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February 20, 2003

For The Love Of The Game
By Rob Dibble

Sadly, the untimely death of Baltimore Orioles' pitcher Steve Bechler is just the tip of the iceberg. In professional sports, competition is fierce. A large majority of athletes are willing to do whatever it takes to gain or keep their competitive edge.

Baseball was not only how I made a living, it was what I loved to do. And I was willing to do anything to stay in the major leagues.

While I don't condone the use of potentially harmful supplements, I can honestly say that during my playing days, I would have done the same thing if I were in Steve's position. Despite cringing at the mere thought of what I put my body through, for the chance to play professional baseball, I wouldn't hesitate to do it all again.

And for further proof that my hypocrisy knows few boundaries, if I could take a pill that would allow me back in the game today, I'd gladly take it. I wouldn't even consider the ramifications, because they wouldn't matter. I'd want it that badly.

That mindset -- that drive, motivation, and perhaps stupidity -- doesn't exist in everyone. But it's common among professional athletes. And with the exception of a few rare specimens who are blessed with superior genes, the desire to succeed is only heightened by the extraordinary demands that go along with their chosen occupation.

So, when a player like Steve Bechler shows up to spring training out of shape and a few pounds overweight, his desire to shed a few pounds will override any potential warning signs or dangers to himself. Despite a family history of high blood pressure and heart disease, he was willing to risk his own health to succeed in the game.

In Steve's case, the results were catastrophic. But for every fatality, there are many others who won't deal with the repercussions until much later in life, maybe never. And unfortunately, many athletes are willing to roll the dice and play the odds. They cling to a notion of immortality and an "it won't happen to me" attitude.

Remember, many of these supplements are legal and obtained over the counter. Dietary products and performance enhancing drugs make for billion dollar businesses in America, not just in sports. As a result, the drugs have become more sophisticated over the years. Today's ephedrine is yesterday's Dexatrim or suppository, which were common back in my playing days.

I don't even like to think about how many pain-numbing and performance enhancing products I took throughout my career. There was a particular time between 1993 and 1994 when I dropped 30 pounds that was just awful. My wife nearly divorced me because she couldn't handle what I was doing to myself physically.

But I didn't care. Baseball was not only how I made a living, it was what I loved to do. And I was willing to do anything to stay in the major leagues.

I was always on some type of anti-inflammatory. It wasn't uncommon for me to take two or three Darvon, a couple of aspirin and maybe a Naprocin before a game -- all of which combined made my cocktail for success. I also took more than 50 shots of cortisone in my left shoulder. Hell, I pitched with my right arm, what did I care about the left one?

Eventually, I suffered from ulcers and I can only imagine the havoc wreaked on my liver and kidneys. I've also watched the slow deterioration of my left shoulder. But I'm not looking for sympathy. The choices were mine to make.

In retrospect, my actions were both foolish and selfish. But it was all part of the game. And while my heart breaks for Steve Bechler's family, I understand what he was going through. I understand why he would take a risk, because I've been there too. It wasn't until after I retired that I began to clean up my act. I owed that much to my family.

Simply put, athletes take supplements because they can. It's not enough to be aware of potential dangers; an athlete's drive to succeed will trump that any day. I'm not trying to shift the blame away from the individual, but Major League Baseball has a responsibility to intervene.

Not only should random testing be implemented, but punishments must severe and enforced. The only fear that will make an impact is the threat of taking away the game itself. Tack on a few paychecks and you'll really get the players' attention.

Had random testing for banned substances been implemented in the league, I would have been forced to abide by the rules. Sure, players will always find a way to work the system. But at least Major League Baseball's conscience will be clear.

We may never know how large a role the drug ephedrine played in the death of Steve Bechler. But hopefully we have all learned from this tragedy and will take the necessary measures to keep it from happening again.

Former Cincinnati Reds reliever Rob Dibble is an ESPN baseball analyst and a co-host of "The Dan Patrick Show" on ESPN Radio. Dibble, who was co-MVP of the 1990 NLCS, contributes regularly to

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