The message when sliding: Don't use your head
Recent injuries spark debate on risks of going into bases headfirst
There isn't much resembling an orthodox sliding position in the baseball world, but there seems to be a growing consensus as to the perilous nature of going headfirst into a base. Four prominent players sustained injuries on headfirst slides in the first two weeks of the season, and some teams are instructing their players to stop the practice.
All four plays were different, involving three of the four bases, but the headfirst nature of the slides tied them all together.
The Rangers' Josh Hamilton, the American League's reigning Most Valuable Player, injured his shoulder on a headfirst hustle play at home. Dodgers shortstop Rafael Furcal broke his thumb on a headfirst steal attempt of third base. Another shortstop, the Blue Jays' Yunel Escobar, sustained a concussion while sliding headfirst on a triple, and Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman wound up with an abdominal strain after a headfirst slide at second base.
Davey Lopes, two-time league-leading basestealer and current first-base coach for the Dodgers, doesn't understand the reasons for the trend.
"I never slid headfirst, ever. Nowadays they all do," said Lopes, who stole 557 bases in his 16-year playing career. "Back in the day, only slow guys did it. Maybe now it's because of swimming pools. Kids learn to dive headfirst. That's the only thing I can think of. I remember the first guys I would define as basestealers to do it were Frank Taveras and Omar Moreno. Later on, Rickey [Henderson] would do it, but sometimes he'd also go feet-first.
"For me it was more natural to slide feet-first. That's the way we were taught. It was the safest way. ... Not that you can't get hurt feet-first, but it's easier to get hurt headfirst."
Lopes, in fact, saw Furcal get hurt up close on a play that seemed to validate his opinion. Furcal went in headfirst on a steal attempt and San Francisco third baseman Pablo Sandoval dropped his knee to block the base. Furcal slid right into Sandoval's knee, and is expected to be out for four to six weeks.
That injury, as far as Lopes is concerned, was completely avoidable. But the problem is, most players just get so comfortable sliding headfirst that coaches wind up risking what they do well by asking them to change. Lopes said that it could take up to 20 days to teach a player to slide feet-first correctly, and that Spring Training isn't always the best time to make that fix.
"Nowadays, I would never try to change a kid. They are conditioned to go headfirst, and it would mean a real change," said Lopes. "You'd have to work on it on a daily basis. A lot of it would be psychological. You're taught that when in doubt, slide. But you don't want somebody thinking in the middle of it, 'Do I go feet-first or headfirst?' You'd have to work with them, have their cleats off so they aren't worried about catching a spike and rolling over and breaking an ankle.
"But I always felt too many bad things can happen going headfirst. You see an infielder who knows you're coming in headfirst, he puts his knee down to block the bag. It's perfectly legal to do that. It's not dirty. The runner has to know he's vulnerable going headfirst. You go feet-first, not many infielders are going to drop a knee down, I guarantee you."
Lopes, with his reasoned approach, speaks for many of his peers. Atlanta manager Fredi Gonzalez said that his players have been taught not to slide headfirst for their entire careers, but sometimes instinct gets the better of them. Baltimore manager Buck Showalter agrees, but he said that he doesn't tell his players how to slide or say, "Don't get hurt."
|"You know, a lot of people get hit by cars crossing the street, too. But I still allow my players to cross the street. People get hurt playing this game. ... You can't stop playing the game hard. If we had our druthers, would we rather have them slide feet-first? Yes."|
-- Royals manager|
"You know, a lot of people get hit by cars crossing the street, too. But I still allow my players to cross the street," Yost said. "People get hurt playing this game. If some people get hurt playing the game hard, you put somebody else in there until he gets healthy and then you go. You can't stop playing the game hard. If we had our druthers, would we rather have them slide feet-first? Yes. But some guys slide headfirst; it's the reaction. Guys play with their instincts. They go out and play. They're not running from first to second thinking, 'Oops, I've got to make a feet-first slide.' They play. And you let 'em play."
