-- With pressure increasing on several fronts for Major League Baseball to impose a ban on ephedra and related over-the-counter stimulants, the sport's powerful players' association remained mostly silent on the issue today. Although some observers expect ephedra to be banned, with the union's blessing, it may take some time for such a ban to be enacted.
Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler died Monday of heatstroke at 23, and preliminary indications, according to the Broward County medical examiner, are that Bechler's use of a diet supplement containing ephedra contributed to his death. Though legal, ephedra has been banned by the NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee.
"It's obvious it's going to be an issue now," said veteran Orioles pitcher Rick Helling, a member of the union's executive subcommittee. "We'll have a lot of discussions about it. If something were to come about, I'm sure we would look at [the NFL's and NCAA's] policies and see what they entail."
However, according to league and union officials, several factors may delay the union's formal addressing of the ephedra issue:
* The toxicology report from Bechler's autopsy is not expected to be completed and made public for at least 10 more days, and until then no definitive conclusion can be reached about ephedra's role in Bechler's death.
"We still don't know enough," said first baseman David Segui, "to say [ephedra] is what killed him."
* Union chief Donald Fehr left New York today for Arizona, where he will begin his annual tour of spring training camps Friday. Last spring, the hot topic was labor negotiations and preparing for a potential strike. This spring, it almost certainly will be ephedra.
Fehr is expected to spend a large part of his time in each clubhouse canvassing the membership in an effort to find a consensus on the ephedra issue. Although team owner Peter Angelos suggested Wednesday the majority of players would support a ban, there are dissenting opinions even in the Orioles' own clubhouse.
"You have to know your own body, what you can and can't do," said second baseman Jerry Hairston, who acknowledges using ephedra occasionally for an energy boost. Bechler's death "is a tragic thing. But it's like alcohol: Yeah, it's legal, but you have to know how to use it or it can be dangerous. You have to know what you put in your body."
Fehr will not be done with his tour of spring training camps until near the end of March. He will visit the Orioles' camp on March 17.
* Union officials have said they want to wait until after an appropriate grieving period for Bechler's family before commenting on the ephedra issue. Bechler's body was cremated and the family is planning a memorial service in their hometown of Medford, Ore., in a few weeks.
"These questions [about ephedra] are appropriate," said Seth Levinson, Bechler's agent, "but only after the family has grieved."
* Finally, union officials and members have expressed a philosophical opposition to banning a drug that is legal and available over the counter, and the union may choose to wait until Congress and/or the Food and Drug Administration act to restrict the availability of ephedra.
Fehr could not be reached today and has yet to respond to comments Wednesday by Angelos, who said the union's leadership rebuffed the owners' efforts to have ephedra and related stimulants included in the new drug-testing program that was agreed to last fall. Players will be tested this season for the first time, but only for steroids and drugs of abuse.
Gene Orza, the union's number two official, did not return telephone messages today. However, he told the Associated Press that the owners never requested that ephedra be listed among the banned substances. Orza also said the union likely would have rejected any such attempt to ban ephedra, since it is legal and can be purchased over-the-counter.
In the wake of Bechler's death, the Orioles' management discussed banning ephedra from the clubhouse. However, it became clear the team could not enforce such a ban without violating the players' rights under the labor agreement. The best the Orioles can do, according to Manager Mike Hargrove, is "to educate [players] and beg them not to take it."
According to trainer Richie Bancells, the team has a written policy prohibiting the training staff from dispensing any drug for anything other than medicinal purposes. Bancells said he is often solicited by drug companies hoping to get their products in the Orioles' training room, and Bancells tells them the same thing.
Members of the Orioles' field staff and front office have "beaten themselves up," Hargrove said, over Bechler's death.
"You think, 'Is there something else I could've done? Could I have done this differently? Could we have identified the fact [Bechler] was struggling [to finish his conditioning runs] earlier?' " Hargrove said. "I don't know that there was anything else that could have been done. To say we're evaluating and reevaluating our procedures doesn't mean we were doing something wrong. It's just a very natural reaction. . . . Our medical staff is excellent, from the trainers to the doctors. They are as good as I've ever seen."
Orioles Notes: Mike Flanagan and Jim Beattie, who head the Orioles' baseball operations, called all the team's employees, including interns and parking-lot attendants, into a meeting in the team's clubhouse this morning to thank them for the composure and compassion they showed during the past few days. The meeting ended with Flanagan and Beattie receiving a standing ovation from the assembled employees.
"To have them say that to us," said one employee, "was better than a raise." . . .
The team plans to wear a patch with the number 51 -- Bechler's uniform number -- on the sleeve of their jerseys at least through spring training, Flanagan said. The team is discussing ways to honor Bechler during the regular season.