- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 20, 2003

Major League Baseball isn't saying it. Neither is the players' union. But some restriction of ephedrine almost certainly is coming to the sport, and perhaps the entire country, following the death Monday of Baltimore Orioles pitcher Steve Bechler.

Players union representatives, agents, doctors and Congress yesterday continued the fast-mounting call for baseball to join the NFL, NCAA and Olympics to ban ephedrine, an over-the-counter stimulant widely linked to heatstroke, seizures, organ failures, heart arrhythmia and cardiac arrest.

Foremost among the angry chorus was Rep. John Sweeney, New York Republican, who yesterday said he planned soon to file emergency legislation calling for an immediate halt to ephedrine supplement sales, as well as broader legislation shifting the burden of proof of safety to manufacturers. Dietary supplements, including those with ephedrine, currently do not need Food & Drug Administration approval for release, and the FDA must prove a supplement is unsafe before it is pulled off the shelves.

Officials for MLB and the union, meanwhile, maintained their silence concerning Bechler yesterday, waiting for final toxicology results on the 23-year-old. Preliminary findings on Tuesday from Broward County, Fla., medical examiner Dr. Joshua Perper pointed to a dietary supplement containing ephedrine as a key factor in Bechler's death. Bechler also reported to Orioles' spring training out of shape and had a history of minor hypertension.

But once baseball begins a more open discussion on the effects of ephedrine, it will be a significant step forward for a sport long behind the times when it comes to drug control and enforcement. Baseball has minimal drug testing for illegal substances following a new program agreed to in the latest labor deal, none of it currently random testing. And the union has successfully resisted years of attempts by owners to internally regulate over-the-counter substances such as ephedrine that are freely available to the general public.

"Although [ephedrine] is legal and something you can buy over the counter, if it's not safe, something that may cause problems, the case may be to just take that decision out of the guys' hands," said Rick Helling, American League representative to the players' union and a pitcher attempting to make the Orioles' final roster. Helling has long pushed for greater drug testing in baseball.

"There's no doubt in my mind that we'll have a discussion about [banning ephedrine], and I wouldn't be surprised if something doesn't move along [faster than expected]," Helling said.

The union is expected to discuss the ephedrine issue with players during a planned spring tour of training camps by executive director Donald Fehr. Several players yesterday called for more research before new rules are implemented.

"I think you have to find out everything about it," said Orioles catcher Brook Fordyce. "I know some of the risk factors now from reading the papers, but is this an isolated case? Is there more to it that we don't know about? I want to find out. And if it's so bad, why is it legal? They need to do a study on it and educate us."

Sweeney is seeking to render those union talks moot.

"Baseball has had its chance to be pro-active and be responsive on this issue, and follow the lead of other [sports] leagues. They have failed, both owners and players," Sweeney said. The representative also plans to call for legislative committee hearings on ephedrine. "They have failed to act out of greed and really have underestimated the tolerance of Congress. I plan to move very quickly on this."

Baseball has had a difficult history with over-the-counter drugs, particularly ones taken in high, potent doses. Prior to ephedrine, the sport waged battles with players taking androstenedione, a testosterone booster; energy supplements containing creatine; and concentrated forms of caffeine. Many of those battles involved high-profile sluggers such as Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Barry Bonds. In each instance, teams distributed literature and sought to counsel players on the known side effects and risks of those substances. And each time, teams were, and remain, powerless to control players taking them.

"If children are using these [over-the-counter] substances, it is in large part because 11-year-olds can walk into the store and buy them," Fehr said last year. "It's a much bigger question than what we do."

Ephedrine is even more difficult to control. Derived from the botanical root ephedra and designed to help boost metabolic activity and weight loss, ephedrine is sold in a wide variety of combinations, concentrations and brand names. The physical effects are also widespread given ephedrine's ability to attack many different organ systems.

The inherent risks and sordid case history, however, remain clear. Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, has found nearly 1,400 different adverse effects and 137 ephedrine-related deaths since 1993.

"Why doesn't baseball ban [ephedrine]? Ignorance, basically," said Bill Gurley, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Arkansas. Gurley has studied the effects of ephedrine extensively. "I don't think they recognize the seriousness of these products. I've long said it's going to take a high-profile tragedy to get people's attention about this. That, sadly, has now happened. So hopefully, they'll get their heads out of the sand."

Staff writer Duff Durkin contributed to this article.

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