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Heading for Trouble?
2003-05-20 00:39
by Mike Carminati

When sins are dear to us we are too prone to slide into them again. The act of repentance itself is often sweetened with the thought that it clears our account for a repetition of the same sin.

-Thomas "Don't Call Me Reggie" Jefferson (1743-1826), U.S. president. Letter, November 19, 1786, to Maria Cosway. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 10, p. 542, ed. Julian P. "Don't Call Me Oil Can" Boyd, et al. (1950).

Exit according to rule, first leg and then head. Remove high heels and synthetic stockings before evacuation: Open the door, take out the recovery line and throw it away.

-Rumanian National Airlines Emergency instructions quoted in letter to London Times 27 Sep 84

Everyone knows that the head-first slide is a dumb move, right?

Why, all you have to do is listen to a TV broadcast or a sports radio show, and the analysts will bitterly spit that tautology whenever they see some boneheaded player have the temerity to exercise the play. It's so ingrained in the collective baseball consciousness that the announcers seem annoyed to have to repeat it and vent their spleen indirectly on the appropriate, unenlightened rube on the field.

Time once was that a player who had the daring to use the head-first slide was a brash, daring maverick like Pete "Charlie Hustle" Rose (see above). He was a throw-back to a woebegone era that only exists in grainy photos and Kevin Costner movies. However, now the cognoscenti turn thumbs down on the strategy Caesar-like and expect the head-first to expire for all time.

The cries to do away with the outmoded strategy reached a fevered pitch when Derek Jeter was injured on opening day by sliding head-first into Toronto catcher Ken Huckaby at third base. Jeter missed about six weeks with a dislocated shoulder. Now the same analysts whose eyes popped when Jeter had the presence of mind to make an unbelievable relay on an offline throw to nab Jeremy Giambi at home in the 2001 playoffs, speak haughtily about his embarrassing tactical error in employing the head-first slide.

Case in point from Dave Del Grande of the Oakland Tribune:

The head-first slide must be banned. What's it going to take -- a shin guard to the forehead that knocks a guy unconscious? A dislocated shoulder isn't enough?

I know the argument (actually, it's the same one Jack Clark uses for riding a motorcycle without a helmet in Arizona): A player understands he's risking his health when he does it, but it should be his decision.

That argument stinks. If given a choice, I'm betting at least one-third of all hitters would come to the plate without a batting helmet. That doesn't make it right.

Don't blame Ken Huckaby for what happened Monday. Blame Jeter.

Ethan J. Skolnick of the Sun-Sentinel is a bit more circumspect:

Sliding headfirst, for many major leaguers, is still second nature...[Re. The Jeter injury] His [Huckaby's] shin guard met Jeter's shoulder, which became the latest casualty of a headfirst slide, which even on a good effort puts shoulders, wrists and fingers -- primary tools of hitting -- in peril.

Now Jeter is back. But don't expect him to slide on his backside much when his instincts take over.

Skolnick acknowledges that a head-first slide is faster, or at least perceived by most major leaguers as faster, and therefore enticing to baserunners:

[Maury] Wills says he would have gone headfirst more often, because he felt it got him to the base quicker, if the opposition would have allowed it...And if a guy can go headfirst and get away with it, then there's nothing wrong with it."

[Juan Pierre] goes headfirst unless breaking up a double play or sliding into home, feeling just a bit faster and more in control.

[Ex-Marlin manager Jeff] Torborg argued while sliding headfirst may be a little faster, players generally do it because it takes less skill, particularly in terms of staying on the base after the slide.

For many, it comes down to this:

"At that given moment, do you want to be out or safe?" Gerald Williams asks.

However, Skolnick also promulgates the perception that a head-first slide is a less safe option: "Risk: You can't protect yourself as well. Reward: You might avoid a tag, then better hang onto a slick bag."

As far as the many Maury Wills' and Jeff Torborg's statements to the effect that players today have it easier than in the past and that they don't know how to slide, I attribute to old-fogy-ism:

He knew it "was definitely a no-no" at home, with rough catchers Tim McCarver, John Roseboro and Randy Hundley "licking their chops" and primed to crack his collarbone.

"It's the thing to do today," Wills says of headfirst sliding, "and everybody honors it by not racking the runner up. When I played, these guys wouldn't have lasted a series. They would have killed them. In our day, we didn't like each other. Today they are buddies."

"I was used to watching Maury Wills perfecting the hook slide, which you don't see as much as you used to," Torborg said. "They do whatever is easiest. The hook slide is an art. ... And they don't work on sliding as much as they used to."

