02/18/2003 11:17 am ET
Bereaved Orioles return to field
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Under cloudless skies and a half-staff flag Tuesday, pitchers and catchers took to the practice field for the first time since learning of Steve Bechler's death.
|By Becky Dubin Jenkins / MLB.com
At 9:36 a.m., the first of the pitchers and catchers emerged from the dugout as a hoard of TV cameras and media members descended on the team's Spring Training facility.
Manager Mike Hargrove and executive vice president of baseball operations Jim Beattie addressed the team early Tuesday morning, they decided it would be best to fill the players' time with something other than thinking about their grief.
Hargrove told his players and staff, "Let's go to work."
A private memorial service to honor Bechler is scheduled for 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Orioles' clubhouse. It is closed to the media and anybody other than players, team personnel and the Bechler family.
Players have discussed several ways to honor Bechler, including wearing a patch on their jerseys during the 2003 season, but nothing has been finalized.
Position players also began trickling in Wednesday, taking physicals and unpacking their things.
David MacDuff, a grief counselor, and chaplain Dave Taylor from The Baseball Chapel were called in to assist players who have wanted their services in the past few days.
The grief counselors are contracted by the Orioles as part of the Employee Assistance Program and are from the University of Maryland Medical System.
"All feel a very deep sense of loss, obviously," Hargrove said. "Everybody has their own individual way to grieve or cope or however you want to put that. And I think you really want to leave room for our players, our people, to do that but also try to have a structured setting where we keep busy."
Bechler, 23, was pronounced dead at 10:10 a.m. Monday after suffering multi-system organ failure at North Ridge Medical Center. He had been rushed to the hospital as a result of heatstroke early Sunday afternoon after looking ashen and winded following some team running drills.
An autopsy was conducted Tuesday, and Broward County Medical Examiner Joshua Perper said a weight-reducing drug containing ephedrine combined with several health factors and likely contributed to Bechler's death. Toxicology reports are not expected for two and possibly up to three weeks.
Pitcher Matt Riley, who was one of Bechler's closest friends, said practicing Tuesday was instrumental in keeping his mind off things.
"With all due respect to the Bechlers and Kiley (Bechler's wife), my prayers go with them ... to get back on the field was the best thing for all of us because I haven't slept in the last two days," Riley sad. "I've just been sitting in my room, just rehashing all the times I've had with him. It's been real hard. Getting back on the field has been the best thing for me and for all of us."
On Monday, Riley left the spring complex with Rick Bauer soon after the players had been briefed. He was visibly upset and was consoled by roving catching instructor Andy Etchebarren and pitching coach Dave Schmidt. Etchebarren managed Bechler at Triple-A Rochester last season and at two other levels of the minors.
Schmidt hugged and talked with Riley for several minutes. As Riley walked off to the car Bauer was driving, he covered his face with his shirt as he wept.
One coach said upon hearing the news, Riley left the clubhouse and walked over almost to the Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, which is next to the spring complex. The coach spent some time consoling Riley there. Riley told him what a good friend Bechler had been throughout their minor league careers.
And that's what made Riley smile while recalling his friend Tuesday at a news conference in the team's dugout.
"He never really took anything too seriously, never really was in a bad mood, just always in a good mood and just looking to have a good time, always cracking jokes," Riley said. "I'm that same kind of personality: free-spirited and just trying to have a good time. That's why me and him meshed so well because we were like two peas in a pod."
John Stephens, who roomed with Bechler a few years ago and who played with him at the Triple-A level, wore a half-smile when he talked about the friend he had come to know so well over the years.
"He liked to go out and have a good time," said Stephens, who drove Bechler's mother and pregnant wife away from the complex early Tuesday afternoon. "It was always fun to be with him because he was so funny. He was a good friend."
Etchebarren recalled Bechler's live arm and bulldog mentality on the mound.
"He never liked to come out of a game," Etchebarren said with a chuckle. "He used to come into my office and ask if he could get the pitch count lifted because he wanted no part of it. I'd tell him, 'I can't do that.' "
Riley and Bechler met in the Florida Instructional League in 1998 and had been friends since. They had discussed several baseball and personal matters over the years, including the weight problem Bechler had battled.
Bechler had reported to camp 10 pounds heavier, at 249, than he is listed in the team's media guide. Hargrove had a conversation with Bechler on Saturday, which left Bechler ready to make a change in his conditioning.
"Your job is to motivate people to do better," Hargrove said. "And that was part of those discussions with Steve."
Riley saw that Bechler looked a bit distraught because he hadn't completed his running drills and spent some time talking to him at his locker afterward.
"He said, 'You know, I messed up. I just want to change,' Riley said. "He was just so ready to change, and that's what's so hard."
Though Riley is overwhelmed with grief -- he said he has never lost a friend before -- he continues to remind himself of how passionate about the game Bechler was. And that's the one thing that is keeping him going.
"If there is anything positive," Riley said, "he died doing what he loved."
Becky Dubin Jenkins is an editorial producer for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.