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How to Slide Safely Into Home This Baseball Season

RYE BROOK, N.Y. - It’s not all home runs, hot dogs and Cracker Jacks. Baseball is also about injuries, and young players are paying the price.

Some 6 million children under age 18 are involved in baseball leagues, while 13 million more play America’s pastime on their own, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Although baseball is a noncontact sport, most serious injuries come about from contact — with a ball, a bat or another player. And while it is generally considered safe, the rate of serious injury is notable.

From 1994 to 2006, more than 1.5 million children were injured seriously enough to be treated in emergency rooms. Most injuries were minor – muscle pulls (strains), ligament injuries (sprains), cuts and bruises, but 24,350 required hospitalization, mostly for fractures and concussions.

But improved equipment now offers increased protection, and many injuries can be prevented by taking common-sense precautions.

Players, parents and coaches should focus on three specific areas to minimize the risk of injury: preparation, the right equipment and knowing a child's limits.

Preparation: Before the season begins, every player should have a complete sports physical that includes a check of overall health and a complete injury history as well as testing for strength, endurance and flexibility.

Preseason conditioning: Many injuries occur at the beginning of the season, when athletes are more likely to be out of shape. Strength and general conditioning should begin several months before the season starts, should be designed for baseball and should incorporate specific exercises for the position played. For all players, but especially pitchers, the shoulder is the area most prone to injury. Shoulders should be stretched and strengthened before the season.

Pre-game warm-up: Cold muscles are most prone to injury. While warming up is always important, it is particularly critical during a child's growth spurt, when muscles and tendons are tight.

Equipment: Improvements in equipment are helping to reduce the rate of injuries. Softer safety baseballs offer increased protection from being hit by a ball; breakaway bases have lowered the number of strains, sprains and broken bones. Catchers should always use a catcher's mitt and wear a helmet, face mask, throat guard, long-model chest protector, protective supporter and shin guards. And all players should wear properly fitted, molded and cleated baseball shoes. Players who wear glasses must have shatterproof lenses and sports frames.

Limits: Overuse injuries can be prevented by not allowing a child to play on more than one team in a season, and by not playing and training for a single sport all year round. Strictly enforcing pitch-count and innings limits is critical for protecting young pitchers.

Aiten Roux, manager of Rye Brook's Personal Training Institute , added that nutrition is also an important part of staying on the field in any sport.

"Nutrition is such an important part of any health goal, especially with kids," Roux said. "You should never exercise on an empty stomach. To fuel up for a workout or game, choose a small snack that's high in carbs."

Roux also said that it's just as important to eat a combination of complex carbs and protein half an hour or an hour after any game or physical activity to give the body the nutrients it needs to recover.

Youth baseball pitchers who throw more than 100 innings in a calendar year are more than three times as likely to be seriously injured, according to the American Sports Medicine Institute. No child should play through any pain. Persistent pain is a sign of an overuse or acute injury and should keep a child out of the game until the pain subsides. An injured child should see a doctor.

Coaches and parents can also help prevent injuries by creating an atmosphere of healthy competition, which means not pushing kids to win at all costs or all the time. Putting too much focus on winning can make a child risk serious harm by ignoring the signs of injury and playing in pain.

And if that means more Cracker Jacks and fewer injuries, then everyone wins.

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