Commentary

The base: Approach at your own risk

'Safe!' is not the right call when it comes to the game's hard, immovable bases

Originally Published: May 9, 2014
By Steve Wulf | ESPN.com

It's called baseball for a reason. The concept of a safe haven for voyagers on their way home provides the subtext for every game, and when we look out upon the field, we think we see the same three comforting, white, 15-inch-by-15-inch squares that our ancestors did. "Pillows," they used to be called. "Bags," they still are.

Bases.

Even the Major League Baseball Rule Book makes them sound inviting:

1.06 First, second and third bases shall be marked by white canvas or rubber-covered bags, securely attached to the ground ... The bags shall be 15 inches square, not less than three nor more than five inches thick, and filled with soft material.

[+] EnlargeHarper
AP Photo/Nick WassThe base at the end of this triple put Bryce Harper on the disabled list.

Hello, sweetheart, get me rewrite. It's not a bag any more, but a hard rubber shell around more rubber, and it has very little give. It is so securely anchored to the ground that it would take a bulldozer to move it. Painted regularly for aesthetics, it is so slippery that players feel the need to put dirt on it. The base is high enough to trip up runners -- and bear a team logo on the side that is visible from the upper deck. It is crowned in such a way that an occupant is liable to feel as if he or she is standing on a boat.

Players might be safe when they reach them, but they're not safe attempting to arrive. The recent list of seemingly irresistible names losing out to the immovable objects known as first, second and third is unfairly long:

Bryce Harper of the Nationals sprained his left thumb diving into third on a triple on April 25 and won't be seen in the lineup again until July.

• Teammate Ryan Zimmerman broke his right thumb diving back into second on a pickoff attempt on April 13 and probably will miss another six weeks.

Mike Napoli of the Red Sox dislocated his ring finger sliding headfirst into second on a wild pitch on April 15 and is still having trouble swinging the bat.

Josh Hamilton of the Angels tore the ulnar ligament in his left thumb diving headfirst into first base on April 8. He won't be back until July.

Yasiel Puig of the Dodgers slid headfirst into first on April 5, straining a thumb ligament that kept him out of the lineup for two games.

Manny Machado is only now returning to the Orioles after blowing out his knee when he stepped on first base the wrong way in September.

[+] EnlargeBase
George Gojkovich/Getty ImagesFrom the bottom, a major league base looks … well, ominous.

Michael Bourn of the Indians cut his hand open(!) diving into first base in September, necessitating five stitches.

Dustin Pedroia of the Red Sox gamely played the entire 2013 season with a torn ligament in his thumb suffered while diving into first on Opening Day.

All of them are marquee players whom their managers -- and marketing departments -- can ill afford to lose. The same goes for Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who sprained a thumb in 2013 and broke a pinkie in 2012, both while sliding into second.

Where would the Phillies be without Chase Utley and Ryan Howard? Well, they found out in the 2010 season when Utley was lost six weeks with a thumb injury incurred while sliding headfirst and Howard went on the DL after spraining his ankle trying to get back to second.

As their teammate, shortstop Jimmy Rollins, says, "There is no forgiveness in a base. I've been hanging around second base for a while now, so trust me on this."

Equally unforgiving are the critics, both casual and seasoned, who attach sole blame on this rash of injuries to the headfirst-happy players themselves. Asked about the propensity of his own dynamic rookie George Springer to launch himself, Astros manager Bo Porter said, "I don't like headfirst sliding. It just exposes too much of your body. You can get fingers, hands [hurt]. We tell them [not to] all the time."

Indeed, every organization discourages its minor leaguers from sliding headfirst. Some even fine them for doing it. But then the players get to the majors, and their own competitive juices take over.

"They have a football mentality nowadays," says Phillies third-base coach Pete Mackinin.

The flip side of that recklessness is the whispered-about "fear of the base," a phobia that causes injuries, as well -- some players get caught between sliding into a base and going in standing up. Either way, fearless or fearful, it's hard to get players to change.

"I'm going to keep sliding headfirst," says Angels star Mike Trout. "I've been doing it my whole career. I'm going to keep doing it."

Asked why he does it, Simmons once said, "It's just how I feel faster."

Some physicists have actually backed up Simmons, pointing out that a player will generate slightly more force with the head and arms leading, not trailing. But the infinitesimal difference in acceleration is less important than the view players get as they hurtle forward toward the bag, the better to see the fielder and avoid the tag.

