FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - Major League Baseball took another big step this week toward industry-wide restrictions on the use of ephedrine-based products by banning the use of the herbal supplement throughout the minor leagues.
The ban, which was implemented Monday and has been transmitted to the 30 major-league front offices over the past two days, covers all minor- league players not on 40-man major-league rosters.
Players on 40-man rosters are governed by Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement, which does not include restrictions on the substance cited as a contributing factor in the Feb. 17 heatstroke death of 23-year-old Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.
The memo outlining the drug policy change, distributed by MLB deputy general counsel Jennifer Gefsky and obtained by The Sun, informs clubs that ephedrine, a stimulant found in over-the-counter dietary supplements, has been added to the list of substances prohibited in the minors and authorizes random testing to detect it.
The commissioner's office is expected to propose the ban be extended to major-league players, but figures to meet resistance from the Major League Baseball Players Association.
Ephedrine has been banned by the NFL, International Olympic Committee, NCAA and many other sports federations, but remains largely unrestricted by Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NHL.
The supplement has been linked to heart attacks, strokes and seizures in otherwise healthy young people. Studies show it interferes with the body's ability to avoid overheating.
The minor-league ban was applauded by Orioles officials.
"It's great news," said Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan, who has been one of several team officials to call for a ban in the major leagues.
"I think the commissioner's stance is a good one," said Orioles team physician Dr. William Goldiner, who said the Orioles have banned ephedrine use for their minor-leaguers for the past three or four years.
Ownership negotiators suggested adding ephedrine to the list of substances covered in the sport's revised drug policy during bargaining on a new labor agreement last summer, but did not include the proposed ban in any formal proposals because there was little likelihood it would be acceptable to the players union.
Instead, the owners and players concentrated on the sport's damaging steroid controversy and implemented survey testing to determine if steroid use among major-leaguers was prevalent enough to warrant a more extensive program of testing and disciplinary action.
Major League Baseball has been careful not to publicly point a finger at the union in the wake of Bechler's death, perhaps because management did not take the ephedrine situation seriously enough to impose the minor-league ban much sooner.
Bechler's death has focused attention on baseball's oft-criticized approach to substance abuse, increasing the likelihood that the incident and others like it in sports would persuade management and the players union to agree to restrictions on ephedrine in the majors.
So far, however, union officials have taken a wait-and-see approach, withholding definitive comment on the situation until after the Broward County medical examiner's office releases a toxicology report from the Bechler autopsy next month.
NOTE: Sen. Byron Dorgan, a Democrat from North Dakota who chaired Senate hearings last year on drug use in baseball and other sports, called yesterday for new hearings. Dorgan said Bechler's death suggests Major League Baseball's drug-testing policy is inadequate.
Sun staff writer Joe Christensen contributed to this article.