Bechler receives one last ovation

Pitcher's memorial service draws crowd of O's, others `privileged to know him'

March 09, 2003|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

MEDFORD, Ore. - Steve Bechler spent much of his life working toward one goal.

He wanted to be a major-league pitcher. He wanted to play in front of big crowds. He wanted to make everyone in this friendly, down-to-earth southern Oregon community proud.

Bechler succeeded on all counts, even if his brush with the big leagues was cut so very short when he died of heatstroke Feb. 17. And yesterday, he drew one more big crowd to South Medford High, where hundreds of fans, friends, family members and former teammates gathered to say goodbye.

The 2 1/2 -hour memorial service celebrated Bechler's home life and a budding baseball career that appeared to have limitless possibilities. It also showed how many lives he had touched in the span of just 23 years.

"We are here to honor our great pitcher," said local pastor Pete Slusher, who recently presided over Steve and Kiley Bechler's wedding. "He died too early to let us know how great he could be, but he lived long enough to show us how great he would be."

There was only scant reference to the controversy that the herbal stimulant ephedrine had contributed to Bechler's death. This was a day to share happy memories of a young man who - by all accounts - was everybody's best friend.

"Steve was a free spirit who lived life to the fullest," said his brother Mike in an emotional tribute. "He would give you anything he had and wouldn't want anything in return. I'm proud to say that even after we were grown we still ended every conversation on the phone by saying `I love you.' I know there are some people who wouldn't think that was very cool, but I'm happy to know that the last thing I ever said to my brother was `I love you' and the last thing he ever said to me was `I love you, too.' "

Bechler's mother, Pat, spoke briefly about a son who was loved enough to fill a high school auditorium. His wife, Kiley, recounted the day she and Steve went for the ultrasound test that determined they were expecting a daughter.

"They told us it was a girl and he had them look again about three times just to make sure there wasn't something there they couldn't see," she said. "But on the way home he was already talking about what kind of car he was going to buy her and what a tough time he was going to give the first young man that came to pick her up.

"I'm so fortunate. I got to see his [major-league] debut. I played hooky from work and I'm glad I did. He looked like a kid in a candy store."

Eight members of the Orioles' organization - and one former member - traveled to Medford for the service. Vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, pitching instructor Dave Schmidt and area scout John Gillette spoke during the ceremony. Pitcher Rick Bauer and former Orioles scouting supervisor Logan White also spoke when Slusher asked for testimonials from the audience.

Teammates Matt Riley, John Stevens and Mike Paradis and front office executive Tony DeMacio also were in the Orioles' contingent. Major League Baseball executive vice president Sandy Alderson represented the commissioner's office.

"We also feel fortunate that we had the time we had with Steve," said Flanagan, clearly directing his comments to parents Ernie and Pat Bechler in the front row. "In baseball, you kind of hand your son over to us. You entrust him to us. ... You were there for his first breath. I was there for his last. It's something I will take with me for the rest of my life."

If there were any question about the sincerity of the organizational affection for Bechler, it was wiped away with the tears of Gillette and White, who scouted and signed him in 1998.

"He was the first player I ever signed," Gillette said afterward. "Whether he made it to the big leagues or not, I was always going to have a special relationship with Steve and his family."

"This was hard to imagine," said White, now director of scouting for the Los Angeles Dodgers. "When you think of really bad news in baseball, maybe it's that one of your kids needs rotator cuff surgery. You never imagine anything like this."

The Orioles' party flew in on Peter Angelos' private jet yesterday morning and hurried back to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., last night, but Flanagan and the players spent nearly an hour with family members outside the auditorium after the service.

"We didn't know what to expect when we got off the plane," Flanagan said. "Would it be uplifting or emotional? It ended up being both."

Flanagan was particularly impressed with Bauer's spontaneous decision to speak about his former roommate in front of the large crowd, viewing the heartfelt remarks as a sign that the young pitcher has matured in the wake of the tragedy.

"It was tough," Bauer said. "I don't like speaking in front of people. But you need to go up there and say the things you remember. Steve was a nice guy. I was privileged to know him. I was shocked to see so many people, but I shouldn't have been because of how great a guy he was."

There were a couple of passing references to the ephedrine debate that has sprung up in the past three weeks. One family member predicted that Bechler would "make major-league history," presumably by sparking a ban of the popular supplement. Boyhood friend Steve Clifford used the controversy to deliver one of the most poignant comments of the afternoon.

"Steve was the kind of guy you always wanted on your team, not playing against you," Clifford said. "I read that one of the medical conditions he had was an enlarged heart. It was an enlarged heart, indeed."

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