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BASEBALL'S MASS APPEAL FACING A TEST

A Major League Day Can Be So Stimulating

March 29, 2003|Mike DiGiovanna | Times Staff Writer

For years they were known as "greenies," amphetamines or caffeine-laced pills some baseball players popped into their mouths or dissolved in their coffee to combat the fatigue and grind of a 162-game season.

The "greenies" of today are predominantly ephedra-based stimulants such as Ripped Fuel, Hydroxycut and Xenadrine RFA-1, legal dietary supplements that can be purchased in nutrition and drug stores and have become as much a part of baseball routine as pregame batting practice.

"I don't want to say guys are addicted, but it's like putting on your uniform," Atlanta Brave outfielder Chipper Jones said. "You have your glove, your batting gloves, your bat, you take your greenie and you're ready to go....

"You can look around most clubhouses, and it's like a CVS pharmacy.

"In here, it's never been that way. But I have been in clubhouses where it's been like that, and it's pretty scary."

New York Met first baseman Mo Vaughn has been in a clubhouse like that -- his own. One day last season, a teammate brought in a large canister of Hydroxycut, and several Mets, including Vaughn, grabbed a handful of pills.

"You see an ad, one guy brings it to you, and it spreads through the league," Vaughn said. "Especially the over-the-counter stuff like Xenadrine and Ripped Fuel. Everybody had those bottles in their lockers. It became a fad. In baseball it's, 'Give me a couple of those.' It's very nonchalant. It's like, what's working for you might work for me."

It didn't work for Steve Bechler, a 23-year-old Baltimore Oriole pitcher whose Feb. 17 heatstroke death was, according to the medical examiner who performed the autopsy, prompted by the use of an ephedra-containing supplement.

Bechler's death sparked calls for baseball to join the NFL, NCAA and International Olympic Committee in banning ephedra, an amphetamine-like stimulant that is said to help people lose weight and increase muscle and stamina.

The Food and Drug Administration, which has said at least 100 deaths have been linked to ephedra use, is considering placing labels warning of heart attacks, strokes or even death on ephedra products, though some, such as Xenadrine, already warn buyers of potential risks.

Major League Baseball banned minor league players from using ephedra, and the Milwaukee Brewers banned ephedra-containing products from their clubhouse this spring.

The Major League Baseball Players Assn. has strongly urged players to avoid supplements containing ephedra until the federal government completes an extensive review of the products, but the union is not about to ban ephedra entirely.

"We have a real hard time saying that if you can walk into a store and buy something ... do I have the right to tell a 35-year-old guy he can't?" union chief Don Fehr said. "If a substance is so dangerous it ought not to be used by anyone, then it ought to be prohibited.

"We're very much awaiting [the FDA] review. We want to know what they have to say and what their conclusions are. I make the assumption that the people making those recommendations will have more data and are better experts than us."

Many players were unaware of ephedra's potential dangers until Bechler's death, which set off alarms throughout the game. Players sought out trainers for more information and advice and thought twice about popping pills.

"It's not as free and easy as just putting something in your mouth, like it was," Vaughn said. "You hate to have the death of one of our brothers for that to happen, but you know, I'm sure guys are much more aware of what's going down the pipe and what it can do to you."

Will Bechler's death stop players from using ephedra-containing products?

"It will stop a few, but not everyone," St. Louis Cardinal catcher Joe Girardi said, "because guys still want an edge."

That edge, that need for a jolt of energy throughout the marathon baseball season, is why players turn to stimulants.

"You're talking about ballplayers doing something that college students and high school students do to get their work done," Jones said. "With the amount of games we play, the amount of travel, different game times in different time zones, it's understandable that something such as a greenie could be as popular in clubhouses as it is.

"Because I tell you what, I'm going to play about 160 games this year, and I guarantee you there will be about 40 that I won't really feel like playing. I am not a greenie user, but I can certainly understand where if you're willing to use it, you have to do what you have to do."

Bechler reportedly was using Xenadrine RFA-1 in an attempt to lose weight, and according to Dr. Joshua Perper, the Broward County (Fla.) medical examiner, Bechler had other health-risk factors, including hypertension and abnormal liver function.

"Guys are going to be leery about ephedra, they'll drink more fluids [while taking it], try to do the right things," said Dodger outfielder Brian Jordan, who has used Ripped Fuel "just to wake up and get ready to play."

But as long as products containing ephedra are available over the counter, "Guys will still take them," Jordan said. "You just have to be smart using it."

Jones said he did not use ephedra-containing products before Bechler's death, "and if I was, you can bet I would check with a physician to see what I can and can't take and whether that will help me," he said. "It's tough enough for the families of the victims, but I can't imagine how traumatic it would be to sit and watch a teammate faint and ultimately die. That would affect me the rest of my life, and I don't want anyone to have to go through that."

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