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Houston discouraging low-percentage play

7/17/2004 - Houston Astros

HOUSTON -- As soon as Ben Zobrist launched himself toward
the bag, he knew he was out.

Out of the game, that is.

Determined to cut down on risky headfirst slides, the Houston
Astros are doing something about it. They've put a unique policy
into effect for all of their minor leaguers: If any of them try it
at first base or home plate, their manager is required to
immediately pull them.

While All-Stars Roberto Alomar, Derek Jeter and Scott Rolen have
gotten hurt in the past going headfirst -- and Junior Spivey, Rafael Furcal
and Carl Everett were banged up this year -- the Astros want
to teach their young players to avoid them.

"We tell our guys that it's a low-percentage play, and that you
can get injured doing it," Astros director of player development
Tim Purpura said.

Only a week into his pro career, Zobrist got an early exit
recently with the Tri-City ValleyCats of the Class A New York-Penn
League. Hoping to beat out an infield grounder against Batavia, the
promising prospect made a dive for it at Troy, N.Y.

Zobrist was nipped in a close play, then heard manager Gregg
Langbehn whistle from the dugout. One inning into the game, Zobrist
was already back on the bench.

"As soon as I did it, I thought, 'Oh, no!' " said Zobrist,
picked in the sixth round of the June draft. "I knew I was getting
taken out.

"They told me about the rule when I got here. I'd done it in
college, but that's the lesson I learned."

Langbehn said: "He was trying to make a hustle play, and I
can't fault him for that. But how many sprinters dive across the
finish line? You're better off running through the bag."

The Astros make exceptions for plays in which runners go
headfirst trying to avoid tags. Diving into second base and third
base is allowed, although not encouraged.

Purpura said the policy went into effect after Roger Cedeno
broke his hand on a headfirst slide into first base in May 2000.
The Houston speedster spent nearly three months on the disabled
list, and the Astros looked to cut down on dislocated digits and
jammed joints.

The merits of going headfirst are debatable. Coaches, fans and
media members usually rail against it; there is no definitive study
on the subject.

Yale physics professor Robert Adair, the author of "The Physics
of Baseball," once looked at the topic and saw a possible benefit.

"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 then.

Pete Rose made the style popular on his way to becoming
baseball's all-time hits leader. Rickey Henderson did it often
while running for a record number of stolen bases.

Alomar has made a habit of going headfirst into first base.

"It's just something I have done. I think I can get there. I've
done it for many years," the Arizona second baseman said.

Told about the Astros' rule, Alomar frowned.

"It's like me telling Randy Johnson, 'Don't throw sliders,' or
telling him not to throw inside," he said. "For example, [with]
a policy like that, then you're trying to avoid attack, and then
they take you out of the game for that? You're trying to do what's
best for the team. You're trying to get to first base."

Furcal, the Braves' shortstop, missed three weeks in May after
jamming his finger on a headfirst slide into third base. Everett,
an Expos outfielder, was out for 30 games after hurting his
shoulder at second, and Minnesota outfielder Michael Ryan went on
the DL when he injured his shoulder at first.

Spivey was sidelined after popping his left shoulder trying for
an infield hit this month at Pittsburgh.

"That's the first time I've ever slid headfirst," the
Milwaukee second baseman said. "I hope I won't do it again. They
tell you not to do it, but sometimes your body and mind tell you
other things."

Brewers general manager Doug Melvin said farm director Reid
Nichols fines minor leaguers for those plays.

"You just try to break them of the habit when they're young,"
Melvin said.

Longtime Astros star Craig Biggio was not aware of the team's
minor league policy. For him, going headfirst for hits is a no-no.

"It really doesn't do you any good, other than sometimes maybe
you have pure panic and you feel that if you dive, maybe the umpire
will give it your way sometimes," he said. "But definitely when
you run, you get there faster than diving."

As Biggio spoke before a game at Wrigley Field, his two sons
stood with him. Asked whether he'd teach them how to slide
headfirst, Biggio was firm.

"Not into first," he said.