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To O's, ephedrine use still deemed a tossup

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - With paramedics working desperately inside the training room Sunday to try to save Steve Bechler's life, Orioles pitcher Matt Riley recognized a bottle of Xenadrine RFA-1 from Bechler's locker and threw it in the trash.

Riley knew Xenadrine was legal, but he knew the team frowned upon its use, and something told him to protect his good friend's reputation just in case.

"I don't know who got the bottle, but it was in the training room, and they handed it to me," Riley said yesterday. "I looked at it and I flipped it into the garbage, not thinking about the consequences of what it might cause.

"The last thing I thought was that my friend was going to die."

Bechler suffered heatstroke during Sunday's practice and died less than 24 hours later, after his body temperature peaked at 108 degrees. In his preliminary autopsy report, Broward County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Joshua Perper, linked Bechler's death to the use of Xenadrine.

After a couple days to reflect, Riley's voice was still strained yesterday, but he pulled no punches when asked if it was time for baseball to ban ephedrine, a stimulant found in Xenadrine and other over-the-counter dietary supplements.

"When you lose a good friend such as Steve, it's just not worth it," Riley said. "If you need energy, just get energy from food or something, not from supplements. I mean, how many more athletes have to go down before we learn? The NFL banned it, why can't we?"

The NFL banned ephedrine after the death of Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer, who had dietary supplements in his locker when he suffered heatstroke and died in August 2001. The NCAA and International Olympic Committee also prohibit use of the drug. Major League Baseball does not.

The Orioles have their own policy toward ephedrine: "We don't supply it, we don't condone it, and we educate players against using it," said Jim Beattie, the club's executive vice president for baseball operations.

Still, the Orioles' clubhouse remained divided yesterday over whether baseball should ban ephedrine. Some players said they will continue to use it, even after Bechler's death. Others said they will fight adamantly against it.

"Would I still consider using it? Probably," said Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce. "It has no ill effect on me that I know of, and I use it safely. So if I was tired, I probably would take one, like if we had a day game after a night game.

"I'm not afraid of it."

Like Fordyce, Orioles second baseman Jerry Hairston doesn't use supplements with ephedrine to lose weight. They use it for a boost, popping a capsule the way the average worker throws back a cup of coffee.

"I've taken one [capsule with ephedrine] before a game," Hairston said. "I use it for energy, and only when I feel a little tired. With coffee, you get that quick burst, but then you have a down time. With [ephedrine], the [energy] lasts a little longer. But I only take one every once in a while.

"If you play every night, you need something."

Orioles right fielder Jay Gibbons said he used a dietary supplement containing ephedrine to help drop about 15 pounds before the 2002 season. This past winter, he was trying to maintain his weight, so he didn't use it.

Gibbons said using ephedrine is safe, as long as people are careful to follow the warning labels. In Bechler's case, the medical examiner pointed to other fatal factors. Bechler had a history of borderline hypertension, liver abnormalities, and had little solid food in his digestive tract, probably from a diet. With little else to absorb the ephedrine, a stimulant would have gone right into his bloodstream.

Perper's findings won't become official until the toxicology results return, and that will take two to three weeks. Other Orioles will be interested in those results because, for now, many consider ephedrine acceptable.

"I used it in college a little bit and even in pro ball," Gibbons said. "It's a good supplement if taken right. I've never had any problems with it. I've never had any dizziness with it. It's just like caffeine. If you take 20 caffeine pills, you're going to be in trouble. You've got to be careful; you've got to read the labels."

When the paramedics arrived Sunday at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, they wanted to know what medications or supplements, if any, Bechler was taking. Orioles officials said strength and conditioning coach Tim Bishop found the Xenadrine bottle in Bechler's locker and handed it to a paramedic, who looked at it and placed it on a table near the training room door.

Amid the chaos, Riley came in, saw the bottle and discarded it into the trash. But the Orioles eventually retrieved it for the paramedics, and it wound up in the medical examiner's office. Perper summoned Riley to the office yesterday, and the young pitcher correctly identified the bottle by a marking he recognized from Bechler's locker.

Even with a cloud hanging over the drug yesterday, Orioles first baseman David Segui defended its use. He said he's tried it before but doesn't use it now because "it makes me shaky." Still, he sees why others use it.

"More athletes use it for energy than to drop pounds," Segui said. "You wake up in the morning and take one or two of those. If you can't take amphetamines, that's your next alternative. It's not like a regular job where you just get up and go. Your body has to function at a certain level to perform at this level every day, and there are days you need a little help.

"I'm not saying it's right or wrong. But there's competition for jobs and your livelihood depends on it. A lot of guys look into certain alternatives that might not be the safest or smartest things for them, but all this pressure mounts. It makes it easier to look into trying those things to give you that edge to get you through the day."

This is what bothers Orioles pitcher Rick Helling, this battle to stay on a level playing field. Helling has been on the players union's executive board for the past five years, and he has been a leading advocate for drug testing, despite union-wide resistance.

Last year, Helling said, the priority was steroids. After signing with the Orioles three days before spring training and watching a new teammate collapse from heatstroke, Helling plans to take a stand against ephedrine, too.

He said the topic undoubtedly will surface the next time the union's executive subcommittee holds a conference call, and he believes Bechler's death could get the policy changed quickly.

"There's no question we'll look at it, but I don't think it's as cut and dried as people might think it should be," Helling said. "When you get into a room with a bunch of lawyers, in their job, there's always a bunch of legal ramifications, and they always try to look at both sides of the issue.

"I can almost tell you right now, the one thing they're going to say is, 'It's over the counter. It's hard to stop people if they want to do it.' "

Still, even though resistance could come from right within his own clubhouse, Helling knows where he stands on ephedrine.

"Although it's legal and it's stuff you can buy over the counter, it's sad to say it's something that may cause problems," Helling said. "The case may be to just take that decision out of the guy's hands. ... It's terrible, but it usually takes something, an incident like this, to change things."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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