Steve Bechler's Death Five Years Later

Dad's legacy

Spirit of late O's pitcher lives on in daughter

February 17, 2008|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

It comes in snapshots now, no longer waves.

Often it's triggered by the precocious 4-year-old with the wicked sense of humor.

Sometimes it happens when Hailie Bechler makes a sarcastic quip that belies her pre-school status. Or when her mom gazes into those familiar, blue-green-gray eyes. Or when the little girl pulls her hair back to reveal a face that looks just like her daddy's.

That's when Kiley Bechler really senses the spirit of her deceased husband, former Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler, who died of heatstroke five years ago today.

In those five years, time has stood still. Rushed ahead. Played tricks.

"There are days that it seems like it happened yesterday, and days where it seems like it has been 30 years," Kiley Bechler said. "So much has happened in my life. It has changed so much. I feel like I have aged 30 years. But on other days, emotions-wise, it feels like a couple weeks ago."

On Feb. 16, 2003, Steve Bechler, 23, a right-hander hoping to make the Orioles' bullpen, collapsed while participating in spring training conditioning drills in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was rushed to the hospital and died the next day - possibly the darkest moment in franchise history.

A medical examiner later ruled that the death was caused, in part, by an over-the-counter diet supplement Bechler was taking to lose weight. His death eventually led to the ban of products containing ephedra, a stimulant once common in diet pills.

Kiley Bechler, then 22 and seven months pregnant with Hailie, was driving cross country from the couple's Oregon home to South Florida when she learned that her husband had collapsed.

She quickly boarded a plane and spent most of the next 24 hours holding vigil at the hospital until Bechler was pronounced dead.

Not four months into her marriage, suddenly she was a widow. The impending birth of her daughter kept Kiley Bechler going during that trying time.

"I don't know what I would have done if Hailie hadn't given me the strength to carry on," she said. "Being pregnant is what saved me."

Kiley Bechler is now 27 and remarried. She's planning a move to Florida and is hoping to return to school to again pursue a nursing degree. Last year, her suit against the manufacturer of Xenadrine RFA-1 - as well as dozens of other plaintiffs' suits against the New Jersey-based company - was settled out of court. Terms were not released because of confidentiality agreements.

She's moving on with life, but for the sake of her daughter, her late husband's legacy remains alive.

"We talk about it at least weekly," Kiley Bechler said. "If [Hailie] has had a bad day or is really tired or emotional it really comes up."

Eventually, the mom will tell the daughter everything. Answer every question to her fullest capabilities. For now, it's all in a language Hailie can understand.

"She knows when she was in mommy's tummy that her daddy died, that he got too hot, we tell her," she said. "That his heart stopped. He was taking bad medicine that made that happen."

Kiley Bechler has put together scrapbooks filled with pictures and stories about her late husband. Recently, she converted his old baseball videos to DVD, and she and her daughter watched them. They saw Steve Bechler, an always-joking extrovert, clowning around. And his daughter exclaimed, "Daddy's talking to me!"

In the family's game room, two of Steve Bechler's old jerseys are framed and mounted. And in Hailie's room there is a photo of Steve Bechler holding a mini No. 51 Orioles jersey for his daughter - taken only days before his death. It is signed by the full coaching staff and roster of the 2003 Orioles.

Hailie tells her mother that the picture is of her "Daddy Steve."

The little girl, her mother says, is often shy around men, but last month they visited the Florida home of former Orioles pitcher John Stephens, who along with his wife, Andrea, are Hailie's godparents.

Stephens and Hailie immediately connected.

"She took to me great and I took to her great. We spent the whole day together down at the beach," said Stephens, who was Bechler's first roommate in pro baseball. "It was kind of neat that a part of Steve that he created, Hailie, part of him is still around."

Stephens, like many other young Orioles who were close to Bechler, was concerned that day when his big, boisterous, competitive buddy was taken to the hospital. But he had no clue how serious it was.

"It was so crazy. There was so much shock that it could happen," said Stephens, who retired from pro baseball in 2006 and runs a commercial waste removal business in Sarasota, Fla. "At first we knew something was wrong and he had to go to the hospital. He'll be back but not ready for the spring [games]. We didn't know he wouldn't walk away from it."

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