(On the other hand, a test by ESPN's own Sport Science found that a runner reaches first base, at least, just a wee bit faster when he continues his speed through the bag on his feet rather than his chest.)

Taking the resistance to behavioral modification into account, is there a way to prevent the injuries that are sapping the game of some of its more aggressive players?

[+] EnlargeMike Napoli
David Banks/Getty ImagesDon't look too closely at what second base did to Mike Napoli's finger. It ain't pretty.

"Prevention is the best treatment," says Dr. Daryl Osbahr, an orthopedic surgeon who studied under Dr. James Andrews and is an assistant team physician for the Nationals. "You have to look at both intrinsic and extrinsic factors. We can modify their techniques to make the headfirst slide safer. And we can look at the base itself, both the composition of it and the anchoring system."

The bases currently deployed at every major league ballpark -- and at thousands of other diamonds across the land -- are manufactured by Schutt Sports of Litchfield, Illinois, and are called Jack Corbett Hollywood Bases. They are named after a long-forgotten baseball pioneer (read about him here) who came up with a system in the late 1930s to make bases both tough to move when they're in play and easily removable when they're not. The base, tapered so that it could hug the dirt, had a metal attachment at the bottom that was placed in a metal tube sunk in concrete below the ground.

"They're called Hollywood bases," says Orioles manager Buck Showalter, "but they're from hell as far as I'm concerned. They're slippery and hard, and they cause all sorts of injuries. We'd be better off going back to burlap bags."

There's no need to go that far back, although it is worth noting that the base Jack Corbett was inserting into the diamond 70 years ago was much more pliable. So was the base Pete Rose was reaching out for when he first popularized the headfirst slide. Over the years, as the convenience of rubber took precedence over the safety of canvas and plastic, the bases have become harder while the players diving and running into them have become bigger and faster. And, thanks to Jack Corbett, the bases still haven't moved.

You didn't have to take physics to know the inevitable outcome.

The funny thing is that, more than 40 years ago, Roger Hall, a former baseball coach at Elizabethtown (Pennsylvania) College (read about him here), invented a disengage-able base that could severely reduce the number and pain and costs of sliding injuries. Called the Rogers Break Away Base, it comes in three sections: a below-ground plastic anchor housing, a rubber base plate with rubber grommets at the corners, and a base top that snaps onto the grommets. The number of snaps varies for the level of play: from 12 for youth to 25 for pro.

[+] EnlargeManny Machado
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThe culprit that finished Manny Machado's 2013 season was first base.

The base was used in a two-year study conducted in the late '80s by Dr. David Janda of the Preventive Sports Medicine Institute in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Tracking injuries on the baseball and softball fields at the University of Michigan, Janda found that the breakaway bases reduced injuries by an astonishing 98 percent and health care costs by 99 percent. He concluded that the movable base could do for baseball injuries what the air bag did for automobile accidents. Indeed, Ralph Nader championed the breakaway base on his CounterPunch website.

Nowadays, the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recommends the use of breakaway bases at all levels. The Rogers Break Away Base is sanctioned by Little League International and Ripken Baseball and used by several major college baseball teams.

But, for whatever reason, neither Hall nor Janda was ever able to make any real headway with Major League Baseball. The powers that be were as entrenched as their bases.

"I'm afraid they blocked innovation," Janda says. "As a consequence, the players are left to slide into icebergs set in concrete."

(Back in 2004, MLB did change the bases a little. It sold advertising space on the top for "Spider-Man 2.")

"Our main resistance comes from umpires and groundskeepers," says Brian Hall, who now runs Rogers Sports for his uncle. "The umpires are afraid that the Break Away Base will make it harder for them to make the right call if and when the base comes off. But it doesn't come off that easily, and the base plate remains in place. As for the groundskeepers, they love the convenience of being able to pop the bases in and out to drag the infield. Ours is also easy to deploy."

Schutt, which acquired the rights to the Jack Corbett base in 1996, is the longtime supplier to Major League Baseball, so loyalty might be at work. Schutt certainly has a lot riding on its continued relationship with MLB: Base sales have grown 150 percent in the past four years, in part because teams now sell them as "game-used" memorabilia.

But Schutt also makes safety bases, including an impact base that gives more and a Kwik-Release base.

[+] EnlargeYasiel Puig
AP Photo/Alex GallardoYasiel Puig's up-close-and-personal contact with first base strained his thumb ligament in April.

