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BECHLER MEMORIAL

Family, friends, colleagues review the life of Steve Bechler, who died Feb. 17 after a Baltimore Orioles training workout

One woman told of how she grew up nearby, laughing, teasing, fighting with Steve Bechler.

We learned to walk together, said Carrie Foley.

One man, an executive with the Baltimore Orioles, told how he hadn't known Bechler as long as many who attended a memorial service at the South Medford High School auditorium Saturday, yet he will forever remember the fallen ballplayer.

You were there for his first breath, I was there for his last, said Mike Flanagan, the team's vice president of baseball operations who, with Bechler's wife, Kiley, was at the pitcher's side when he died Feb. 17, and I'll never forget that.

Their stories, along with those of more than a dozen others, illustrated the diverse and heartfelt nature of the service for a hometown boy whose death had become a topic for a nation.

Bechler, a 23-year-old pitching prospect who appeared to have a bright future, died of multi-organ failure brought on by heatstroke during spring training. He collapsed following routine conditioning at the Orioles' Fort Lauderdale, Fla., training facility and died the following morning.

A preliminary autopsy report listed ephedra, part of a diet aid, as a possible contributing factor, and it and Bechler's passing have since been hot-button issues coast-to-coast.

Those concerns, however, were scarcely touched upon as roughly 500 family, friends and colleagues filled the theater.

Bechler was remembered as an affable young man who was quick to smile, made friends with uncommon ease and was loyal to the bone. He also was not short on confidence nor reluctant to engage in trash talk.

Those traits were evident whether he was on the pitching mound or at the Play Station controls.

Steve was the kind of guy you wanted on your team, said Steve Clifford, a friend since the first grade.

The theme of the service was decidedly baseball. Along with floral arrangements, the stage was lined with photos and memorabilia of Bechler from Little League through his pro career.

Pastor Pete Slusher opened by telling how a young boy, in his back yard, announced he was the greatest hitter in the world, then tossed a ball into the air, swung and ... missed.

Strike one! Bechler shouted.

He did it again, with the same proclamation and the same result.

Strike two!

And again.

Strike three! he bellowed. Wow, I'm the greatest pitcher in the world!

The story drew laughter and applause and wasn't the only time emotions changed direction as if they were struck by a bat.

Clifford recalled some of the shenanigans he and Bechler were involved in as running mates, but noted that baseball was the common thread.

It was safe to say that Steve was outspoken about his team and what it would do to opposing teams, said Clifford.

Upon reading accounts of Bechler's death, he was struck by the irony.

One of his medical conditions they talked about was an enlarged heart, said Clifford. An enlarged heart, indeed.

Jed Johnson, who played with Bechler at South Medford and was a teammate of his when the Medford Mustangs finished second in the American Legion World Series in 1997, said Bechler took friendship to a new level. There were no distance or geographical barriers.

He was most impressed when Bechler signed to play for the Orioles and suddenly had more money than one could imagine.

Most kids would do something that was not very smart or not very safe, said Johnson. But the first thing Steve thought about was his family and what he could give to them.

Another longtime friend, Jake Stickley, is stationed in Saudi Arabia with the U.S. Air Force but sent his father, Chet, an e-mail to be read.

He explained how his route to the Middle East gave him a last chance to see Bechler. Stickley had an eight-hour layover in Baltimore, and Bechler picked him up showed him the town.

I was thinking, this is crazy, Stickley wrote. Here he is a professional baseball player, and he doesn't have to pay for a dang thing. He knows everyone.

Members of the Orioles said Bechler was very much a part of their family.

Scout John Gillette and minor league pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt said discovering a young player, drafting and signing him and following his progress make that player a bigger part of their lives than the players realize.

Bechler was the first player Gillette ever signed and his first player to play in the big leagues, which Bechler did last September.

Gillette remembered worrying at the start of a minor league assignment when he couldn't spot Bechler warming up. Then he saw the pitcher signing autographs for about 15 kids.

It made me feel so proud to see the looks on those kids' faces when they looked at him, said Gillette. I know you guys are proud.

Schmidt said, There won't be a day when I walk on the baseball field that I don't think of Steve at some time. All of us on the Orioles miss him and won't forget him.

Not all of the discussion was about baseball.

Kiley Bechler, who met her husband in 1997 at an arcade, said the happiest she'd ever seen Steve was when they viewed for the first time a sonogram of their baby.

The second time they saw one, she said, He had the nurse check again to make sure she couldn't see anything, that it really was a girl.

She recalled how she was fortunate to be there for his big-league debut, even if she had to play hooky from work.

He was like a kid in a candy store, she said. I was so proud.

Pat Bechler, Steve's mother who took the stage with son Mike early in the service, apologized for not having prepared a statement but left a lasting thought:

Please, always tell your children you love them because that might be the last time.

Pat Bechler, mother of Steve Bechler, talks during a memorial service in Medford on Saturday. Behind her is Bechler?s brother, Mike. Steve Bechler was a star player for South Medford High School. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Mail Tribune Jim Craven