Seldom does a sprinter dive toward the finish line. You know that. I know it. The Giants broadcasters know it. Why doesn’t the Giants shortstop?
I would estimate, very roughly, that Omar Vizquel loses about a hit a week due to a headfirst slide into first base, thus slowing him down. See, sliding causes friction; friction reduces speed. A fine example, besides Omar Vizquel, would be the brakes on your car or bike. If your brakes make you go faster, get help now; if they slow you down, they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. In other words, friction produces a braking action.
And that’s why ballplayers slide. It’s not to make them faster, it’s to keep their momentum from sending them past the base they want to stop at. Believe me, I know this one well.
When I was in high school, the planets apparently aligned perfectly one day, thus decreeing that I would actually get into a baseball game on my Frosh-Soph team. See, I rarely got to participate, even in practice. Sure, I carried the bats and shagged fly balls in BP—and often I didn’t even get BP—but mostly my job was to do things like be a baserunner for other people’s infield drills. (And don’t even get me started about my function as scorekeeper.) Despite my presence at all the practices and games (except for the one on Opening Day 1975, when I chose to stay home and score the Giants game instead), I was out of practice. Indeed, I played so little and was so discouraged by the situation—and by my coach, who apparently was trying to teach me a lesson of some sort—that when I did play, I sometimes panicked. God knows I did that in other sports, especially basketball—“chicken with its head cut off” was how my father once aptly described my approach to the game—but once I got out of Little League and started to perform poorly, and thus played less and less, I began to feel as though all eyes were on me, waiting for the next screwup. So when my high school coach actually put me into a game, I found myself wondering why—even after I reached the point where I was playing well again, thus enabling the return of a modicum of confidence.
And when Frosh-Soph practice started, I was playing about as well as I ever had, both on offense and defense. In fact, I was hitting like crazy. Also, I’d only started playing center field the previous spring, I loved it, and I felt like a center fielder—a pretty good one.
Naturally, that was the cue for the coach to keep me off the field almost entirely. But one day late in the season, I was instructed to go out to center field in about the fourth or fifth inning of a game. (I can’t remember, but I’ll assume we were losing big at the time.) By then the confidence I’d regained was gone, as was any hope that the coach hadn’t been lying when, just before the season started, he told me I’d be playing plenty.
My day began with a high fly ball. I took a step in, went “Uh-oh” as the ball flew merrily over my head, and wound up chasing it for what seemed like hours. I’m not even sure I held the batter to four bases.
Later—and here’s the part that relates to the stuff about Vizquel and friction—I stood on first base after walking. For no reason I can think of, I was given a steal sign. So I took off. I beat the throw by plenty, but the doubts kicked in, and I wasn’t even sure I could still slide right. I’m assuming, anyway, that this is why I didn’t slide. Or perhaps it had been too long since my last on-field screwup. In any case, I stole second standing up—until my momentum carried me off the bag, whereupon I was tagged a split second before I got back. The umpire called me out. I disputed his assertion that I’d come off the bag, of course, but to no avail. Of course. Perhaps because embarrassment was foremost on my mind, it didn’t even occur to me grief from the coach about not sliding. And when he did, and asked me why I failed to slide, I just said “I dunno.”
Ask me if I stayed in the game after that. Go ahead. Ask.
My point, though, is not to tell the sad story of my baseball career. My point is that I’m living proof that you slide to slow yourself down—and, certainly, to avoid being tagged, which rarely is an issue at first base, Omar. The only way sliding is gonna speed you up is perhaps if you’re playing baseball on ice. And the only reason to slide head first is to avoid a tag.
Jeff Kent used to dive into first when he was with the Giants. (Now that he’s a Dodger, who cares if he still does it?) That used to drive me bats, but I’d think, “Aw, Kent doesn’t seem like the sharpest bulb in the elevator, so maybe I should expect something like that from him.” But Omar Vizquel? Omar “4-6-5” Vizquel?
Maybe my estimate of a hit per week is too high, but in case it’s not, we’re talking about the difference between a season batting average of, say, .290 and .333 (or, if you prefer OBP, it’d be, say, .360 instead of .400).
What makes him do it? A league-mandated condition of his joining the Giants? No other reason makes sense.