"To my knowledge, Major League Baseball knows of these," says Rob Ball, the product manager in charge of bases at Schutt. "But their standards are necessarily high. These bases have to stand up to the impact of Pedro Alvarez or Prince Fielder sliding into them."

One might think that baseball would embrace the idea of modifying the base, given the game's new and welcome emphasis on safety, e.g., the new rules on home plate collisions and the recent spate of base-running injuries.

But the medical director of Major League Baseball, Dr. Gary Green, cautions against rushing to change the base.

"We're seeing a small cluster of sliding injuries right now, but I wouldn't call it a rash of injuries," Green says. "We've counted 113 sliding injuries in the last three years, which actually resulted in only a small percentage of the overall days missed.

"I understand the position of the AAOS, but I believe that's intended for recreational baseball and softball, which was the basis for Dr. Janda's study. 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?"

Dr. Randall Culp, the hand surgeon for the Phillies, has seen his fair share of upper extremity injuries suffered by an encounter with a base.

"We can't stop the players from sliding headfirst," Culp says, "but we can teach them the right way to do it. It's important that they clench their fists around a batting glove as they slide so as not to expose their fingers. Of course, you can't do that trying to leg out a double or a triple, or diving into first base to beat out a single, which isn't a good idea to begin with.

[+] EnlargePete Rose
AP Photo/Ray StubblebineMaybe we should blame Pete Rose. After all, he made the head-first slide cool.

"The development of a new, safer base would be a good way to go."

Medical opinions aside, it would still need the buy-in of the men in uniform. Would the players themselves be game for a new base?

Larry Bowa and Jimmy Rollins represent more than 30 years at shortstop in the majors. Bowa, now the bench coach for the Phillies, is decidedly old-school; Rollins is ... well, not. But about the base issue, they're on the same page.

"We're protecting everyone else," Bowa says. "Catchers, pitchers, hitters. Why not the baserunners? Seriously, I think a different, safer base makes sense. You're not changing the game, you're keeping your best players on the field, and you're probably saving a ton of money. Sure, I think the idea has merit."

"I'm all for a new base," Rollins says. "Just as the breakaway rim made basketball safer, a base that gives would make our game safer. And we can certainly do something about the surface of the base -- you can't wear plastic cleats or else you'll slip. Hey, maybe we should go back to canvas. Everything old is new again."

And what about the men and women whose job it is to take care of the bases? White Sox head groundskeeper Roger Bossard has worked for the club since 1967 when his father, Gene, brought him into the family business, so he's seen firsthand the evolution of bases.

"They were definitely softer when I first started," the so-called 'Sodfather' says. "But my father always complained that they didn't hold up as well, and that's why they were changed to the harder rubber. I'm not sure I would be in favor of a new base, especially if it means I'd have to go out there every few innings to reset them.

"But I get what you're saying about a safer base because I had this exact same discussion with Roland Hemond when he was our general manager in the '70s. He thought the bases were a hazard, too, and we talked about changing them. I also understand the concern about them being so slippery -- I have to paint them every day. Here's one solution for the manufacturers from an old groundskeeper: Put an adhesive on top and sprinkle it with white sand, the way painters sometimes do."

[+] EnlargeRyan Zimmerman
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesRyan Zimmerman's right thumb fought the base in April, and the base won.

As for the worries of umpires that detachable bases might make their jobs more difficult, well, we do have this new thing called instant replay.

Actually, baseball has changed its bases for safety reasons before. According to "A Game of Inches," a seminal history of the game's innovations by Peter Morris, two injuries in an 1858 game between the Niagaras of Buffalo and the Flour Citys of Rochester led to the replacement of sand bags with hair bags.

But that was then. And this is now. The joint safety committee from MLB and the MLB Players Association should take a hard look at the hard base. New versions could be tried in the minor leagues, or, as MLB Medical Director Green suggests, in the Arizona Fall League.

"There's 0 percent that the bases can't be improved," says Rays general manager Andrew Friedman.

So let's go over that list of players who have been hurt because of "bags" again: Harper, Zimmerman, Napoli, Hamilton, Puig, Machado, Bourn, Pedroia, Simmons, Howard, Utley... Now, knock on wood, add such aggressive baserunners as Jose Reyes, Ian Kinsler, Jason Heyward, Trout and Springer. Think of all that money sitting on the DL, of all the WAR numbers subtracted from their clubs, of all the seats that might go empty if they're not playing.

The bases don't move.

Maybe baseball should.

Steve Wulf

ESPN The Magazine senior writer

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