With Injuries on the Rise, Why Are Players Still Sliding Headfirst?

Mike Napoli dislocates ring finger

Something doesn’t make sense.

A good number of baseball players are injuring themselves each year by sliding headfirst. They do it trying to steal a base or hoping to stretch a double into a triple. Some even do it sliding headfirst into first base while trying to leg out a single. The Dodgers’ Yasiel Puig did that last year, injured his thumb and was out for a month.

You’d think there’d be more of an uproar over the injuries and the headfirst slide, but there’s not—perhaps because the injuries aren’t season-ending, as with a Tommy John surgery. But injuries from headfirst slides do keep good players on the bench for dozens of games when they could be on the field and in the lineup.

If only they didn’t slide headfirst.

A lot of people think this topic should be a bigger story because valuable players are getting hurt and putting themselves in harm’s way by the way they slide—and it seems that’s not going to change anytime soon…or at all.

Big names. Big deal?
Here is a list of some of the players who’ve been injured over the past few years sliding headfirst, and the number of games they’ve missed. Most of the injuries have been to the thumb/fingers and shoulder. Take a close look. There are some well-known names on this list.
•    Ryan Ludwick, 116
•    Bryce Harper, 57
•    Josh Hamilton, 48
•    Ryan Zimmerman, 44
•    Nolan Arenado, 37
•    David Wright, 25 (twice)
•    Ian Kinsler, 25
•    Melky Cabrera, 22 (ended his season)
•    Michael Bourn, 20
•    Ben Zobrist, 13
•    Billy Hamilton, 2
•    Brandon Crawford, 2
•    Yasiel Puig, 2
•    Mike Napoli, 1 
•    Dustin Pedroia (underwent season-ending surgery)

Miami Marlins second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the batting title this year, had to miss the 2015 All-Star Game because he tore a ligament in his thumb while sliding headfirst into first base just a few days earlier. In 2010, when he was on the Dodgers, he missed two months of the season when he tore his ulnar collateral ligament sliding—headfirst—into third. Pedroia has had several bouts of injuries caused by his headfirst slides.

What’s there to say?
In almost every case, the injured players pretty much said the same thing: They just wanted to get to the bag as quickly as possible. And almost all said that they had simply gotten caught up in the speed of the game and the heat of the moment.

Of course, they didn’t say anything about giving up sliding in headfirst.

Managers and GMs aren’t happy with the injuries, but no one’s really speaking out. Most of them will publicly say that they have some concerns about the headfirst slide, but that’s about as far as they go. For some reason, they overlook injuries and just chalk it up to their players’ (and team’s) misfortunes. They seem to accept the outcome as part of the game.

Ned Yost, manager of the World Series Champion Kansas City Royals, is one of those guys. He’s been quoted as saying a player could just as easily get hurt crossing the street, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to tell them to stop crossing the street. That’s not much of an argument.

It’s one thing for a player to get hurt running into an outfield wall, diving for a bloop single or colliding with an outfielder. Those are “heat of the game” moments and somewhat rare…like when Derek Jeter dove into the stands at full speed to catch a foul. Some players are just more daring than others at times.

That’s not the case with the headfirst slide.

Joe Girardi, manager of the Yankees, has given his opinion: “We talk about that all the time: ‘Don’t slide headfirst into first. Don’t slide headfirst into home.’ It’s hard sometimes for a player because of their aggressive attitude. It’s an instinct. They have to make a split-second judgment…. You’re taught not to slide headfirst but your instincts and aggressiveness take over, and you do it.”

Girardi and other managers today recognize that players who slide headfirst are trying to make something happen, and that’s good for the team and for the outcome of a game.

But when they injure themselves sliding in headfirst and miss weeks or months of baseball…is that good for the team too, especially in the heat of a pennant race?

Feet first. Pete first.

Until Pete Rose started sliding…or diving…into bases headfirst, almost every ballplayer slid feetfirst. Maury Wills, Lou Brock, Willie Mays and all the other base stealers from the ’60s and ’70s (and even before that) slid in with their legs and feet first. Rose broke into the league in 1962 and played for 20 years, and pictures of Rose’s headlong dives, where he’s soaring through the air like Superman with his arms outstretched, have become famous.

In 1962, Wills broke Ty Cobb’s record for most stolen bases in a season, with 104. Brock broke that record in 1974 with 118 steals. Not long after that, most players were starting to shift from feetfirst slides to headfirst ones.

When Ricky Henderson came along and shattered Brock’s record by stealing 130 bases in 1982, he was using the headfirst slide.

Today, a majority of the younger, faster players (who aren’t so worried about injuries) see the headfirst slide as the best and fastest way to go. Brock has said that if players would start blocking the bag with their knees and feet, players would abandon the practice.

And not long ago, Pete Rose said that he doesn’t recommend any player sliding headfirst into home or first base, as a lot of players do today. But he admitted that when he played, his thinking was that he’d rather get scrapes and bruises on his arms and shoulders than on his legs.

Confusion, indecision and little discussion.

What are coaches and managers teaching in the Minors, colleges and high schools? That’s what’s really at the heart of the story. Here are some things to think about:
•    Sliding isn’t a skill that teams spend a lot of time on, in the Majors, Minors and college ball. A lot of players admit that sliding is an afterthought in practice.
•    There’s a general feeling that sliding headfirst gets you to the bag faster. That feeling may be true, but it’s not necessarily a fact. However, players believe that it’s quicker.
•    Some players slide into first base, which almost all managers and GMs don’t approve of. Research shows that running through first base (and home) may be faster than sliding.
•    Managers don’t discourage sliding headfirst, even when one of their guys gets injured.
•    Many Minor League teams don’t allow headfirst slides at all. So why is it allowed when players move up?

The potential for serious injury.
For anyone who’s followed baseball for a long time, it’s difficult to recall many injuries from slides during the ’60s and earlier. But feetfirst players did (and do) run the risk of getting their spikes caught in the dirt. That’s what happened to Tommy Davis of the Dodgers in 1965. He broke his ankle and never really recovered from it. He’d been the MVP just a few years before.

Headfirst slides have also caused several serious injuries at the college level: An Arizona State baseball player, for example, was paralyzed when he hit his head on an infielder’s knee on a slide into second.

Is that what it’s going to take for managers, GMs and owners to encourage players not to slide headfirst? Let’s hope not.

Photo Credit:http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/extras/extra_bases/2014/04/mike_napoli_appears_to_have_dislocated_ring_finger.html