Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters outfielder Daikon Yoh is out of action for probably six weeks after breaking his left thumb in a game against the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles on May 4 in Sapporo. He sustained the injury while attempting to perform one of the stupidest and unnecessary plays in baseball.
He slid “head first” into first base while trying to beat out an infield grounder.
The quotes are around the words “head first” because it is a misnomer. No one does a head-first slide or, as it is called in Japanese, “head-sliding.” If Yoh had slid head first, instead of fracturing his thumb, he might have broken his nose, suffered a fractured skull or a broken neck. It’s the hands that go into the base first — not the head.
Exactly why any player would want to slide into first base in any fashion is a mystery. Sure, the Japanese high school kids at Koshien Stadium do it often to show their “never give up” attitude, and the belly slide might make it appear they are showing more fighting spirit by getting dirty and gulping a mouthful of dust, rather than sprinting across the base standing up.
Almost 100 percent of the time, a high schooler at Koshien will dive into first base on the last play of a game in the ninth inning, even if his team is losing 10-0 and the play is nowhere near being close.
Professionals have no reason to slide into the initial sack unless trying to avoid a tag or a collision.
As all baseball fans know, it is permitted to overrun first base. As long as a batter-runner does not make a move toward second, he can run straight out to the right field foul pole if he so desires and not be tagged out. Most experts say a player does not get to first base any faster by sliding instead of staying upright.
Umpires too have a more difficult time judging whether a batter-runner is safe or out when he slides into first base. If the runner stays on his feet, the umpire can watch and listen for the runner’s foot landing on the base and the ball popping into the first baseman’s mitt.
When the runner dives or rolls across the base, kicking up a cloud of dust, it unnecessarily complicates the call for the umpire, because it may be impossible to see or hear exactly when the runner made contact with the canvas.
Osamu Ino, a longtime Japanese baseball umpire and currently supervisor of NPB umpires, agrees with this and also said, “When a runner dives into first base, the field surface (dirt) actually seems to slow him down and, because an umpire is looking for the runner to overrun the base standing up, it can throw off the timing of the call.”
Three Central League players last week expressed their preference for running out a grounder or a “safety bunt,” and all agreed sliding into first base is not the way to go.
Yomiuri Giants outfielder Itaru Hashimoto said, “I think I get to first base quicker by staying up and overrunning the bag. There is too much risk of being injured by sliding head first.”
Ryosuke Kikuchi, speedy second baseman for the Hiroshima Carp, crossed his arms to make an “X” symbol and said, “Head-sliding? No, thank you. Sure, there is a desire to win, and sliding into first base might be a part of that but, if I get hurt and go on the disabled list, I would not be with the team to enjoy the victories.”
Kikuchi’s double play partner with the Carp, shortstop Kosuke Tanaka, echoed Hashimoto’s comment, saying, “The stand-up and overrun of first base is much better. I get to the bag just as soon, and the chance of being injured is so much less than when sliding.”
Washington Nationals scout Bill Singer, in Japan this past week, uses a stop watch to time runners as they sprint from the batter’s box to first base and said, “They get there in about the same amount of time” whether they stand up or dive.
“They don’t get there any quicker by sliding,” Singer confirmed.
To be sure, Yoh is not the first player to be injured diving hand-first into a base. Ken Macha (who would later go on to become a major league manager with the Oakland Athletics and Milwaukee Brewers) saw his career as an active player ended in July of 1985 while he was playing in Japan with the Chunichi Dragons against the Yomiuri Giants at the old Maruyama Stadium in Sapporo.
He was a runner at second when a Giants pitcher attempted a pickoff play. Macha slid on his stomach and inserted his hand under the bag. He was safe, but his hand was severely cut on a base fastener at the countryside ballpark. It took him more than a month to recover, and he did play an additional series in Nagoya against the Giants in late August but went home after that.
Last year, Yasiel Puig of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Josh Hamilton, then with the Los Angeles Angels, injured their thumbs diving into first base in the same week in April and missed playing time.
In Game 7 of the 2014 World Series, with the scored tied 2-2 in the bottom of the third inning with a runner at first and no outs, there was a key play in which Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals slid head-first into first base trying to beat out a double play. San Francisco Giants first baseman Brandon Bell caught the relay from shortstop Brandon Crawford as Hosmer was belly-flopping into the bag.
Hosmer was called safe, but a challenge reversed the decision. Although Hosmer was not injured, he might have been safe had he run across the base standing up, and it could have altered the outcome of the game — and the Series.
There is risk of injury sliding into any base in any fashion but, sliding on your tummy into first base? As Kikuchi said, “No, thank you.”
Contact Wayne Graczyk at: Wayne@JapanBall.com
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