The advent of spring conjures up thoughts of longer days, sunny skies and baseball.
The latter is enjoyed by professionals and amateurs, along with many who are playing for the first time and are working their way through the various levels of youth baseball and softball.
One of the most important parts of the game at any level is the importance and the ability of sliding into the bases correctly. It is a part of sound, fundamental baseball, but can also cause unnecessary injuries if not properly executed.
An injury while sliding can be costly not only in terms of a player’s health, but in financial impacts to a league as well.
In 2004, 12-year-old Martin Gonzales tore ligaments in his knee while sliding into second base during a Little League game in Staten Island, New York. His mother, Jean, sued Little League International, the parent organization of youth baseball as well as the local league for not teaching her son proper sliding techniques and was awarded $125,000 in damages in 2009.
Santa Monica Little League Safety Officer Kevin Smith said Little League International requires all of its teams to maintain injury reports sustained when playing baseball or softball, and that was one of the principal reasons for the implementation of the safety, or breakaway base. The base detaches as a player slides into it, lessening the possibility of a player jamming an ankle or breaking a leg.
During routine base running, they do not detach.
“We also require all of our coaches to go through training from the very first day, which includes how to teach the proper way to slide,” said Smith, who has been with the Santa Monica Little League for a decade. “The clinics provide them with the fundamentals in all areas of the game.”
Jean Gonzales’ son was injured sliding into a stationary base.
Dr. Danielle Fisher, a Westchester pediatrician, says she rarely sees patients who have been injured as a result of sliding.
“I think that coaches are doing a really good job on teaching sliding, and the breakaway bases have really been a significant factor in the reduction of leg and ankle injuries,” said Fisher, who treats youngsters until the age of 16.
But Fisher said that damage sustained to a joint or limb during a slide does not always present itself in the form of a dislocated or twisted ankle.
“It’s not always clear cut,” the doctor said. “A player could have pulled a groin muscle from sliding that could lead to further complications if it isn’t treated properly.”
Fisher says an evaluation of the entire extremity must be conducted, including the knee, hip and ankle and a full set of X-rays should be taken to rule out a frontal fracture.
“If a player is repeatedly complaining of pain, then a second set of X-rays should be taken,” the doctor recommends.
Dr. Robert Watkins, an orthopaedic spine surgeon and co-director of the Marina Spine Center at Marina Del Rey Hospital, says the sliding techniques being taught today are largely the same as in prior years, but the safety bases have made a difference.
“We haven’t seen anyone at our office that has sustained an injury due to sliding,” said Watkins, who with his father treats a number of high-profile professional athletes. “The breakaway bases have really been a great addition to the game in limiting the force that occurs when a player slides into a base.”
Smith concurs with Watkins on the breakaway base.
“I can assure you, when you see the base (move away) from a player’s leg after a hard slide, you realize that could have been an injury,” the safety officer said.
Richard Brisacher has been the communications director for the North Venice Little League for almost 11 years. He says his league has employed the breakaway bases since he has been involved with it.
“I can’t really compare whether we’ve had fewer injuries with the bases because we’ve always had them, but my thought is that they are a good thing,” he said.
According to the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society, softball and baseball are the nation’s leading sports and also the leading cause of all recreational sports injuries, and most of these injuries occur when players slide into bases.
Dr. Ralph Gambardella, a sports medicine specialist at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Westchester, says Little League International has taken the safety of its players very seriously.
In recent years, the league has instituted a pitch count to help reduce arm injuries to young pitchers and shortstops, who often throw at odd angles when ranging to their right or left to pick up a ground ball.
Westchester Little League has had a similar pitch policy in place for six years, and was the first league on the Westside to do so, says Keith Kutler, the safety coordinator of the Westchester chapter.
“The old system was based on innings per week, and after my kids started moving up in levels, we saw that the old method was not an accurate way to track pitches,” Kutler explained.
The pitch count regulations govern how many pitches a player can throw in an inning. A 13- to 16-year-old player, for example, has a 95-pitch count ceiling.
Even with the safety bases, Gambardella, an orthopaedic surgeon, said it is important for players to see their doctor if they sustain even minor injuries when sliding.
“The concern is that a player may not make it to the doctor, and later in life they might be dealing with these nagging injuries,” he said. “Even diving back to first base can also cause a player to sprain a wrist or jam a finger.”
Fisher, who treats a number of Little Leaguers in her practice, says it’s important to look for nonverbal cues from a player who might resist telling the doctor about an injury.
“You have to keep an eye out to see if they wince while you’re examining them so that you won’t miss something important,” she said.
With sliding injuries decreasing due to better training and the breakaway bases, more Little Leaguers will be ready and able to react when they hear the words most young baseball players wait for on game day: “Play ball.”