Science has tried to weigh in on the subject, with mostly ambiguous results. The American Journal of Sports Medicine produced a 2002 study in which the authors concluded that there is no significant difference in speed when diving headfirst or sliding feet-first. Other studies -- including one conducted by Washington University physicist David Peters -- indicate that there is a slight advantage to sliding headfirst, perhaps making the increased injury risk worthwhile.
The anecdotal evidence, though, continues to pile up. Plenty of players have been hurt on conventional slides, but the Braves saw two regulars -- Martin Prado and Jason Heyward -- sidelined by injuries on headfirst slides last season. Chipper Jones, one of the league's most distinguished players, said that going headfirst is a risk he'd rather avoid.
"It's like playing Russian roulette," Jones said. "If you do it long enough, it will bite you."
The Indians had their collective nervous system tested in Spring Training, when catcher Carlos Santana -- who missed two months last year because of a season-ending knee injury -- went headfirst into the plate in an exhibition game. Santana was unhurt, but the team's brain trust made certain to air their feelings emphatically.
Manager Manny Acta said that he's been in organizations that fine players for going headfirst, and general manager Chris Antonetti said that the Indians lecture their Minor Leaguers on the perils of sliding that way. In the end, though, you can only instruct a player. When they're on the basepaths, sometimes they'll do what feels natural.
"It's something that we preach against," Acta said during Spring Training after two of his players slid headfirst into home plate. "I think that 30 Major League clubs preach against that, but it's such an instinctive play. Even when we covered that the other day in our baserunning lecture, guys will still go and do it. Both guys got an earful."
And though the Indians have had no problem taking a hard line on the subject, other teams see it as a gray area. Joe Girardi, manager of the Yankees, is not crazy about the headfirst slide, but in some instances, it's the only way to the bag. He also said that when you have an aggressive baserunner, you don't want to rein him in.
Girardi has that type of player in Brett Gardner, his leadoff man against right-handed pitchers. Gardner famously dove into first base for a key hit against Texas in last year's American League Championship Series, a play that likely would have been an out if he had gone into the base conventionally. Girardi conceded that point but stuck to his larger message.
"We talk about that all the time: Don't slide headfirst into first, don't slide headfirst into home," he said. "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!' ... I was just talking to Gardy about it. You're taught not to slide headfirst but your instincts and aggressiveness take over, and you do it."
The Reds also have had some close calls with headfirst plays this season, with second baseman Brandon Phillips narrowly missing injuries on two occasions. Phillips had the wind knocked out of him on one headfirst slide against the Astros, and the D-backs' catcher stepped on his hand last weekend.
Mark Berry, Cincinnati's third-base coach, said that the Reds counsel players not to go in headfirst at home plate, and he also said that most players are aware that there's an increased injury risk if you go in with your head and neck exposed. It's one thing to rationally understand that, though, and quite another to be able to put it into practice.
"An old third-base coach said it the right way: You're expected to send everybody. Don't get anybody thrown out, and don't get anybody hurt," Berry said. "That's basically what we're looking at. You want to be aggressive. Everybody expects you to be aggressive and yet, these things happen."
Hamilton, one of the game's most dynamic players, initially was upset about his injury, saying that the decision to send him home -- when no one was covering home on a foul pop near the third-base dugout -- was ill-advised. But in the aftermath, he backed off that claim and said that sliding headfirst gave the catcher less surface area in which to tag him. And that may well be correct, but it flies in the face of decades of baseball wisdom.
"I did that as a rookie with the Braves," said Cincinnati manager Dusty Baker. "Donn Clendenon with the Mets ... called me over immediately. He said, 'Hey kid, don't you ever slide headfirst into home.' This was a guy from another team that told me this. He told me, 'Jerry Grote, Randy Hundley and Johnny Bench would break your neck.' "
"I understand his frustration," said Lopes of Hamilton. "But the bottom line, he went headfirst into the plate. In my day, I don't remember hardly anybody going into catcher's gear headfirst. Can you imagine going headfirst into [former catcher] Mike Scioscia? You'd have to be [crazy]. There's such a higher risk of injury. But in today's game, everybody does it. But if you're 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, and you're laid out and come down on your shoulder, something bad happens."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.