FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Steve Bechler was feeling pretty good about himself last September. The Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect, after starting the season at Class AAA Rochester in poor condition, had worked himself into shape, and now he was in the bullpen at Camden Yards getting ready to pitch in a major league game.
It was there, in the bullpen, where Bechler, like hundreds of pitchers before him, met Elrod Hendricks, the Orioles' bullpen coach for the past 25 years. When you spend three hours a night together in a bullpen, you get to know each other, and Hendricks liked this eager young man.
"He was very willing to learn," Hendricks said. "He studied the hitters and watched the games closely. Every time I would take out the sheet about how we want to pitch the hitters, he would be one of the first ones to pick it up and read it.
"I got to where I really liked him a lot and enjoyed being around him."
Bechler wasn't feeling too good about himself when he arrived at Fort Lauderdale Stadium for the first day of workouts Friday with pitchers and catchers. He reported overweight, with at least 250 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame, and out of shape again.
He struggled that first day of camp with his running, causing grumbling among the staff. It didn't get better the second day, when manager Mike Hargrove pulled Bechler out of the running exercises and lectured him about what was at stake for him because of his poor condition. As his friend and fellow pitcher Matt Riley tried to console him, Bechler said, "I messed up. I just want to change."
By the third day, Steve Bechler was in trouble.
But there was a moment that Sunday when the 23-year-old right-hander felt good about himself again, and Hendricks was there to share it with him. Bechler was pitching off the mound in an open workout area covered by a dome on the back fields of Fort Lauderdale Stadium, with Hendricks looking on. He was throwing major league pitches - not with a full windup, but from a stretch.
"I was so excited about the way he was throwing," Hendricks said. "I said, 'This is the best you've thrown. Maybe you ought to throw out of the stretch more often. Maybe you should throw out of the stretch the whole game.' We laughed, and he said, 'Maybe you're right. I've got my best stuff out of the stretch.' Then he said, kidding me, 'I've had a lot of practice throwing out of the stretch [with runners on base].'"
They laughed again, and Bechler changed his shoes, got a drink of water, and went over to the field for running exercises. Not long after, he was being taken away on a cart, beginning a fight for his life that he would lose at 10:10a.m. Monday.
"In 44 years of professional baseball, I've never been through anything like this, not even remotely close," said Hendricks, the last person to see Steve Bechler throw a pitch.
After Sunday's workout, Hendricks went to North Ridge Hospital, where paramedics had taken Bechler, and stayed until the early morning hours.
"He was one of my boys in the bullpen," Hendricks said. "I try to treat them like my own sons. I feel responsible for a lot of what goes on in the bullpen."
Hendricks stayed there along with Hargrove, vice president of baseball operations Mike Flanagan and others from the Orioles staff, waiting for word about Bechler's condition. They learned that he had stabilized, but they were also warned that his condition could change. This was all too familiar for Hendricks.
"I had a sinking feeling when I left that hospital," he said.
Hendricks was thinking of Jeff Nelson, the Orioles' young video technician who died suddenly after an operation in December 1998. "I remember being there with him all night and watching him go, and there was nothing anyone could do about it," Hendricks said.
Bechler, too, would slip away, perhaps a victim of a desperate quick fix for the changes he wanted to make. As first reported by The Washington Times, Bechler had a bottle of stimulant in his locker that contained ephedrine, which is used to control weight, minimize fatigue and increase performance. It is also considered a dangerous substance that has been connected to heatstroke and heart problems.
Though he won't be able to confirm it until the toxicology reports are in, Broward County medical examiner Joshua Perper yesterday said, based on discussions he had with the Orioles, he believes it was in Bechler's system on the day he died. The day when Steve Bechler may have felt good about himself and threw his last pitch.