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Astros not letting headfirst dives slide in minors

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 putting 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 sliding 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 Single 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, taken 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."

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.

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, you had 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."

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