By ERIC OLSON, Associated Press
Taking batting practice and infield practice are rituals in baseball.
Sliding practice? Not so much.
Ask a player at the highest levels of the game when he last rehearsed the art of getting down and dirty on the base paths, and he'll probably tell you he can't remember. Some might tell you never.
Even if done right, sliding is one of the most common causes of injuries in the game. It's an assumed risk.
Still, former major-leaguer Darin Erstad said sliding is something he probably should address more now that he's head coach at Nebraska.
"As I was brought up, it wasn't even talked about," he said. "I can count on one hand how many times in spring training we broke out the sliding mat and slid. You just got to base as quick as you could."
The great debate is whether sliding feet-first or headfirst is more efficient.
Ty Cobb was known for going in with cleats up. Base-stealing stars such as Maury Wills, Lou Brock and Davey Lopes were feet-first guys. Pete Rose came along and popularized the headfirst slide. All-time steals leader Rickey Henderson went headfirst, as do many of today's top stealers.
Baseball people say a player always should go feet-first into home and first base because of the risk for head, shoulder, wrist and hand injuries. But because there are varying circumstances — from the angle the runner is leaning to the position of the defensive player — it's not uncommon for headfirst slides to occur in any circumstance.
Curtis Granderson of the New York Yankees said he has scraped up his hand sliding headfirst into home and tries to avoid it. Same goes for diving into first base.
"Into third, I think you get leaning a little bit, especially if it's a triple," he said. "You get a little fatigued, you're leaning forward and just momentum takes you down that way."
Two years ago, Minnesota's Justin Morneau suffered a concussion sliding into second base against Toronto. Baltimore's Brian Roberts got one going headfirst into first base last year and Texas slugger Josh Hamilton broke his right arm going in the same way to home.
Arizona State's Cory Hahn was left paralyzed from the chest down last season after going into second base headfirst. He fractured a vertebra in his neck when his head struck the knee of New Mexico's second baseman.
Hahn said he typically preferred to slide feet-first, but was leaning forward and would have had to slow down to adjust his stride to go in feet-first.
"I feel feet-first is safer, and I feel you can get hurt regardless," Hahn said. "It's one of those things where if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time — and everything has to go wrong for something to happen — you can get injured."
Hahn is among nine players since 1982 who were paralyzed as a result of headfirst slides, according to the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Countless ankles, feet and legs have been broken from what would have appeared to have been harmless feet-first slides. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons recommends that players under 10 shouldn't be taught to slide, and Little League bans head-first sliding except when the runner is retreating to a previously held base.
David Peters, an engineering professor who studies baseball physics at Washington University in St. Louis, said his research suggests headfirst sliding gets the runner to the base faster, but barely. That's because the tips of the runner's fingers are farther from his center of gravity, giving him a 6- to 8-inch advantage when he stretches out for the bag.
That advantage, of course, is reduced if the runner clenches his hands into fists as he goes into the bag to avoid finger injuries.
Either way, "it's a millisecond of time, but you give yourself some extra distance," Peters said.
Jose Reyes of the Miami Marlins said he started sliding headfirst because he injured an ankle going feet-first in 2003. He said he learned the style as a little kid and has fun doing it.
"When you play baseball and you're a little kid, you love to dive," he said. "I'm 28 and I still have that passion. I love it because I feel like I do something for the team."
Erstad said he and other coaches avoid having players work on sliding at practice because to do it right, it has to be done at full speed and it's hard to simulate game conditions without risk of injury.
Erstad said he wants his players to slide the way they are most comfortable. "If that means headfirst, knock yourself out," he said.
But given the injuries to Hahn and some of the major-leaguers the past few years, Erstad said he plans to discuss with his players the appropriate circumstances for going in headfirst or feet-first.
"We're going to stress feet-first," Erstad said. "I'm not going to take a kid out of a game if he goes head-first. There are things on a baseball field that happen or are done out of instinct."
AP Sports Writers David Ginsburg in Baltimore and Steven Wine in Miami contributed.
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