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from Newsday

A Risky Business

Headfirst slides: Routine but not the safest route

By David Abramowicz
Staff Writer

April 22, 2003

Roger Cedeņo understood the risks of sliding headfirst: Fingers can jam, wrists can snap, shoulders can pop. Now here he was, off-balance and diving awkwardly.

It was May 25, 2000, and Cedeņo, then with the Astros, was sprinting toward first base when the pitcher tried to tag him. Cedeņo twisted, then lunged. He did not touch the base so much as land on it, his left hand ramming into the ground. Two bones in his hand broke. He missed the next 75 games.

"I do anything for a base hit," Cedeņo, now a Mets outfielder, said recently. "You're going to do what your mind tells you to do at exactly that moment."

Instinct sometimes overrides reason. Cedeņo's injury and the sight of Derek Jeter diving headfirst into third base, getting hit by Blue Jays catcher Ken Huckaby's shin guards and writhing in the dirt with a dislocated shoulder on Opening Day should serve as cautionary tales to any players who slide headfirst. But like Cedeņo, they want to get on base, even if means doing something dangerous. If it means stabbing their chins into the dirt, fine.

Jeter, who was unavailable for comment, hasn't played since. He said after getting hurt that he has no regrets. "If I had a chance to do it over," he said, "I'd do the same thing."

Many players say sliding headfirst simply feels like the most effective approach. Some say it's faster, some say it makes it easier to avoid a tag, and some say it's the surest way not to slide past the base. Whatever the reason, the headfirst slide has become so routine that in an age when some players are criticized as overpaid and indifferent, it has come to represent the gritty, hard-nosed style fans like.

Even the coaches and managers who preach against it accept it as part of the culture. Few teach the headfirst slide and many explicitly discourage it. But knowing they have little control over their players' sliding habits, they are reluctant to dwell on the issue. "You hold your breath every time it happens," Yankees manager Joe Torre said, "but I don't think you can do a whole lot about it."

Even when it comes to sliding headfirst into first base, a practice many see as both pointless and dangerous, coaches and managers have largely stopped trying to change their players' ways. Last year, Mets manager Bobby Valentine was widely criticized because several players, notably Roberto Alomar and Rey Ordoņez, frequently slid headfirst into first base. But Valentine, who was fired after the season, said managers cannot control their players' every decision.

"Every team of the 30 teams will stress during spring training that sliding headfirst into home plate, for instance, is absolutely taboo," Valentine said. "And I'll guarantee you all 30 teams will have more than one guy slide into home plate headfirst during the season."

In the 1950s, teams spent significant time during spring training sliding in sawdust- or sand-filled pits. These days, teams might practice sliding only once a spring. Players line up in the outfield and slide feet-first on the grass. From then on, they are free to trust their instincts -- even if those instincts lead them to the trainer's room.

"Percentages say you're not going to get injured, but if you do, you probably can't grab a bat or grip a baseball," said Larry Hoskins, who has refused to teach headfirst sliding in his 26 years running the Bucky Dent Baseball School in Delray Beach, Fla. "The only people who get injured feet-first are the people who do a terrible slide. But you can do a perfect headfirst slide and still get injured, just like we saw with Jeter."

And yet players slide headfirst, no matter how much they have to lose. Devil Rays outfielder Rocco Baldelli, an early Rookie of the Year candidate, is just beginning what many predict will be a brilliant career. He risks everything, however, every time he has a close play at a base.

Baldelli's manager, Lou Piniella, has begged him to stop, but Baldelli refuses. "As far as injuries, I don't really worry about that too much," he said. "To me it feels faster. It might not be."

It is not clear which slide is faster. Robert Adair, a Yale physics professor and author of "The Physics of Baseball," said he does not know of any study that measures the difference, but he thinks headfirst might be quicker. "Runners tend to lean somewhat forward, and to go from a somewhat forward lean in the run to a headfirst dive has a certain efficiency," he said.

While many managers bemoan the near-extinction of the hook slide, in which players slide feet-first at an angle and grab the side of the base with their toes, Torre speculates that a change in the bases around 1970 had the unintended effect of forcing players to change their sliding habits.

The old bases were large and fluffy, like pillows. Players could sink their toes into them as their momentum threatened to drive them past the bag. Modern bases are hard and slick, making it more difficult to grip them with a feet-first slide. Players who slide headfirst, however, can grab a corner of the base with their hands and hold on as their bodies swing around behind them.

The headfirst slide also can offer players an opportunity to demonstrate a personal style. The enduring photograph of Pete Rose does not show him connecting on one of his record 4,256 hits; it shows him sliding -- or practically flying -- headlong into third base.

As Tim Ireland, the manager of the Double-A Frisco (Texas) RoughRiders, said, "Baserunning's an attitude." He should know.

Ireland broke bones at first, second and third base on headfirst slides. His final injury came in 1982, when he broke his hand sliding into second. It was spring training with the Royals, and Ireland, an infielder, was about to start his first season in the majors. Instead, he began the season on the disabled list and never made it past the minors.

Cedeņo's injury in 2000, though serious, did not derail his career. He even looks back on the play with a degree of pride. The score was tied at 4. Somehow, Cedeņo eluded the tag. A run scored, another followed later in the inning, and the Astros went on to win, 10-6.

"I broke my hand," Cedeņo said, "but we won the game."

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