New York Times
February 19, 2003
Baseball Has Failed to Confront Drugs

T HE stimulant ephedra is banned from Olympic sports, college sports and the N.F.L. It may soon be banned from sale in Suffolk County on Long Island. But it was not banned from the locker of the late Steve Bechler.

      The autopsy report will not be complete for several weeks, but Dr. Joshua Perper, the chief medical examiner for Broward County in Florida, said yesterday that he had reason to believe that ephedra had been used by Bechler, a young pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles who died Monday of multiple organ failure from heatstroke.

      Bechler, who was married with a child on the way, may not have been able to process ephedra in a relatively normal fashion. But its looming presence on a shelf in the locker of a dead major leaguer can also be traced to permissiveness by American professional sports, and baseball in particular.

      "The death of this terrific young athlete shows the corruption of professional sports," said Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, who served as director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy from 1996 until 2001.

      "They have codes with trapdoors in them," said McCaffrey, now a teacher and consultant. "As a result, the athletes say: `Hey, I barely got into this league on my own. If I want to stay here, I'd better use this stuff.' "

      Bechler, 23, came to camp overweight, struggled in a workout Saturday, collapsed Sunday and died Monday. Until the toxicology report is ready in a couple of weeks, nobody can be sure of the circumstances. But a bottle of Xenadrine, a weight-loss drug containing ephedra, was found in Bechler's locker.

      Baseball had a chance to tighten its drug policies last year when management and labor arrived at a new collective bargaining agreement.

      In the end, the players agreed to a moderate drug code that allowed testing for steroids and certain other drugs, but without any year-round control, thus rendering it worthless.

      Both ownership and the players have been widely criticized for not facing up to the use of legal muscle-building drugs that gave new muscles to Mark McGwire and many other sluggers.

      Ephedra is also no secret. Dr. Gary Wadler, an internationally known expert on drugs and sports, said it is a "stimulant which has weight-loss properties."

      "It is a heat generator," he said, "but most people can dissipate the heat."

      Wadler added that the conditions in Florida on Sunday were 81 degrees and 74 percent humidity, far below the danger level. Perper said Bechler had hardly eaten in several days and also had an enlarged heart, borderline hypertension and liver abnormalities.

      Wadler said that there is no strong proven correlation between heatstroke and organ failure and ephedra, but that it "clearly has cardiac effects."

      He added: "Would it surprise me if there were a connection? No, it would not."

      This is not the first suspected connection between ephedra and sudden death. The Suffolk County Legislature recently passed a bill that would ban the sale of all dietary supplements, including those containing ephedra. County Executive Robert J. Gaffney will hold a mandatory public hearing next Tuesday. The bill was sponsored by Assemblyman Jon Cooper, a Democrat from Huntington, who had heard of a constituent who had died after using ephedra.

      "His name was Peter Schlendorf," Cooper said yesterday. "He was 20 years old, and he went to Florida on spring break, and was in perfect health, and took it as an energy booster, and was dead."

      Cooper said he was stunned by the pressure by the ephedra lobby, both in his county and from Utah, where many diet-supplement manufacturers are based.


      There is a serious link between professional sports and the millions of young people who try performance-enhancing and body-building drugs. Young people smiled cynically when McGwire insisted he got off androstenedione a year after his 70-home-run season. Young people also know how professional athletes try to control their weight.

      Yesterday, Mike Stanton, now with the Mets, recalled the dialogue over drugs during labor negotiations last year, when he was the Yankees' labor representative.

      "Everything was looked at," Stanton said. "It's kind of hard telling a grown man you can't use something when an 18-year-old can go in off the street and get it. I know they do in the Olympics.

      "It's unfortunate that something like this has to happen. What's it's all about now is trying to keep it from happening again."

      Unfortunately, baseball management and labor are both enablers. Baseball loves its power. The players association loves its income. Stimulants like ephedra will remain in major league lockers, a clear danger for the occasional athlete who may not be able to tolerate them -- and a temptation to millions of young people who follow their role models.