-- On Saturday afternoon Matt Riley saw his good friend and Baltimore Orioles teammate Steve Bechler sitting alone in front of his locker at Fort Lauderdale Stadium, his head buried in his hands.
Bechler had been yanked out of that day's running drills by Manager Mike Hargrove, who lectured Bechler about staying in shape, and now Bechler was telling his friend the lesson had sunk in.
"He was kind of distraught," said Riley. "I went over and spoke to him and told him to keep his head up and keep working. He said, 'I messed up. I just want to change.' That's what is so hard. He was ready to make the changes he needed to make."
One day later, Bechler, who reported to camp about 10 pounds overweight, again failed to make it through conditioning drills, but this time he collapsed. And one day after that -- at 10:10 a.m. Monday -- he was dead at age 23 of "multi-organ failure" caused by heatstroke.
As the Orioles returned to the practice field today, reminders of Bechler's death were everywhere, from the flag flying at half-staff above the scoreboard at Fort Lauderdale Stadium to the empty stall and blank name-plate above Bechler's locker to the white stretch limousine waiting in the stadium parking lot to take Bechler's family -- including his wife, Kiley, seven months pregnant with the couple's first child -- to their hotel.
"We all feel a deep sense of loss," said Manager Mike Hargrove, who also managed the Cleveland Indians in 1993 when pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews died in a boating accident during spring training. "It's not easy [to cope]. But I didn't lose a husband, and I didn't lose a son. What we're having to go through is not nearly as bad as what Kiley and [Bechler's] family are having to go through."
After Monday's tragic news, the Orioles cancelled that day's workout and left open the option that today's workout might also be scrapped. At a team meeting that began at 8:45 this morning, Hargrove and Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Jim Beattie spoke to the team -- along with a representative of the religious group Baseball Chapel and grief counselors from the team's employee assistance program -- and by 9 a.m. it was agreed that the team would practice.
"With all due respect to the Bechlers and Kiley -- my prayers are with them, but getting back on the field was the best thing for us," Riley said. "I haven't slept in two days. I've just been sitting in my room rehashing all the times I had with him. It's been real hard. Getting back on the field was the best thing for me and all of us."
Bechler's family members met with team officials at the Fort Lauderdale complex this morning, but were whisked away in the limo without speaking to reporters.
Much of the focus at camp today was on Bechler's use of a dietary supplement containing ephedrine, which was confirmed today by the Broward County Medical Examiner, and the weight issues that presumably prompted him to use the dangerous stimulant. Ephedrine has been linked to the deaths of dozens of athletes in recent years but it is not illegal or banned by Major League Baseball.
Bechler's poor physical condition was an issue almost from the minute he reported to camp on Thursday about 10 pounds above his listed playing weight of 239. However, he passed a routine, 20-minute physical examination on Friday. On Saturday, Hargrove reprimanded Bechler when he could not complete running drills at the end of the workout.
"Part of your job as manager is to motivate people to be better," Hargrove said. "That was one of my discussions with Steve on Saturday. He was overweight, but not sloppy overweight. He wasn't a slob. But there were things he needed to address, and we discussed those."
At the end of Hargrove's lecture to Bechler on Saturday, he gave the pitcher an encouraging swat on the rear and sent him to the clubhouse, which is where Riley found him.
"He wanted to change his work ethic," Riley said. "He realized he had a great opportunity to make the club. This is what Steve loved to do. He loved to play baseball. He just loved coming here and being around the guys and feeling like he was part of the team. It's just not the same without him here."
Bechler and his wife, both of whom are natives of Oregon, remained in Baltimore for much of the winter, but Bechler rarely participated in the Orioles' voluntary winter workout program at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"He had his priorities straight in terms of trying to raise a family," Riley said, "and maybe working out became secondary for him."
Andy Etchebarren, the former Orioles catcher who managed Bechler in the team's farm system the last three seasons and is now a roving catching instructor, said Bechler was prone to rapid fluctuations in weight.
"He had a problem," Etchebarren said. "I don't know if it's overeating or fast foods, but I knew he could get out of shape real easy, and he didn't pay attention to it. At some point a player has to stand up for himself and say, 'I have this problem.' And he has to correct it. . . . This didn't have to happen. It was avoidable, if he'd just drop some weight."
Said pitcher Mike Paradis, another of Bechler's close friends: "I just wish he could get a second chance."