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A born competitor

Those who knew him, say the former American Legion and South Medford baseball star was often at his best when facing the toughest challenges

Steve Bechler had just thrown more than 100 pitches in leading the Medford Mustangs to an 8-2 victory over Sanford, Fla., in the first championship game of the American Legion World Series on Aug. 26, 1997.

The Mustangs needed one more victory on that cloudy, rain-plagued day in Rapid City, S.D., to clinch their first-ever national championship.

Bechler approached manager Sandee Kensinger and demanded that the ball be in his hands for the second game.

That second game was going to be on ESPN, Kensinger recalled, and Steve knew it. He loved being in the spotlight and he loved to compete.

Kensinger granted Bechler his wish, and the hard-throwing right-hander launched another 100 pitches or so before leaving in the fifth inning with an 8-4 lead.

Sanford rallied for an 11-8 victory to deprive Medford of the title, but Bechler, who died of heatstroke Monday at the Baltimore Orioles spring training site in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., left an indelible mark on those who watched him pitch that day.

I know he had to be in pain throwing that second game, said Nate Philo, the team's star center fielder who now lives in Southern California and works as a worship leader at the Gathering Place Church in Westwood. I remember him saying afterward that his arm felt like a noodle.

But that was Steve. There wasn't any way he was going to give up that championship if he had any say in the matter.

Kensinger still watches video of those two games every now and then, with Bechler taking on the nation's best collection of American Legion players and conquering them with his 90 mph fastball and nasty curveball.

He just put on a show, Kensinger said. It was masterful, some of the things he did. It was unbelievable.

Bechler's former teammates and coaches in Medford were shocked and in some cases left speechless by his death at the age of 23.

Those who spoke remembered him as fiercely competitive and having a love for baseball that few could match.

He wanted to pitch in all the big games, said Mustangs general manager Don Schneider. He was a little bit flaky at times, but he was a cocksure, confident kid.

I think he would have made his mark in the major leagues because he had that attitude and he had the stuff.

Former North Medford High football coach Rod Rumrey was one of Bechler's first baseball coaches, taking him in as a 10-year-old on a Medford National Little League team.

He had a tremendous competitive attitude and he was kind of a perfectionist, Rumrey said. And sometimes that would get the best of him.

He might get mad and throw a little fit when he struck out, but he would always apologize and be so sincere with it.

And even as a 10-year-old, he was giving the 11- and 12-year-old hitters trouble. You could see he was going to be special.

Bechler registered a 12-4 record in helping the Mustangs to a best-ever, 56-11 record during that magical summer of 1997. He also set team records for innings pitched (124) and strikeouts (152).

In June of 1998, he was taken in the third round of baseball's amateur draft by the Orioles.

He was on his way to achieving his lifelong dream of being in the starting rotation of a big league team when tragedy struck.

It's hard to put into words the feeling you get when something like this happens, said Travis DeManby, who played baseball with Bechler at South Medford High and is now a member of the Fresno State University basketball team. It's just a real sad day for everyone who knew him.

Steve Bechler, shown here pitching for South Medford High School in 1998, died Monday after Sunday's spring training workout with the Baltimore Orioles left him feeling dizzy and suffering from heatstroke.