entering his third year managing the Cleveland Indians when tragedy struck during spring training. Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boat crash on Little Lake Nellie in Florida, and Bob Ojeda, another pitcher on that Cleveland team, suffered serious head injuries.

Again, the loss was different. Olin made 72 relief appearances and posted a 2.34 ERA for Cleveland in 1992. Ojeda and Crews had come over from the Los Angeles Dodgers and were expected to be integral parts of the pitching staff.

Hargrove still takes the loss extremely hard. In December, ESPN interviewed Hargrove for a segment set to run with the 10-year anniversary of the accident. Two months later, Hargrove has gone through a week of answering almost nothing but Bechler questions.

"We're going to face this discussion 10 years from now," Hargrove said. "I don't know that it'll ever stop, and I don't know that it's all bad. You don't want to forget Steve, and we won't."

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