For most, if not all, of his career, Nyjer Morgan’s first instinct has been to slide headfirst into bases. It’s been part bravado - favored over a feet-first slide on the basis that it allows the former hockey player to get his uniform dirty quicker - and part habit.
But that practice, as it does for many ballplayers, caught up with Morgan last August. He jammed his left hand into third base at Wrigley Field last August, breaking his wrist and terminating a season where Morgan had given a jolt to the Nationals’ lineup.
As far as the Nationals were concerned, that was it for Morgan sliding headfirst; he’d have to change techniques in the future.
His first chances to work on the switch are coming this spring, and for Morgan, a big part of camp is unlearning the technique he’s favored through the years. He understands the reasons for the switch, knows all the facts from physicists and sports scientists who say a foot-first slide is just as fast. And he knows he can’t afford any more injuries like the one he sustained last August.
It’s just that like with anything else in life, instincts are hard to fight.
“In my eyes, it’s part of the game, man,” Morgan said. “I like getting dirty. I like showing the fans and showing my teammates that I’ve been out there working and grinding. I guess I can’t have that mentality. But like I said, I’m a ballplayer, man. If I have to slide headfirst to get to where we have to go, then I probably will. But I know I’m going to be a little bit smarter and I’m going to be sliding feet-first.”
The 29-year-old’s switch is just the latest aspect of a baseball debate that’s been going on for years. A Wired magazine report said a headfirst slide gets a player to the bag fractions of a second quicker, because his center of gravity is going forward, not backward. But other studies have found no difference, ruled the difference inconsequential or even given a slight edge to sliding feet-first.
Morgan is planning to wear a bowling mitt on his wrist to protect it on occasions where he has to slide headfirst. In the instances where he does it, you’ll probably be able to see that little spark of defiance in his reaction.
“I might give a little pat on the chest (to the dugout). You guys might catch that,” he said.
But by and large, the center fielder who does most things with a little extra swagger will have to dial it back for safety’s sake.
“That’s what I’m going to be working on this month,” he said. “I’ve got this whole month to do all that, get all those little bugs out. I don’t care if I get caught (stealing) 10, 15 times. I’ve got to get this down where it’s going to become natural.”