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PLAY BALL MORE SAFELY, KIDS

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Each year some 162,000 American children aged 5 to 14 end up in the emergency room with injuries sustained in Little League or other forms of baseball or softball.

Of those injuries, nearly 75 percent were incurred by children 10 to 14, an age group that represents half the total number of children playing baseball.A third of the injuries were severe - namely, broken bones, internal injuries and broken teeth - and most of these were caused by balls or bats. Many of the accidents result in eye damage, including blindness. But that's not the worst of it. Even though baseball is not considered a contact sport, it leads other team sports in children's deaths, with three or four a year, mostly from balls thrown to the head or chest.

This week the Consumer Product Safety Commission suggested some sensible and effective ways to reduce the toll by a third. How? With softer balls, breakaway bases and batting helmets with face guards.

But that doesn't matter to various baseball traditionalists, who care more about preserving the standard hardball, bat and other equipment.

Nor does it evidently matter to Congress, which has sharply curtailed the CPSC's staff and budget as well as depriving it of authority to require the leagues to use the safer equipment.

That leaves the initiative and responsibility mainly up to parents.

They should know that the Dixie Baseball League, which oversees more than 400,000 youth baseball and softball players in 11 Southern states, required the use of face guards and the softer ball two years ago. The results have included fewer injuries and a drop in accident insurance rates, too.

Parents should insist that all youth leagues adopt the safer equipment. More than 19 million American youths, ages 5 to 14, play baseball, softball or T-ball. The objective should be to keep the kids outside in the sunshine, not inside an emergency room.