Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler died this morning at a local hospital from complications caused by heatstroke, less than 24 hours after complaining of dizziness, collapsing and being carted off a practice field on the third full day of spring training. He was 23.
Bechler was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m. at North Ridge Medical Center.
A team doctor said the cause was "multi-organ failure due to heatstroke."
Bechler's wife, Kiley, seven months' pregnant with the couple's first child, was at his bedside when he died.
Bechler is believed to be the first player to die of heatstroke in Major League Baseball history and only the second to die from on-field activities. Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians died in 1920 after being hit in the head by a pitch.
Bechler died despite what team doctor William Goldiner described as "aggressive intervention" by the Orioles' medical and training staff at Fort Lauderdale Stadium and by the staff that treated him at North Ridge.
"He would rebound at times, and [North Ridge doctors] would think they were getting ahead of it," said Goldiner, who did not treat Bechler himself. "But invariably another organ system would fail, and it eventually led to his death this morning."
The Broward County Medical Examiner will begin an autopsy on Tuesday. Of particular interest will be whether Bechler was taking a dietary supplement containing the drug ephedrine, although that might not be known for up to two weeks when toxicology results are made official.
Team officials privately believe Bechler -- who is listed at 6 feet 2, 239 pounds, but reported to camp overweight -- was using ephedrine, a stimulant designed to aid weight loss and minimize fatigue. One team source confirmed a report in today's editions of the Washington Times that a bottle containing a supplement with ephedrine was found in Bechler's locker. After initially being hid by a teammate of Bechler's, the source said, it eventually was turned over to emergency-rescue personnel who came to Bechler's aid Sunday.
Asked about the bottle, Joshua Perper, the Broward County Medical Examiner, said, "My understanding is it exists, but we don't have it."
Major League Baseball does not ban the use of ephedrine, but some other major sporting bodies do. It has been linked to the death of several athletes in recent years, including Northwestern University's Rashidi Wheeler. When Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer died on Aug. 1, 2001, bottles containing ephedrine were found in his locker, but toxicology tests did not show the substance in his body. Stringer's family has filed a $100 million wrongful-death suit.
"Can weight-loss drugs cause or contribute to heat stroke as a generality? The answer to that is yes," Goldiner said. "They interfere with the body's ability to get rid of heat. Ephedrine is one of those drugs."
Goldiner said the team does not prescribe nor condone the use of ephedrine, and has a written policy prohibiting players from using it except when prescribed for colds by players' personal physicians.
Orioles pitchers and catchers were nearly finished with Sunday's workout on a practice field at the team's spring training complex when Manager Mike Hargrove first noticed Bechler struggling to complete conditioning runs -- the final segment of the workout. The National Weather Service reported a temperature of 81 degrees with 74 percent humidity in Fort Lauderdale at noon on Sunday.
"Our workouts are designed early on to ease people into things," said Hargrove, who was manager of the Cleveland Indians in 1993, when pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were killed in a boating accident during spring training. "It's not like we're going to drive you into the ground the first week [of camp]. It's to ease people in. It's an active workout, an energetic workout, and you're expected to put effort into it. . . . [But] for something like this to happen out of these workouts is shocking."
Water and sports drinks are available to players during workouts, and players routinely drink between drills, which generally last 12 minutes each. Bechler's final drill involved running for 12 minutes from one foul pole to the center field fence and back with the team's other pitchers.
"They're encouraged to drink," Goldiner said. "We actually worry, medically, more for the fans in the stands than for the athletes on field, as far as the consequences of heat."
Bechler had performed the same conditioning drills without incident on Saturday. But on Sunday, according to eyewitness accounts, Bechler fell midway through. Hargrove said he noticed Bechler looking ashen and leaning against a fence, so he sent assistant trainer Brian Ebel to check on Bechler. Teammates later described Bechler as being "incoherent" at the time.
Ebel had Bechler sit on the grass, then called for a motorized cart, which drove Bechler to the Orioles' air-conditioned clubhouse, where he was given a sports drink. It was about 11:35 a.m.
When Bechler did not improve after drinking the sports drink, an ambulance with an emergency-response crew was summoned, and Bechler was transported to North Ridge shortly after noon.
Although Bechler underwent and passed a standard team physical at the opening of camp on Thursday, his poor physical conditioning had been noted by at least one team official. Asked on Sunday about Bechler's physical shape, Hargrove said, "Not good."
According to Orioles Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie, Bechler's status worsened at the hospital, where he was in intensive care. Team officials stayed with Bechler throughout the night.
Kiley Bechler, who was driving across country from the couple's home in Oregon to Fort Lauderdale, was summoned by team officials and caught a flight out of Salt Lake City, arriving in Fort Lauderdale late Sunday night.
Bechler's condition continued to worsen during the night, and at one point, according to Goldiner, his body temperature registered 108 degrees.
Goldiner also described Bechler as being "exceedingly short of breath," prompting doctors to open an airway and place Bechler on respiratory support.
By 10:10 a.m., he was dead.
Orioles players were briefed this morning on Bechler's condition before their regularly scheduled 9 a.m. workout, but were pulled off the field at about 10:30 a.m. Once in the clubhouse, they were informed that Bechler had died.
Most players left without commenting, and some appeared to have been crying. "They told us about the situation," said pitcher Rodrigo Lopez, "and everybody was in shock."
Bechler's parents flew in from Oregon today, and were told upon their arrival at Miami International Airport that he had died. The Orioles delayed a news conference today until 1:30 p.m., so that the family could be informed first.
Bechler, the Orioles' third-round draft pick in 1998, was on the team's 40-man major league roster but was expected to be sent to Class AAA Ottawa to start the season. He spent most of last season in the minors, but was called up by the Orioles in September.
He made his big league debut on Sept. 6, giving up one run in two innings against the Anaheim Angels. In a total of three major league appearances, he posted a 0-0 record and a 13.50 ERA. In five minor league seasons, he had a 35-48 record with a 3.82 ERA.
"Steve was a tough guy," Hargrove said. "He was a competitor. I didn't know him that well . . . but I knew him well enough to know he loved the game and loved to compete. I knew, obviously, that he had that baby coming in April, and that he sure loved his wife and was looking forward to that baby."
Special correspondent Kathy Orton and the Associated Press contributed to this story.