Baseball and backyards go together like hot dogs and buns. But America's favorite pastime is, somewhat surprisingly, one of America's most dangerous sports for kids. While the rate of baseball-related injuries is lower than for contact sports like football or hockey, the severity of baseball injuries — more fractures, for example — is actually higher than for other kids' sports [source: Warner].
The good news is that backyard baseball can be both fun and safe as long as you're aware of the most common safety mistakes. We've assembled a list of basic backyard baseball safety tips to keep a great summer tradition alive while keeping families out of the emergency room.
Look Out for Little Ones
It's a beautiful summer day, and the neighborhood kids have gathered in your backyard for a pickup game of baseball. The only problem is the age range of the kids who have come out to play. The oldest are 12 and the youngest are only 4. Older and younger kids have very different ideas of what it means to play backyard baseball, and they trigger very different safety concerns.
Older kids have faster reflexes and more experience being around swinging bats and fast-moving balls. You generally don't need to tell a 12-year-old to stay far away from a swinging batter or to not take practice swings close to other people. But this might be one of the first baseball experiences for a younger child. They need to be told when they are too close to a batter or in danger of being hit by a foul ball.
The best idea is to play backyard baseball with kids who are roughly the same age and experience level. If that's not possible, stick close to the smallest players and make sure that everyone is keeping an eye out for the little guys.
Pick the Right Location
Half of the fun of backyard baseball is the convenience. No special equipment or playing fields necessary; just a ball, a bat and a backyard. But not every backyard is built for baseball. For a safe and fun game, you need lots of flat space and few obstacles, particularly if that obstacle is your neighbor's new BMW.
The ideal location for backyard baseball is a large, open, grassy area free of trees, playground equipment, pools or houses. A standard Little League T-ball field has 50 feet (15.2 meters) between bases and a distance of 200 feet (61 meters) from home plate to the outfield fence [source: Little League]. It's OK if there are houses nearby, but you want at least one direction to be free of breakable windows. That's the direction you want the batters to face when hitting.
If you are using real baseballs and bats, the only safe choice is a large. open backyard with no breakable objects, even in foul ball territory. If you are using Wiffle balls or Nerf balls, then you can get away with playing in a smaller yard. But still be aware of all obstacles in the lawn. It's possible to concentrate so hard on catching a fly ball that you run straight into a stop sign. Just ask my wife.
Choosing Bats and Balls
Getting hit by a batted or thrown ball are the two leading causes of injury in Little League baseball, including painful bruises, eye injuries or even broken bones and concussions [source: Little League]. Because backyard baseball is usually played in a confined space, you need to choose bats and balls that are softer and don't travel as hard and fast as the regulation gear.
Wiffle balls and bats are the traditional choice for backyard baseball. Made of hard plastic, the balls can still be hit far, but a whack in the head with the bat would only leave a nasty welt, not cracked skull. Nerf also makes bats and balls coated with their trademark foamy material for softer impact.
If you have a large open backyard and the players are older and more experienced, you can use standard aluminum bats, but still only use "low-impact" or "reduced-impact" baseballs. These are softer baseballs that have proven to reduce injuries in T-ball and Little League play [source: USA Baseball].
Batting helmets are required for baseball players, from T-ball all the way up to the Major Leagues. Playing baseball in the backyard doesn't exempt you from the rules of the game, or the rules of physics. If you are going to use real baseballs and real baseball bats in the backyard, then batters need to wear helmets.
A lot of research has been conducted to improve baseball safety. In recent years, there has been an increased focus on eye injuries and other facial injuries from wild pitches and foul tips. The guidelines published in the journal Pediatrics encourage kids to wear batting helmets with a metal cage to fully protect the face [source: Warner].
If you're playing with a catcher, the catcher needs to also wear a full catcher's mask with a throat guard, chest pads and shin pads. Boys playing catcher should also wear a hard plastic athletic cup [source: Warner]. If kids are old enough to hit hard line drives, then all boys should probably be equally protected. It might seem like a lot of fuss for backyard baseball, but accidents and injuries are not confined to the chalk lines of a well-groomed baseball diamond. If you don't want to deal with helmets and pads, then stick to Wiffle and Nerf balls in the backyard.
Save That Arm
Practice makes perfect, unless it's pitching practice. Sports medicine has long proven that young baseball players can do significant long-term damage to their elbows, shoulders, wrists and rotator cuffs by throwing too many pitches in too many games.
The USA Little League has even published guidelines for safe pitch counts. Kids aged 7 and 8 should not throw more than 50 pitches a day or 75 pitches a week. And pitchers under 14 should throw no more than 1,000 pitches a season [source: O'Brien].
Even if you think your kid is the next Randy Johnson, respect the pitch count when you are playing backyard baseball. The Little League guidelines are cumulative, meaning kids shouldn't exceed the weekly or season pitch count during games, practices and even backyard matchups. A little restraint can make the difference between a college baseball scholarship and Tommy John surgery at 17.
For lots more information about safe and fun ideas for backyard play, check out the links on the next page.
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Author's Note: 5 Safety Tips for Backyard Baseball
My son recently launched his T-ball career, which means a lot of backyard batting practice. We don't have a large backyard, but it's bordered by neighbors' fences on three sides and the only breakable object in batting distance is a small window on the detached garage that I wouldn't particularly miss. All in all, not a bad spot for hitting some balls. Still, I wrestle with the problem of what to do with my toddler when big brother is at the plate. The little guy's head is like a magnet for moving objects, so I strap a biking helmet on him and insist that he stands directly behind me. The trick now is to fight my natural urge to leap out of the way of a line drive. The neighbor kids have come over a couple to times to join us, and it makes me very nervous. Researching the stats about baseball injuries for this article makes me even more nervous. I wonder if the neighbor boys would resist wearing bicycle helmets and standing behind me with my 2-year-old.
- O'Brien, Kathleen. "Safety Tips: Baseball." KidsHealth. March 2010. (Aug. 7, 2013) http://kidshealth.org/parent/nutrition_center/exercise_safety/safety_baseball.html
- USA Baseball. "Use of the Reduced Impact Ball in Youth Baseball, Ages 5-12." Nov. 30, 2008. (Aug. 7, 2013) http://web.usabaseball.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090813&content_id=6410310&vkey=news_usab&gid=
- USA Little League. "Field Specifications." (Aug. 12, 2013) http://www.littleleague.org/leagueofficers/fieldspecs.htm
- USA Little League. "Low-impact Balls Help Reduce Injuries by 30%." Spring 2009 (Aug. 7, 2013) http://www.littleleague.org/Assets/forms_pubs/asap/LowImpactBalls.pdf
- Warner, Jennifer. "New Youth Baseball Safety Recommendations." WebMD. Feb. 28, 2012. (Aug. 7, 2013) http://children.webmd.com/news/20120228/new-youth-baseball-safety-recommendations