Jim Baumbach is an investigative / enterprise sports reporter for Newsday. A Long Island native, he started working
The news that Texas Rangers star Josh Hamilton broke his arm on a headfirst slide into home plate offered managers a convenient excuse to remind their players why it's smarter to go in with your feet. And Joe Girardi took advantage yesterday afternoon.
While standing among his players in the Yankee Stadium outfield during an early batting practice session, the Yankees manager said he chatted with his most aggressive slider, Brett Gardner, about the play.
In his short time in pinstripes Gardner has made a practice of sliding headfirst into home and first, too often ignoring the risk of injury for the reward of scoring another run or reaching base. And it's something Girardi frowns upon.
"We talk about that all the time," Girardi said. "Don't slide headfirst into first. Don't slide headfirst into home."
Gardner said he hadn't seen replays of the Hamilton slide, but he doesn't need any tangible proof to understand why Girardi prefers a feet-first slide. Heck, Gardner even sounded as if he agrees with his manager's reasoning. But -- and this is a big but -- none of that means Gardner has any plans of changing his sliding ways.
"You can teach it and preach it all you want," Gardner said, "but when the intensity is turned up and the adrenaline is turned up in a game situation, in a big situation like that, things just happen."
The problem here, as Girardi pointed out, is that when players are heading home they can't decide until the last possible second how they're going to try to score. And when faced with the challenge of trying to touch the plate while avoiding the catcher's tag, a player's competitive instincts take over.
"When you have to make a split-second judgment, they're not saying, 'Don't get hurt,' " Girardi said. "They're saying, 'Get there,' or, 'Get to the base,' or, 'Score the run.' That's where they get into trouble because they're just playing hard. You can't have something in their ear saying, 'Don't, don't, don't.' "
Gardner also remembers that the one time he suffered a significant injury on a slide came when he was going feet-first. While trying to break up a double play on July 25, 2009, Gardner broke his thumb jamming it into second base, costing him six weeks on the disabled list.
And then there's his headfirst slide into first base leading off the eighth inning in the ALCS opener last year. Gardner said he knew he was safe because pitcher C.J. Wilson stepped on his hand on the bag with his cleat -- a major injury risk if there ever was one, but Gardner avoided injury. And that infield single jump-started the Yankees' five-run inning, leading them to a 6-5 victory over the Rangers.
"Going into home or first base, it's obviously not ideal," Gardner said. "But instinctively, when you're a couple of steps away from the plate and you have to make a decision, if you think sliding head first is going to be a better chance of being safe than sliding feet first, some guys will do that."
That includes Hamilton, the reigning American League Most Valuable Player who is sidelined because of the way he slid trying to avoid the tag from Tigers catcher Victor Martinez. It's a slide that makes managers cringe, even if they know they're helpless from stopping players from doing it.
"It's one of those things you can tell guys not to do it as much as you want," Gardner said, "but when the intensity is turned up, sometimes you have to, you know?"