Those magic pills

The death of Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect Steve Bechler on Sunday is a sad chapter in a continuing phenomenon currently gripping the sports world. Bechler, 23, was trying to make the Orioles opening day roster but fell victim to heat stroke on Saturday and died 24 hours later. The local medical examiner gave a preliminary report saying that the diet supplement ephedra may have contributed to his death.

The supplement, which is said to help with weight loss and act as a stimulant, has been banned by the NFL, the International Olympic Committee and NCAA. It’s still legal in Major League Baseball and may well become an albatross around that struggling sport’s neck unless changes are made.

Baseball, through its recent labor agreement, only checks for steroids and even that test is considered a joke by many medical experts. The failure for baseball to crack down on performance enhancing substances does not just hurt the sport but also reflects poorly on society and its quest for that magic pill.

As we settle into the 21st Century, it is clear that we now live in a drug culture. This environment is not limited to using pot, snorting cocaine or smoking crack. Any ailment of the human condition now has a corresponding drug whether sold by prescription or otherwise. Pills are big business.

The big and steady money of the economic boom in the 1990s was embedded in the pharmaceutical industry where drugs became prevalent to help us live longer and healthier lives. There are drugs that assist us with heart problems, sinus conditions, hyperactivity and of course the blue bill to enhance male performance. These drugs come with long disclaimers and there’s a big reason for that.

A few layers below the “legitimate” prescription drug market lie the supplements that will “change your life” by helping you lose 30 pounds, produce “sixpack” abs or help build muscles. Unregulated by the FDA, they can claim to do anything.

Of course advances in medicine have helped society in many ways but with this evolution comes our appetite for instant gratification. It’s a trap that catches too many athletes these days.

While there are still some questions as to the exact causes of Bechler’s death, it’s clear that heatstroke deaths at Spring Training are rare. The workouts are light by athletic standards and this particular session occurred in 81 degree weather.

If baseball hasn’t been serious about these types of drugs, its leadership better get an education… fast.

Baltimore Sun columnist Laura Vecsey made this assertion yesterday saying: “Everyone is so eager to look the other way on all sorts of substances steroids, marijuana, androstenedione, ephedrine, cocaine in the name of personal freedom or home run power or drop weight/add muscle-quick schemes that baseball is willing to condone behavior detrimental to good health, not to mention common sense.”

It’s not the current professional baseball players we should be worried about. If some of them want to risk hurting their bodies for the payoff that fame brings, let them. Our concern, however, should be on the 14 and 15-year-old kids who feel their longshot dream of becoming a multi-million dollar baseball star depends on the right combination of drugs and supplements.

The cocaine-induced death of University of Maryland basketball superstar Len Bias in 1986 served as a wakeup call for America as to the destructive force of so-called recreational drugs. We can only wonder how many sports-related deaths will wake up Major League Baseball as well as our society to the fool’s gold of chemical-induced conditioning of the American athlete.

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