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Little League Covers Most Safety Bases

But more precautions could help, study says

FRIDAY, July 27, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- When it comes to safety, Little League has nearly all the bases covered, but parents still can do more to protect their kids from wayward balls and players.

That's the message of a new study that examined a decade's worth of injuries on baseball fields for youngsters.

Simple steps such as encouraging face shields and "breakaway" bases can make a difference, says study co-author Daniel P. Kirby, director of risk management for Little League Baseball Inc. "Baseball is very safe, but you can do some things to help mitigate the risks and make it safer."

Researchers looked at 29,038 injuries between 1987 and 1996. The findings appear in the July issue of The Physician and Sportsmedicine.

A quarter of the injuries were considered severe -- broken bones, concussions and dislocations. Thirteen youths died.

But the good news is the risk of injury is low, an average of 1.69 injuries for every 1,000 players, the study found.

With an estimated 8.6 million children playing each year, baseball is second only to basketball in popularity in the United States.

Not surprisingly, baseballs are responsible for more than half of reported Little League injuries, with batters being the most vulnerable.

While face shields for batters and softer baseballs would protect more players, the study found that chest protectors for batters don't seem to be as useful.

Some young baseball players have died from heart failure when hit in the chest by baseballs, but the study's authors say, despite intense attention from the media, such deaths are exceedingly rare, and there's no evidence that such protection would have mattered.

Researchers found sliding accounted for 60 percent of injuries to base runners. The authors recommend using "safety bases" designed to reduce injuries. One kind is a "breakaway" base, which detaches from its foundation when a player slides into it.

"(The base) is not a solid, immovable object. The base gives, not the person's leg or knee, so you won't break your ankle or blow out your knee," Kirby says.

Little League has banned headfirst sliding, and players are trained to slide with care, he says. "But if you have people learning the game, they get into this indecision, they can't make up their minds as they get close to the base, and they throw their whole bodies against it," he says.

Little League has also made changes to improve safety in recent years. Among other things, Kirby says the league has eliminated on-deck circles --- small areas where players warm up before batting --- because the swinging bats sometimes hit other players or spectators. Also, players must slide into home base or run around the catcher instead of running smack into him or her to avoid being tagged.

"You can't try and knock the catcher silly," Kirby says.

Dr. Darren L. Johnson, an orthopedics expert at the University of Kentucky, says the study makes sense, but parents have more to worry about than safety on the field.

Some children play the same sport all year long, and he says ballplayers should get a break, particularly pitchers and catchers who frequently work their arms.

"Nine-year-old kids used to be able to play baseball, basketball and soccer. Changing sports is good for the developing musculoskeletal system. If you just play baseball all year, that's not good," he says.

"Don't train him like he's an Olympian," Johnson says. "Let the kid have some down time."

What To Do

If your child plays team baseball, check with your local league officials about what safety equipment is used or could be added.

Little League has developed a safety program, called ASAP, to help parents learn more about how to prevent injuries.

Learn more about baseball safety from the Menomonee Falls Little League.

SOURCES: Interviews with Daniel P. Kirby, director, risk management, Little League Baseball Inc., Williamsport, Pa.; Darren L. Johnson, M.D., chairman of orthopedics, Department of Sports Medicine, University of Kentucky, Lexington; July 2001 The Physician and Sportsmedicine
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