Tuesday, February 18, 2003

What Sandee Kensinger remembers most about Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler is that he always wanted the ball. “He took an attitude to the mound,” Kensinger said. “He was just a competitor.”
Kensinger was Bechler’s American Legion baseball coach. Like many of the residents in and around Medford, Ore., he was stunned by the news of Bechler’s death. Bechler complained of dizziness during a workout at the club’s spring training facility in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., on Sunday and died yesterday morning, apparently of heatstroke. He was 23.
His wife, Kiley, due to deliver the couple’s first child in April, was at his bedside. She and Bechler married last year.
Bechler, a third-round draft pick by the Orioles in 1998, made his major league debut last September, going 0-0 with a 13.50 ERA in three relief appearances. He was expected to begin this season with the club’s new Class AAA affiliate in Ottawa. He spent most of last season at Class AAA Rochester, going 6-11 with a 4.09 ERA in 24 starts. He had a 35-48 record in five minor-league seasons.
The right-handed pitcher attended South Medford High School but blossomed as a pitcher during the summer of 1997 while playing for Kensinger’s Medford Mustangs. The team advanced to the semifinals of the American Legion World Series in Rapid City, S.D., where it had to sweep a doubleheader from unbeaten Sanford, Fla., to win the championship.
Medford won the first game as Bechler went the distance, pitching seven strong innings. The championship game immediately following would be televised by ESPN.
“To this day, no way would I throw the same kid in the second game,” Kensinger said. “But Steve basically threatened me if he didn’t get to pitch the next game. He basically threatened me with bodily-harm.”
Kensinger said Bechler was only “half-kidding” and felt he had no choice but to let him pitch. Medford took an 8-3 lead but Bechler ran out of gas, allowing a home run to Tim Raines Jr., and lost, 11-8. Both Bechler, a third-round pick in 1998, and Raines, a sixth-round pick that year, would sign with the Orioles.
“I think his total pitch count that day was over 200,” Kensinger said. “He had what I called a gumby arm. He was durable.”
Bechler “could obviously throw the ball pretty [darn] hard,” said Dennis Murphy, the athletic director at South Medford High. “He was a nice kid, but he wasn’t terribly coachable, and he was pretty emotional. He could be throwing pretty well and then he’d walk a kid, and all of a sudden he might lose it for the rest of the game. But as he got older, he no doubt got better with that.”
Dennis Allen, who was Bechler’s baseball coach at South Medford, said Bechler “had some growing up to do at the time, but it was a pleasure to see him where he was now.”
He added, “I think he would have been the first to admit he had some growing up to do. He wore his emotions on his sleeve, which sometimes got him into trouble. On the other hand, it made him the competitor he was.”
Bechler “was his own worst enemy,” Kensinger said, “but he started to figure that out and that’s when he started to come on. He was a great kid, a happy-go-lucky kid. … Steve wasn’t that much of a student. I think he knew what his ticket out was, and that summer really gave him some exposure.”
Allen’s last memory of Bechler came during the high school state tournament and was similar to Kensinger’s experience. “Steve had the flu, and he was throwing up on the bus all the way up,” Allen said. “He was penciled in to start, but when I saw him throwing up behind the dugout, I told him I had to scratch him. He said, ‘Don’t do that coach, I want to do it, it’s my last chance.’”
Bechler pitched a complete game, but gave up several bloop hits and South Medford lost.
“He showed his heart and walked off the field,” Allen said.
Allen said Bechler was close to his father, Ernie, who always came to the games.
“Baseball was a big part of their lives,” Allen said. “His dad was really into it. A lot of what they did as a family centered around baseball.”
Pitcher Hans Smith, who is on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ 40-man roster, was an American Legion teammate of Bechler’s. A Tampa Bay spokesman informed Smith of Bechler’s death and said Smith was too upset to comment. Another teammate was catcher Rich Dorman, who is now a pitcher in the Seattle organization.
Bechler, Smith and Dorman sometimes got together during the offseason and persuaded their old coach to join them for an evening out.
“We circled the wagons a couple of times,” Kensinger said. “They dragged me out on a couple of occasions.”
Bechler once visited Kensinger and gave him a newspaper photo showing him pitching for the Orioles’ Class A Delmarva affiliate. Kensinger said Bechler had written on the picture, “Thanks for letting me show the world what I can do.”

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