"Players today, they have a flair for the highlight film, or for something that is exciting," Wills says. "Outfielders today are always sliding to catch the ball. Pepper Martin came up with the headfirst slide and popularized it. It went away, and Pete Rose brought it back. It went back to feet first, and then headfirst came back. It looks good."

It won't go away because of what happened to Jeter. Not unless more infielders and catchers do what Huckaby did.

"That was old school stuff," Wills says. "See that catcher throw his shinguards in there, to block him, not to hurt him? That was the norm in the old days."

Maybe players today don't practice the slide as often in the past, maybe they are not as good at it and rely on the easier head-first slide, and maybe they aren't as tough on baserunners as in the past. Maybe, but I doubt it. It's mostly my opinion since I have no real way to quantify and evaluate their statements. However, Jeter's injury doesn't help the old fogy argument.

So by now everyone should know that the head-first slide is just a dangerous, ill-advised play, right?

So why do they keep doing it? Could it be because, as Gerald Williams said, it's a higher percentage play in a good number of situations?

Of course, it is a poor choice when sliding into home because of the catcher's "tools of ignorance". Jeter found this out in his encounter with Huckaby's shin guard. But could it be possible that the injury risk is not as great as many would have us believe?

Does the head-first cause more injuries and is it a lower-percentage play that the feet-first? Should the head-first slide be chucked in favor of the feet-first variety?

Well, I guess that, like the number of licks it takes to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop, the world may never know (Damn you, Mr. Owl!). Or not.

My friend Murray sent me an article from the American Journal of Sports Medicine from May 2000 that says otherwise. In this article the number of injuries from various sliding techniques were recorded for a spate of collegiate games:

All sliding attempts that occurred during game situations were prospectively recorded by a member of the athletic training staff from three Division I collegiate baseball teams and seven Division I collegiate softball teams during the 1998 season.

The study's findings?:

The total number of injuries was similar among head-first slides and feet-first slides, but injury rates per 1000 slides were slightly higher for head-first slides overall. Despite this, feet-first slide injuries appeared to be more severe, accruing more time lost from participation...

When sliding injuries do occur, the slide type appears to dictate the area of the body that will be affected. Injuries to the upper extremities and head were predominantly the result of head-first slides and divebacks [i.e., to first on a pickoff attempt], while injuries to the lower extremities were much more likely to result from a feet-first slide. Intuitively, this makes sense: In head-first slides, the hands and knees absorb the majority of the impact with the ground after the airborne phase. Conversely, in feet-first slides initial impact with the ground is made by the leading foot, followed by the tucked foot and knee. The leading body part is also more likely to absorb most of the force of a collision with either a stationary base or an opposing player.

OK, so sliding with different parts of one's body absorbing the impact causes different types of injuries typically. That seems logical.

The study also found that the head-first slide causes more injuries, just as our salivating commentators have been telling us for years. However, in turns of playing time lost, the feet-first slide caused more severe injuries. This may be somewhat counterintuitive given what we, as fans, are told.

The study does allow that the sample was affected by a few extreme injuries in the feet-first group. Also, this is college baseball, which could possibly favor different styles of play from the majors. So maybe further study is needed before we can bless one strategy over the other, but this opens up the discussion a bit at least.

Let's say that further studies back up this one from May 2000. If a head-first slide is faster, easier, and end up causing less time lost on average, why not use it for all situations in which a catcher is not involved? Hold your horses. If the old saw that head-first slides are more injurious is wrong, then how can we be sure that the head-first slide actually gets a player to a base faster?

Well, the study concludes that "further studies are needed to determine which type of slide gets the runner to the base more quickly so that we can determine for which type of slide the risk of lost participation time is acceptable."

So, where does this leave us? You could say that we really don't "know" anything at this stage about the preferable method of sliding into a base. But then again, that means that it's time for the rhetoric to end and the real studies to begin. Also, the players apparently are not the complete lummoxes that the analysts make them out to be for sliding head-first. The play is worthy of consideration at least.

So where do we go from here? Given the potential financial losses with the time lost due to injuries, isn't it in MLB's best interest to conduct a study themselves. They could have their minions as Elias Sports Bureau review the existing data on slides to determine which slide is most appropriate in which situations. Then they could train players accordingly.

Or they could just keep listening to the old ballplayers-cum-analysts, who will insist that the players today have it easier, are not as well trained in the basics of the game, and are not as dedicated to the game as their predecessors. Which alternative do you think Bud and the boys will take? I, personally, am not holding my breath.

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