CHICAGO (AP) _ Face guards and softer balls can reduce the number of injuries in Little League baseball, according to new research that supports expanding the use of equipment now offered to relatively few players.
The study in Wednesday's Journal of the American Medical Association links face guards with a 35 percent reduced risk of facial injuries and ``safety balls'' with a 23 percent reduced risk of ball-related injury.
Safety balls are often made of rubber and tennis balls are sometimes used. Researchers said reduced-impact balls _ ones with softer cores, which transmit less force on impact than standard baseballs _ were the least likely to cause injury.
Face guards are wire mesh devices or clear plastic visors that attach to the helmets of batters and base runners.
``These findings support the expanded use of reduced-impact balls and face guards in youth baseball,'' lead researcher Stephen Marshall of the University of North Carolina and his colleagues said.
Leagues with limited resources should consider using safety balls initially, since ball-related injuries are more common, the researchers said.
Little League Baseball Inc. recommends but doesn't mandate that players wear face guards, but ``probably less than one-quarter'' of equipment used is safety gear, spokesman Lance Van Auken said.
Van Auken said the results of the study will be sent to local leagues for review and could prompt recommendations for a rule change from district administrators. That likely would not happen until April 2004, when league administrators hold their next meeting.
The Consumer Product Safety Division estimates that up to one-third of emergency visits for youth baseball injuries could be prevented if safety equipment was used universally.
That assumes the gear is 100 percent effective, which it is not, according to the study's authors, from UNC-Chapel Hill and Little League.
The study evaluated injuries that resulted in claims compensated under Little League's insurance policy. A total of 4,233 claims from 1997-99 were evaluated, including 1,890 for ball-related injuries.
The researchers compared injury rates in teams that used safety equipment with those that didn't. Injuries, mostly ball-related, ranged from cuts to severe bruises and concussions.
An average of 73 percent of leagues used safety balls in at least one of their age divisions and about 34 percent used face guards in at least one division.
Van Auken said most of that use likely was in leagues for the youngest players. Little League involves players aged 5 to 18, and use of safety equipment is much less common among older, more competitive divisions, he said.
Some players think safety balls don't ``play'' as well as standard baseballs, but Marshall said most people can't tell the difference when manufacturers' labels are removed.