Bill Ballew 2015-11-16 03:51:28
The debate is nearly as old as the game itself. Should players slide head-first or feet-first when advancing to the next base? A variety of factors come into play when considering this dilemma, including speed, safety and a player’s natural instincts. While there are arguments to be made on both sides of the ledger, there is no question the head-first slide—despite the higher risk of injury—seems to gain more acceptance with each passing season. Attend a baseball game today at any level and chances are you will see more head-first slides than feet-first attempts. Almost all travel ball associations allow it. Cal Ripken Baseball permits headfirst sliding while advancing to a base; Little League Baseball does not. The high school, college and professional ranks, meanwhile, serve as the primary stage for head-first slides, with an increasing number of players opting to use that approach on an annual basis. The practice is not without precedent. In the early days of professional baseball, back in the 1880s, head-first sliding proved the more popular method before fielders countered with intimidating reactions, such as blocking the bag with their knees and tagging runners aggressively in the face. Base runners responded by sharpening their spikes and sliding into bases with their cleats held high to make sure fielders stayed out of the way. The give-and-take resulted in the vast majority of players opting for the feet-first approach for the next century. Hall of Famer Ty Cobb was considered to be one of the fiercest base runners in history. He perfected a variety of different slides, including the bent-leg slide, hook slide and scissors slide. The scissors slide consisted of sliding on one side of his body as the higher leg attempted to kick the ball out of the defender’s glove. Cobb said he learned his craft from experience as well as by practicing the art of sliding on a regular basis. “In my own base running, I started out as a head-first slider but was cured of it on my second day in the big leagues,” Cobb once wrote. “I tried to steal second and went in head-first against Kid Elberfeld, the tough little shortstop of the old (New York) Highlanders. He politely brought his knee down on the back of my neck and my forehead went smashing into the dirt, leaving most of the skin behind. I never tried it again. In fact, the very next time I went into second against Elberfeld, I slid feet-first, caught him by surprise and knocked him sprawling. Since players in the Golden Era could take it as well as dish it out, the Kid patted me on the back and said, ‘That’s the way to play, sonny boy.’ “After learning to slide feet-first, I soon learned something else. By watching the eyes of the man covering second, as he waits for the throw, you can tell where the ball is coming from and aim your slide in the other direction to stay as far away from the tag as possible. Then I learned to watch the third baseman’s eyes on plays at that bag, especially if the throw is coming from right field. You can line your body up with it as you approach the bag and try to let (the ball) hit you. If you’re lucky enough to have it carom off one side of your body, you may make it all the way home. Even if the ball doesn’t hit you, at least you get in the third baseman’s line of vision.” For more than 45 years Cobb owned the modern era’s single-season stolen base record in the major leagues with 96 before Maury Wills, who employed the bent-leg slide, broke that mark with 104 in 1962. Wills held the standard until 1974, when Lou Brock and his feet-first slide swiped 116 bases. Wills and Brock were on the forefront of a heavier emphasis on running at the game’s top level, which also included the resurrection of the head-first slide. Pete Rose was known as “Charlie Hustle” in large part due to his willingness to sacrifice his body on the base paths. Possessing only average speed, Rose attracted attention for his tendency to leap with his arms stretched forward while advancing on a close play at the base. Said Rose, “I think it’s smarter to slide head-first. I’d rather have an arm spiked than an ankle—plus you get your picture in the paper.” Several stolen base threats followed in Rose’s footsteps, among them Omar Moreno and Frank Taveras. No one, however, did more for the popularity of the head-first slide than Rickey Henderson. In 1982, the Hall of Famer broke Brock’s single-season record with 130 steals, marking his second of three years in which he reached the century mark for stolen bases. He concluded his career by leading his league in thefts on 12 occasions and holds the all-time mark with 1,406 swipes. Henderson said on numerous occasions that the reason he slid head-first was because “it just feels faster.” A variety of studies, however, offer conflicting results regarding whether or not sliding head-first allows the runner to reach base faster than going in feet-first. A 2002 study conducted by the University of Texas and reported in the American Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that there is no significant difference in speed when diving head-first or sliding feet-first. In 2003, the study of 20 collegiate baseball players reported by the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine found “no significant difference between head-first versus feet-first slide times.” The American Journal of Sports Medicine revealed similar findings, also in 2003, during a study of 60 players, ranging from Little League to the collegiate ranks, stating, “We found no statistically significant difference in speed between head-first and feet-first sliding at all levels of play in this study.” Conversely, David Peters, a McDonnell Douglas Professor of Engineering at Washington University, indicated in a study he conducted in 2008 that there is “a slight advantage” to sliding head-first. Peters said the law of physics comes into play; that is, a runner’s center of gravity and momentum is thrust forward when sliding head-first. In contrast, sliding feet-first causes the body’s center of gravity to fall backwards and away from the base, which slows his momentum. “It’s basic, fundamental angular momentum and Newton’s laws applied to a body in motion being flung through the air,” Peters said when his findings were announced. Another study showed that head-first sliders arrived at the base .02 seconds faster than sliding feet-first. For a runner sprinting at 15 miles per hour, he would gain an extra five inches during that span of time, assuming his slide was as