FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - When 11 football players died in training at various levels of competition in 2001, the number was shocking enough to prompt officials from high school federations to the NFL to review their practice regimens and drug policies.
Baseball was another story ... and not a particularly sad one until Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler died yesterday, apparently of heatstroke.
The risk of heatstroke is exponentially higher in football training camps, which take place in the hottest part of the summer and generally employ a boot camp approach to getting players in top cardiovascular shape for the coming season.
Temperatures generally are much lower at the start of baseball spring training, and there is less emphasis on building sheer strength and physical endurance. Many players insist that their offseason workouts at home are far more exhausting than anything they do during the spring or summer.
"We don't see this in baseball," said Orioles team physician Dr. William Goldiner. "As far as baseball players, professional baseball players, dying of heatstroke, I don't think it's ever happened."
Of course, baseball is no stranger to tragedy. St. Louis Cardinals star Darryl Kile died in his sleep in a Chicago hotel room last June 22 from an undiagnosed heart ailment. San Diego Padres prospect Mike Darr died in an automobile accident during spring training a few months earlier.
Baseball has mourned the untimely passing of Roberto Clemente and Thurman Munson in plane crashes, Tim Crews and Steve Olin in a 1993 boating accident, Lyman Bostock (gunshot), Donnie Moore (suicide) and many players from serious illnesses, but Bechler is only the second recorded instance of a player in organized baseball dying as a direct result of on-field activity.
The other was Cleveland Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, who in 1920 became the only major-league player to die from an injury incurred during a game, when he was hit in the head by a pitch from the New York Yankees' Carl Mays.
"I'm very saddened by Steve's passing, and my deepest sympathy goes to his wife and family," said baseball commissioner Bud Selig. "It is just very sad, very heart-breaking."
Doctors concluded that Bechler died from multiple organ failure due to heat stroke, but the precise cause of his death will not be determined until an autopsy is performed today by the Broward County medical examiner.
The temperature during Saturday's workout was 81 degrees, and Bechler passed a physical upon arriving in camp, prompting suspicion that the use of a drug containing ephedrine may have contributed to his death. Ephedrine is an over-the-counter supplement that was widely used by NFL players before the league banned it in 2001.
Orioles officials treaded carefully on the subject yesterday, but Goldiner confirmed that use of ephedrine has been known to aggravate the effects of heat during demanding physical activity.
"Can weight loss drugs contribute to heatstroke as a generality? The answer to that is yes," said Goldiner. "They interfere with the body's ability to get rid of heat. Certain weight loss drugs can interfere with that, yes. Certainly amphetamines are the classic case. Ephedrine is one of those drugs that is thought to interfere with the ability to get rid of heat."
Major League Baseball does not prohibit the use of products containing ephedrine, but seems likely to follow the lead of the NFL if it is determined that ephedrine contributed to Bechler's death.
"I'm not going to even speculate on that right now," Selig said.
The NFL moved swiftly to limit the use of dietary supplements in September 2001, a month after the heat-related death of Minnesota Vikings lineman Korey Stringer. The NFL also has instituted a testing program to detect the use of products containing ephedra - the Chinese herbal stimulant used to make ephedrine-enhanced supplements.
The dangers inherent in ephedrine use should be no secret to athletes. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recorded 1,400 adverse reactions associated with the use of the stimulant from January 1993 to February 2000, including 81 that led to fatalities.