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For O's, Bush's message is clear


When President Bush called on professional sports to do more to eradicate the abuse of performance-enhancing drugs, the message was not lost on the Orioles' organization.

Orioles officials applauded the president's decision to highlight the illicit use of steroids and other supplements in his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. They hope that athletes heed the call to set a better example for America's children.

But whatever good comes of the heightened national awareness of the dangers of steroids and other risky supplements, it will come about a year too late for the organization.

It has been more than 11 months since Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler collapsed at the club's Fort Lauderdale, Fla., spring training facility on Feb. 16 and died the next day from the massive organ failure associated with severe heatstroke. He had taken three capsules of an ephedra-based weight-loss supplement before his fatal episode, and Broward County (Fla.) medical examiner Joshua Perper blamed the drug for raising his body temperature to a disastrous level.

Since then, the sale of ephedra-based products has been banned by the federal government (effective this March) and Major League Baseball has instituted a random testing program for steroids. The president simply added his voice to the growing chorus for further reform, but Orioles vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan welcomes the expanding role of the federal government in addressing the issue.

"I felt that I would have to go state to state," said Flanagan, who traveled to New York last year to testify before the state legislature there about the dangers of ephedra. "But it coming out of the federal government has saved me a lot of state-hopping."

Ephedra is a natural stimulant derived from the herb Ma Huang. It has been used widely as a weight-loss aid and also is used by athletes to get a quick energy boost. The president's comments were directed more toward anabolic steroids, but the message clearly applied to any attempt to gain unfair athletic advantage from a questionable substance.

"I think it was well-stated," said Orioles counsel Russell Smouse. "From the standpoint of the fans' confidence in pro sports and the example they set for youth, it's appropriate and long overdue."

Larry Bigbie, a minor league roommate of Bechler's for two years, said: "I agree with the mandatory testing [for steroids] they are headed in the right direction. I don't know if that's going to change things for the guys who use them, but now there are consequences. Now they're going to have to think twice about it."

The Orioles already had banned it from minor league clubhouses before the tragedy, but the team did not have the power to prohibit its use by major league players because it was, at the time, a legal over-the-counter nutritional supplement.

Now that it is about to be taken off the shelves, some athletes are hoarding it so they can continue to use it after it goes off the market, which leaves Ernie Bechler, Steve Bechler's father, shaking his head.

"They had a thing about that on [the TV show] 20/20, he said by telephone from his home in Medford, Ore. "They showed people who were stockpiling it and hiding it. Those people are idiots. They showed a kid saying that the stuff without ephedrine just didn't have the same 'umph.' Of course, it doesn't."

Ernie Bechler didn't see all of the State of the Union speech, but after hearing the president's comments, he praised the way Bush cast the issue in moral terms and called on athletes, coaches and sports franchises to set a better example for American youth.

"Absolutely," he said. "I welcome that with open arms. ... To me, it's an athlete's responsibility to show health and strength in a natural way. Steve didn't use that stuff to enhance his performance. They told him to lose 10 pounds, and if they tell you to lose 10 pounds, you want to do it as quickly as possible."

The memories of last February are still fresh for everyone involved. Flanagan kept vigil alongside Bechler's wife, Kiley, as the 23-year-old pitcher struggled through his final night. Flanagan and his wife, Alex, quickly joined the crusade to get ephedra-based products out of the American athletic mainstream.

"One of the things I expressed to Kiley at the time was, 'Maybe there is a silver lining in this, that something will transpire to get rid of ephedra and create awareness of what it can do,' " Flanagan said. "We both took some solace in that.

"It touched a lot of different players in a lot of different sports. Because of the attention paid to Steve Bechler, all sports took notice."

Kiley Bechler filed a $600 million lawsuit against the makers of Xenadrine, the product her husband was using to deal with a weight problem. The suit could take years to litigate. Steve Bechler's parents have testified before Congress and continue to hope that their son's death will be a cautionary tale for anyone who considers using any kind of substance of questionable safety.

"That's the only thing that me and my wife can hope for," Ernie Bechler said. "The only thing."

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