With the increasing popularity of dunking in the late 1970s, basketball adopted breakaway rims to decrease the risk of hand and wrist injuries and to prevent players from shattering the backboards. Now an apparent surge of injuries in Major League Baseball suggests a similar equipment change might be needed.
In the early weeks of the current season alone, some of the game's biggest stars have been injured sliding into bases. Dodgers' phenom Yasiel Puig missed a couple of games due to an injured thumb. Nationals' star Bryce Harper recently underwent surgery to repair a torn ulnar collateral ligament of his thumb after diving into a base. Angels' outfielder Josh Hamilton tore the same ligament diving into first base as well.
Baseball pundits have used these injuries and others to question the practice of runners sliding head first. It is certainly worth discussion. Some studies show that players actually reach base fractions of seconds quicker staying on their feet.
Unfortunately players can suffer bad injuries running to base without diving headfirst. A 2000 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that the injury rate from feet-first slides in baseball were higher than for head-first slides. Feet-first slides also caused more severe injuries in that study as well. Last September, Orioles' third baseman Manny Machado tore the medial patellofemoral ligament in his knee and is only now returning to play.
Teaching players correct sliding techniques is appropriate for baseball players at all levels. Potentially discouraging players from sliding head first might be advisable too. There might be an easier and more effective way to dramatically decrease baserunning injuries, though.
Major League Baseball should switch to breakaway bases.
The bases currently used are made of hard rubber and have a metal attachment that connects to a metal tube anchored in concrete under the ground. They can be rigid obstacles for players sliding very quickly into them - whether head first or not.
Instead, Major League Baseball should adopt the Rogers Break Away Base or one of several other breakaway bases. These bases have a rubber base plate with grommets at the corners that lies flush on the field and a base with holes that snap into the grommets. These bases don't detach with normal baserunning. When players slide, the bases dislodge with only about one-fifth of the force needed to move standard bases.
Dr. David Janda, the director and founder of the Institute for Preventative Sports Medicine in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and others conducted a study of sliding injuries in recreational softball games. They found that the use of breakaway bases decreased sliding injuries by 98 percent and the medical costs of those injuries by 99 percent. Based on that study, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons released a position statement that recommends all levels of baseball and softball install breakaway bases in all fields.
Little League International mandated that all leagues use breakaway bases starting in 2008. Ripken Baseball, Olympic softball and much of college baseball use them as well.
Major League Baseball, however, has been reluctant to deploy these bases. Even after Roger Hall started selling his novel bases in the 1980s, then deputy commissioner Steve Greenberg argued against them in a 1992 interview in The Philadelphia Inquirer.
"The last thing you need is in the seventh game of the World Series to have the deciding run slide into third base with one out and have a controversial call because the base pops out," he said. "Absent some really compelling reason to change, it's not going to happen."
Even today, despite the recent injuries, Major League Baseball isn't rushing to change the bases. In an ESPN.com interview, MLB medical director Dr. Garry Green claimed that breakaway bases might be appropriate for youth and recreational levels, but possibly not for professional baseball.
"We're seeing a small cluster of sliding injuries right now, but I wouldn't call it a rash of injuries. We've counted 113 sliding injuries in the last three years, which actually resulted in only a small percentage of the overall days missed," Green said. "I would worry about the unintended consequences of using breakaway bases on the major league level. Would they change the nature of the game in any way? Would they come off in the normal course of play? Would they make it that much harder for umpires to make the right safe or out call?"
Major League Baseball does appear to be willing to change its rules to improve player safety, as its recent changes for home plate collisions demonstrate. Now it's time to consider changing some of the equipment too.
While players might be called safe when they slide or dive into today's bases, their collisions with them might keep them out for weeks or months.
Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist in Charleston. For more information about baseball injuries and other sports medicine topics, go to his blog at drdavidgeier.com.