Baseball must hear voices of experience

February 24, 2003|By LAURA VECSEY

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - At first, Bill Pulsipher did not want to talk about the time he passed out after taking too many pills containing ephedrine and maybe survived only because his wife found him on the floor in time to get him to the hospital.

"I don't want to go there again, and I don't want to have to go through this five, six, seven times," Pulsipher said yesterday, pulling on an orange practice jersey inside a clubhouse that has become the epicenter for a national debate on the role and use of ephedrine - not just in baseball, perhaps, but everywhere.

You can understand why Pulsipher is reluctant to go back three springs to a scary moment in his hard-luck career. He has so much work to do to get back to where he once was, briefly, and where he believes he belongs.

The reliever is in camp with the Orioles on a minor-league contract, hoping to win a job in the big leagues. It has been a long, hard haul since 1991, when Pulsipher was a second-round pick by the New York Mets. The left-hander worked through the Mets' system and made his heralded major-league debut in 1995, only to get walloped by an arm injury that knocked him out of action for all of 1996 and then, worse, sent him reeling on a baseball odyssey few, maybe none, would care to copy.

He has plied his trade for teams in Pittsfield, Norfolk, Milwaukee, Louisville, Tampa Bay for a month, Boston, Pawtucket, Chicago, Texas and Columbus, Ohio, from where the New York Yankees finally released him after last season. Now, you get the distinct impression that this deal with the Orioles is one the road-weary Pulsipher needs to make work.

"You'd like a guarantee, but there's not many guarantees until you make them happen. I want to throw, and hopefully my best will come out and my best will do," he said.

Yet, in spite of all the correctly selfish reasons Pulsipher has for focusing on having a good spring, even he knows it would be wrongly selfish to not reiterate his bad experience with ephedra. The supplement is finally getting the kind of widespread scrutiny it has escaped since 1994, when a congressional bill opened the door for dietary supplements to flood the market, free of Food and Drug Administration approval, setting up a Russian roulette game for consumers and, yes, ballplayers.

The NFL banned ephedra after Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer died, but this time the issue has reached a wider audience. Now, the longer this situation is under scrutiny, the less coincidental it seems that on a team like the Orioles, which last week lost 23-year-old Steve Bechler to a fatal bout of heatstroke while apparently using ephedra, there are other players who have had harrowing incidents.

"Mine is pretty much the same story," Pulsipher said.

"I was trying to lose a little bit of extra fat, extra weight. Spring training had started [in 2000], and I wasn't eating right. When you're young, you try and eliminate things, so you don't eat as much. When you're young, you think you're bulletproof. You're thinking if four was good, five was better. Working out hard in the sun. Not being smart."

If baseball is going to get anything done about ephedra, if it is going to persuade the players and their union to get serious about this supplement, it has to weed through the strangely conflicted stance many players have.

Listen to Pulsipher, who, like David Wells, Mo Vaughn, David Segui and dozens of players, has used ephedrine-based supplements. You get a picture of highly competitive men seeking ways to gain the edge they, in fact, do need to win and keep jobs in baseball. And they are willing to work out the risks - even potentially deadly ones - to keep these items at their disposal. It makes you realize it will take a congressional act to get this stuff out of their easy reach.

"What fuels this [use of ephedra] is that guys don't like to have extra body fat," Pulsipher said. "They want to feel loose when they go out on the field. Your body's sore, particularly this time of year. You're getting beat up a lot. ... It's a grind, wearing your body down.

"This is coming from me, who's had some experience, but I think if it's used responsibly, then you can definitely see positive results. If you use anything irresponsibly, there's a chance for negative results," Pulsipher said, adding: "As an older person now, I think I'm smart enough to read labels instead of just grabbing something and taking it and saying, `Oh yeah, I heard this works.' ... Since what happened to me, I read labels and know what I'm taking."

Bechler did not have the luxury of a close call. Though the players association has pamphlets and union chief Donald Fehr is said to inform players about being cautious about supplements, those did not reach Bechler in time.

Still, his death has not brought about widespread support for a ban on ephedra.

"I don't want to be on either side of this," Pulsipher said.

"Like I said before, I didn't really want to be part of any of this. It's a shame. It's sad. It's something that brought this to the forefront, but ... I think there are other causes of things happening. I don't think we're going to be able to say it was simply an ephedra-based problem."

Some guys are lucky they lived to learn how to minimize the risk.

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