Orioles pitching prospect dies in Fla. of heatstroke

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler, who made his major-league debut five months ago at Camden Yards, died yesterday morning of multisystem organ failure caused by heatstroke. He was 23.

Bechler was rushed to North Ridge Medical Center toward the end of Sunday's spring training workout after becoming pale and disoriented on one of the back fields of the Orioles complex. He was attempting to complete his final conditioning run. His body temperature later peaked at 108 degrees, a team physician said.

The initial diagnosis announced by the team Sunday was heat exhaustion and dehydration, but Bechler's condition worsened at the hospital, club officials said, and he spent the night in intensive care. He was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m.

Twenty minutes later, players were summoned off the practice fields and into the clubhouse, where Executive Vice President Jim Beattie told them of Bechler's death. The rest of the team's fifth workout was canceled.

"Everybody was in shock," said pitcher Rodrigo Lopez. "It's hard to think that you saw him yesterday. ... You don't know how to react. He's part of the family, part of the team. It's sad."

Bechler was chosen by the Orioles in the third round of the 1998 draft out of South Medford High School in Oregon. He spent most of last season at Triple-A Rochester, but made three relief appearances with the Orioles as a September call-up. He was 35-48 with a 3.82 ERA in the minors and would likely have begun this season with the new Triple-A affiliate in Ottawa.

"Steve was a tough guy. He was a competitor," said manager Mike Hargrove. "He loved the game. ... He sure loved his wife and was looking forward to that baby."

Bechler's wife, Kiley Bechler, is 7 1/2 months pregnant with their first child.

The Orioles' team physician, Dr. William Goldiner, said he believes Bechler is the first professional baseball player to die from heatstroke. Heat-related deaths are more common in football. According to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research, three football players died of heatstroke in 2001, including Minnesota Vikings offensive tackle Korey Stringer.

Bechler passed Thursday's 20-minute physical but had arrived in camp heavier than his listed weight of 239. Two club sources said a bottle of diet supplements containing ephedrine were found in Bechler's locker and given to paramedics who treated him in the clubhouse.

Dr. Joshua Perper, the Broward County medical examiner, will perform an autopsy today. The Orioles declined to comment on Bechler's medical history, including whether he used ephedrine, which is used for weight loss, to boost energy or for building muscle. The drug was banned by the NFL after Stringer's death. Major League Baseball has not banned ephedrine.

When asked about the presence of supplement bottles, Perper said: "My understanding is, it exists, but we don't have it."

Goldiner, who stayed with Bechler at the hospital, said: "Can weight-loss drugs contribute to heatstroke? The answer to that is yes. They interfere with the body's ability to get rid of heat.

"The policy in our training room is, we do not have it [ephedrine] there, we do not supply it and we don't condone it. I can't tell somebody they can't take something that is legal. I can advise him not to take it. I can advise him as to the dangers of taking it, but I can't stop him from taking it.

"We certainly had no evidence from the physical exam that he was taking ephedrine."

Heat can be dangerous for athletes when factors combine to raise body temperature to abnormally high levels. Humidity, temperature and exposure all play a role, as do intake of medication or fluids.

Doctors view it an emergency when body temperature rises above 105 degrees and a person becomes confused. The heat damages cells and triggers organ failures. Blood won't clot, muscles start to break down and kidneys won't work. Then the liver, lungs, brain and heart are affected. Doctors say it is among the most difficult conditions to treat.

"[Bechler] was responsive on the field, he was responsive in the clubhouse, and the emergency room staff said he was responsive when he was there in a less-than-productive way," Goldiner said. "He was exceedingly short of breath, and soon after that he was placed on respiratory support and sedated. He was not conscious that I know of after that point.

"He would rebound at times, and they thought they were getting ahead of it, but invariably what is characteristic of this syndrome, another organ system would fail. Eventually, it led to his death this morning."

Kiley Bechler was driving from her home in Laurel to Oregon when Beattie contacted her Sunday by cell phone. She took a flight out of Salt Lake City, and an Orioles official met her at the Fort Lauderdale airport around midnight. Team Vice President Mike Flanagan stayed with her at the hospital through the early morning. Hargrove and pitching coach Mark Wiley remained until about 1:30 a.m.

Most players were too upset to speak with reporters yesterday as they left the clubhouse. Pitcher Matt Riley, one of Bechler's closest friends, wept as minor-league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt hugged him outside the entrance.

Andy Etchebarren, who managed Bechler last year, sat with head bowed. First base coach Rick Dempsey wiped away tears.

Flanagan drove Kiley Bechler to the hospital after the pre-workout meeting. Bechler's parents arrived in Miami yesterday, unaware of his death until they reached the airport.

The temperature Sunday reached 81 degrees, with 70 percent humidity, as pitchers and catchers went through the nearly three-hour workout. The session was divided into 12-minute stations, with water breaks between.

Hargrove pulled Bechler off the field Saturday because he was struggling to complete the final run. The next day, Hargrove summoned assistant trainer Brian Ebel when Bechler became pale, and the pitcher was taken by cart to the clubhouse.

"I don't think the conditions were extreme by any means," Beattie said. "And it was a baseball workout as opposed to a football workout with pads in hot weather. It was a fairly typical pitchers day."

Funeral arrangements were incomplete yesterday.

Sun staff writers Joe Christensen and Diana Sugg contributed to this article.