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Untimely death spurred ephedra scrutiny

BALTIMORE -- A year after Steve Bechler's death, those
closest to him hold out hope the loss ultimately will save the
lives of others.

That's why the parents of the late Baltimore Orioles pitcher
testified before Congress in support of a ban on ephedra, the
herbal stimulant linked to his heatstroke. And why they rejoiced
when the Food and Drug Administration did ban it.

Bechler's death on Feb. 17, 2003, brought attention to ephedra,
which has been tied to 155 deaths and dozens of heart attacks and
strokes. Use of ephedra inside major-league clubhouses virtually
stopped after he died.

The FDA says sale of ephedra will become illegal April 12.

"That could be his legacy. What happened to Steve can be used
as an example for everyone else in the world," said Orioles
pitcher Matt Riley, one of Bechler's closest friends. "He didn't
realize at the time how unhealthy it was. No one did."

Bechler was 23 when he died after a spring training workout sent
his body temperature to 108 degrees.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy said the pitcher
had a history of borderline high blood pressure and an abnormal
liver. The medical examiner also said that ephedrine -- the active
substance in the plant ephedra -- played a major role in the
pitcher's death.

In an effort to quickly shed the weight he gained during the
offseason, Bechler took over-the-counter diet pills containing
ephedra. The drug had been banned by the NCAA, NFL and
International Olympic Committee, but not by Major League Baseball.

Moments after Bechler collapsed, Riley removed the bottle of
weight-loss pills from the pitcher's locker and threw it in the
trash. His motive: to protect his buddy from being accused of using
drugs as a shortcut to get in shape.

"I took it myself years ago, not knowing any better," Riley
said. "When I heard it was banned, I was real happy."

Riley will report to spring training Friday with designs of
making the starting rotation. If things had turned out differently
last spring, he might have been competing against Bechler, who went
35-48 in 117 minor-league starts.

"I talked to his brother a few weeks ago, and we both found it
hard to believe that Steve isn't there with us," Riley said. "I
was thinking about the starting rotation, and he popped into my
head. I'm sure he will be in my heart forever."

Most people who knew Bechler feel the same way.

"Time puts a scab over wounds, but every once in a while, you
scratch that scab open," Orioles reliever Rick Bauer said. "When
I see a picture of him, or think about some of the funny things he
used to do and say, it makes me smile and makes me sad, all at the
same time."

Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts, who also played with
Bechler at Triple-A Rochester, is having trouble adjusting to a
world without his friend's laughter.

"He was just a fun-loving guy. I think about him all the
time," Roberts said. "It's surreal that he's not here. I think
when spring training starts, it will definitely kick in -- more than
we would like."

When Roberts, Riley and Bauer walk onto the field at Fort
Lauderdale Stadium on Saturday for their first spring training
workout, they probably won't be able to avoid thinking about the
day that Bechler collapsed.

"I will relive that moment for the rest of my life," Riley
said.

In the days before his death, an overweight Bechler told his
friends that he had made a serious mistake by reporting to camp out of
shape. He vowed it would never happen again.

"If only he could have made it through that day," Bauer said,
"maybe he would have been a better athlete. But he never got the
chance."