efficient as possible. In other words, the runner must fly through the air and reach the base and ground almost simultaneously. Otherwise, if the runner hits the ground well before the bag—not to mention belly-flops—he will lose much of his energy and momentum and wind up arriving at the base later than he would have by sliding feet-first. In June 2015, Travis Ficklin, Jesus Dapena and Alexander Brunfeldt published in the Journal of Sport and Health Science their findings on “a comparison of base running and sliding techniques (in) collegiate baseball with implications for sliding into first base” that was funded by Shanghai University of Sport. The study compared sliding head-first, sliding feet-first, running through the base without slowing, and stopping on the base in order “to determine any advantage there may be to diving into first base to arrive sooner than by running through the base.” The three men concluded, “Based upon overall results, the quickest way to the base is by running through it, followed by head-first, feet-first and running to a stop.” They added, “There was a non-significant trend toward an advantage for diving into first base over running through it, but more research is needed, and even if the advantage is real, the risks of executing this technique probably outweigh the miniscule gain.” If a player prefers to slide head-first, at the very least the recommendation made by former outfielder Dave Gallagher should be considered a good rule of thumb. “Slide head-first at second or third base if you must, but for me, it’s off limits at first or home,” said Gallagher, who played for seven teams over a nine-year career in the major leagues. “The risk of injury is not worth the reward.” It should be noted that sliding head-first also should not be attempted at second base while trying to break up a potential double play. Yet determining the exact risk of injury is difficult to ascertain. Granted, the list of injuries, both minor and major, suffered while sliding head-first is as long as the lines at the DMV. In 2011, Arizona State’s Cory Hahn suffered paralysis from the chest down after diving head-first into second base during a steal attempt. That same year the major league season saw four significant injuries on head-first slides in the campaign’s first two weeks. Josh Hamilton fractured his right humerus (upper arm) while diving into home plate, Rafael Furcal broke his thumb on a steal attempt at third base, Yunel Escobar suffered a concussion sliding into third on a triple, and Ryan Zimmerman strained his abdominal muscles at second base. Three years later, Hamilton slid head-first into first base and suffered a complete tear of the ulnar collateral ligament in his left thumb as well as a torn capsule, which landed him on the disabled list for nearly two months. Dee Gordon also tore the ulnar collateral ligament in his right thumb on a head-first slide in 2012, requiring surgery and six weeks on the shelf. Bryce Harper encountered the same injury to his left thumb on the same type of play in 2014. “For me, it’s dumb to go head-first,” said New York Mets third baseman David Wright during a 2014 interview. “Wrist, fingers, shoulders, it doesn’t make sense. But I say that every year and you get in the heat of the moment and you don’t think about it.” Proponents of the head-first slide say that picking out particular situations does not prove that one method is safer than another. After all, players can and do get hurt while sliding feet-first. Many coaches also believe that forcing a player to decide what to do in the middle of a play instead of reacting with their natural instincts leads to injuries as well as a lack of success on the basepaths. More than a half-dozen scientific studies have been done on injuries associated with sliding. Once again, the results are not surprising. Head-first sliding leads to many more injuries to fingers, hands, wrists, arms, stomach, chest, shoulders, face, head and neck compared to feet-first sliding. Broken/sprained ankles, leg contusions and knee injuries occurred mostly while leading with the feet. The severity of the injuries, however, tends to be higher for those who are hurt while sliding headfirst. The potential severity of injuries has led to several major league organizations preventing their minor league players from sliding head-first. While other teams have not banned it, many have expressed strong displeasure with the practice. New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said in 2003, “The bottom line with head-first sliding is I don’t care if you get to the base faster, unless it’s in the World Series or the postseason. You’re risking too much. The preference is to avoid head-first slides because injury possibilities are larger.” One thing that opponents and proponents of head-first sliding agree on is the need for additional practice on the art of sliding. Few teams at any level spend a significant amount of time working on the basic fundamentals associated with sliding into a base in the proper manner. Some coaches suggest that time limitations are one reason for the lack of attention, while others consider it to be simply an extension of running, a movement and instinct they claim that simply happen. Some summer baseball camps use a slip-n-slide with water to practice sliding in an attempt to avoid injuries. Major league teams in decades past spent time running into sliding pits while honing their craft. That practice seems archaic compared to today’s methods, although many suggest such efforts might go a long way in preventing injuries at all levels. And until sliding feet-first becomes the only accepted way of hitting the ground, chances are the headfirst slide and all of its potential for injury will remain a part of many players’ repertoires. “We talk about that all the time: Don’t slide head-first into first, don’t slide head-first into home,” New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi told MLB.com. “It’s hard sometimes for that to leave a player because of their aggressive attitude. It’s an instinct. They have to make a split-second judgment, and I don’t think players are saying, ‘Don’t get hurt.’ They’re saying, ‘Get there, score the run.’ That’s where they get in trouble, because they’re just playing hard. You can’t have something in their ear to say, ‘Don’t!’ … You’re taught not to slide head-first but your instincts and aggressiveness take over, and you do it.”
Published by Baseball Magazine. View All Articles.
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