The Baltimore Orioles considered creating a separate conditioning program for pitcher Steve Bechler after he collapsed on a practice field during running drills on Sunday, the third day of spring training. However, before the team could start Bechler on the new program, he died the following morning from heatstroke.
Manager Mike Hargrove confirmed he discussed with a member of the team's strength and conditioning staff an individual conditioning program that would get Bechler into shape. Hargrove said the conversation took place as they walked from practice Field 2, where Bechler had collapsed minutes before, to the trainer's room in the clubhouse where Bechler, 23, was transported before being taken by ambulance to a local hospital.
Also today, a tape of the 911 call placed from the Orioles' clubhouse by assistant trainer Brian Ebel revealed that Bechler was coherent minutes after collapsing.
At one point, the 911 operator asked Ebel, "The player is how old?"
On the tape, Ebel, who had ridden in with Bechler from Field 2 on a motorized cart, asks Bechler, "How old are you?" Bechler's response is inaudible, but Ebel responds back to Bechler, "Twenty-three?" Ebel then says to the operator, "Twenty-three."
At the start of the tape, Ebel is asked the nature of the emergency, and he responds, "We have an emergency at 1301 NW 55th Street, at Fort Lauderdale Stadium. We have an athlete who is dehydrated and a little lethargic after running."
Eyewitnesses estimated Bechler collapsed between 11:20 and 11:30 a.m. Sunday. The training staff's immediate response was to give Bechler fluids and take him to the trainers' room in the clubhouse, where ice was applied.
Joshua Perper, the Broward County Medical Examiner, has praised the actions of the Orioles' training and medical staffs. "I cannot point to any medical mistakes," he said. "They responded promptly to his collapse, they tried to cool him as much as they could. . . . And they immediately called 911."
Ebel called 911 after helping Bechler into the trainers' room; the call was registered at 11:40 a.m. The dispatcher's call to Fire Rescue Station 53, located less than a mile from the stadium, was registered at 11:41 a.m., and the first rescue truck left the station at 11:42 a.m. The first truck arrived at the stadium four minutes later.
After paramedics stabilized Bechler, he left the stadium via ambulance at 12:18 p.m., arriving at North Ridge Medical Center at 12:23 p.m. His condition worsened during the night, and he was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m. Monday. A team doctor later revealed Bechler's body temperature at one point registered 108 degrees.
The Orioles have defended their workout regimen and have not made any changes to it in the days since Bechler's death, which is believed to be the first in Major League Baseball history from heatstroke. A preliminary autopsy by the Broward County Medical Examiner indicated that Bechler was taking a dietary supplement containing ephedra, which has been linked to several high-profile deaths involving athletes in recent years.
"You look at everything," Hargrove said, "and if there was a reason to change -- if we didn't have water available or something was wrong with the workout -- we'd change it. But there was nothing wrong with the workout. The workout is not strenuous enough for this to be regular occurrence. . . . I saw where a doctor was quoted as saying [Bechler, an Oregon native] needed to acclimate himself to the heat. Well, that's exactly what these early workouts are designed to do."
The Orioles believe Bechler's use of ephedra, of which team officials said they were unaware, was the biggest factor in his death. "He would not have died," said Orioles team physician William Goldiner, "if he had not been using ephedra."
Still, the Orioles were concerned enough about Bechler's conditioning to consider pulling him out of his regular running group and creating a special program for him.
Tim Bishop, the Orioles' head strength and conditioning coach, said the special program likely would have involved a combination of treadmill, StairMaster and stationary bike work, and would have taken place in the mornings before the team's regular 9 a.m. workouts.
Sunday marked the second straight day Bechler did not complete his running. The day before, Hargrove pulled Bechler out of running drills for "disciplinary reasons"; he declined to elaborate on those reasons, but he said Bechler was not struggling to complete the drills.
After pulling Bechler out of Saturday's workout, Hargrove lectured him about the need to come to spring training in better shape. "I told him that he had a wife and a baby coming in April," Hargrove said, "and that he chose this life as the way to take care of them, and it's time he got serious about it."
According to teammate and best friend Matt Riley, who found Bechler sitting at his locker with his head in his hands after being yanked out of Saturday's workout, Bechler was contrite about his lack of conditioning.
"He just said, 'I messed up, and I just want to change,' " Riley said.
Team officials have said Bechler was 10 pounds over his playing weight of 239 pounds, and Hargrove at one point described his conditioning as "not good."
Sunday's running drills came at the end of an approximately three-hour workout that involved mostly technical drills such as fielding bunts and making pickoff throws. The running drills involved 14 "far-gaps," in which the players run seven times from one foul line to a spot just beyond the center field wall, and seven times back; four short sprints; and a series of short side-to-side drills called "pick-ups." Bechler finished the far-gaps and two of the sprints before collapsing.