FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The first player walked up the dugout steps at 9:37 a.m. yesterday, leading a slow, quiet procession to the back fields at the Orioles' spring training complex. The team moved in single file, and in complete silence. The initial burst of energy that used to accompany each workout, legs pumping and words flying, was gone.
Who knows when it will come back?
The Orioles decided not to wait. They were dressed at 8:45 a.m., as instructed by manager Mike Hargrove, but at least 15 minutes passed before they knew whether they would take the field.
The death Monday of pitching prospect Steve Bechler from heatstroke led team officials to cancel the rest of that morning's practice. Position players reported yesterday, but the normal routine had been shattered - even as they did the usual drills, moved to the usual stations, played the same game that so often had provided an escape.
"You've still got to show your respect," pitcher Sean Douglass said, "but the best way to get over something like this is to get out and start doing things again. We didn't start right away this morning. We had some time before we went out. I know it's the first day, but you've got to go on."
Bechler, 23, left behind a wife, Kiley, who's expecting their first child in April, and a roomful of teammates still trying to make sense of his death.
"It's really tough because it's just so unexpected," said pitcher John Stephens, who lived with Bechler for a few years and yesterday drove his wife and mother from the ballpark. "He's three days younger than I am. He's definitely going to have an impact on us for a long time."
"I don't think it's settled in with a lot of people," said outfielder Larry Bigbie, Bechler's roommate at Single-A and Triple-A. "You just expect him to show up. It's one of those freak things that you never thought would happen."
"It doesn't matter how old you are, you're never prepared for something like this," said second baseman Jerry Hairston. "All of us are thinking about his family. It's such a tragedy. You don't think a 23-year-old kid would be susceptible to something like that."
Andy Etchebarren, who managed Bechler at three levels of the minors, said the former third-round draft pick had a chance to be "a quality, 220- or 240-inning pitcher."
"He never liked to come out of a game. He used to come into my office and ask if he could get the pitch count lifted because he wanted no part of it. I'd tell him, 'I can't do that.' "
The clubhouse was closed to the media in the morning while the team held a 50-minute meeting. Dr. David McDuff of the University of Maryland Medical System, which provides the Orioles' employee assistance program, and David Taylor from the Baseball Chapel spoke to the players. Executive vice president Jim Beattie also got in a few words, but the last ones were reserved for Hargrove.
His message was simple: "Let's go to work."
"We all feel a very deep sense of loss," said Hargrove, who endorsed the workout after being certain that it didn't show any disrespect to Bechler's family. "You go through things like this and everybody has their own individual way to grieve or cope, and we want to leave room for our players and our people to do that, but also try to have a structured setting where we can keep them busy."
The locker that belonged to Bechler, and was located beside Triple-A pitcher Mike Paradis, was empty except for a few hangers. His nameplate and orange practice jersey were given to his family.
"You never think in a million years that this would happen to one of your friends," Paradis said. "You see him 24 hours ago and everything is fine. The next thing you know, he's gone. You still can picture him in your head real clearly, so it's tough."
No alterations were made in the workout except for its late starting time, which arrived as the morning chill was dissipating. The American flag flew at half-staff in center field as bench coach Sam Perlozzo hit fungoes to infielder Jeff Reboulet. On one of the back fields, reliever Willis Roberts took a few gulps of water from a cooler before throwing batting practice, and players jogged in pairs along the warning track.
"It was a little more solemn today," said first base coach Rick Dempsey, "but we needed to stay busy."
That was especially true of the young pitchers who moved up the system with Bechler and were counted among his closest friends. Matt Riley wept in the arms of minor-league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt on Monday, but he was more composed in the home dugout yesterday while speaking to reporters, even smiling on occasion.
"My emotions are all over the place right now because I lost a very good friend," said Riley, who knew Bechler since 1998. "Getting back on the field was the best thing for us because I haven't slept in the last two days. I've just been sitting in my room rehashing all the good times that we had.
"He was just so easy to get along with. He never took anything too seriously. He was always in a good mood and cracking jokes. I'm that same kind of personality, free-spirited. That's why we both meshed. We were like two peas in a pod."
Riley rushed to console Bechler in the clubhouse Saturday after Hargrove lectured the right-hander, who reported about 10 pounds overweight, on his poor conditioning. It was the last meaningful conversation between them. Bechler died at 10:10 a.m. Monday.
"He wasn't able to finish his running and he was really distraught," Riley said. "I told him to keep his head up and keep working. He was like, 'I messed up. I just want to change.'
"He wanted to change his work ethic. He wanted to change the way he was. This is what Steve loved to do. He loved to play baseball. This is where he was happy. We had the same dream, to make this club. Every time I go out on that field, it's for Steve."
Asked about his emotional state later in the day, Hargrove said, "I'm OK. It's obviously not easy, but I didn't lose a husband or a son. So what we're going through is not nearly as difficult as what Kiley and the Bechler family have to go through."
"If there is anything positive," Riley said, "he died doing what he loved."