FORT MYERS, FLA. - The first step to recovery is admitting you have a problem.

"I admit it," Nick Punto said. "I'm addicted."

His bosses beg him to stop. He listens, nods and relapses. His arms bear the telltale scars of abuse. He wouldn't wish his addiction on any child in the world, yet he can't help himself.

Punto, the Twins shortstop, is a serial slider. Two major league organizations have tried to break him of the habit of sliding headfirst into first base. As the spring training schedule begins tonight, his insistence remains one of the mysteries of Twins baseball.

"I started when I was 8 years old," Punto said. "I don't know why. It wasn't to be cool. It was to be safe."

Conventional wisdom holds that batters should slide head-first into first base only when anticipating a tag play, that a runner slows when he leaves his feet, and slows even more when he contacts the ground. Sliding into second and third is necessary because sliding keeps the runner from overrunning the base. Sliding head-first into first is often unnecessary and greatly increases the risk of injury.

Punto isn't so sure. "For some reason, I think it's faster," he said. "For all the people who have told me it's not, I still think it is.

"We'll never know. Until there is a swimming pool at the end of the 100-meter dash, we'll never know. Who's going to dive onto a corked field on a 100-yard dash? Nobody."

When timing batters who run through first base, and those who slide into the base, scouts have determined that sliding slows down the runner. "I've heard that, too," Punto said. "I think people are slower when you slide, feet-first. I think when you dive, it's quicker, as long as you hit the bag before you hit the ground, or simultaneously."

He should hire a team of scientists to test his theories. "I would like to, actually," he said. "As much as I've dealt with over the last 10 years of my career, I would love to get somebody on it. I've gotten a lot of mail from people saying it's not faster."

He also has heard that from virtually every coach and manager under which he's worked.

"I think if I wasn't personable, and a guy who loves to work hard and loves his team, people would just think I'm a jerk," he said. "Because I've had guys, Larry Bowa, Dallas Green, the entire Phillies organization, the entire Minnesota Twins organization, talk to me about it, and it falls on deaf ears. But it's not a lack of respect. I don't lack respect for any of them. It's just one of those things.

"It's the only thing I'm hard-headed about in life. I'm a good listener. It's just that I think it's faster."

Asked how many times sliding into first base has injured him, Punto said, "I don't want to answer that."

Does he enjoy diving? "No," he said. "You still get the burns on your arms. I don't think I have any nerves left in my forearms. It hurts."

Punto said he would never want to see a kid diving into first, and that he hasn't seen a big-leaguer do it right in years, other than Omar Vizquel.

This intimates that there is a proper technique for what is viewed as an improper play. "There is," he said. "You just drop your shoulders and make sure you take all your shoulders out of it, pulled back, and your whole upper body, from your fingers through your shoulders, is just one rigid piece.

"You don't ever want your arms, your elbows, to get outside your body, because that can pull your shoulder out. It's got to be one solid piece, with your hands back and your thumbs tucked. You should really not feel anything, just the bag sliding by.

"If you get caught up at all, you did something wrong. Your feet should be past the base when you're done. If they aren't, then you slowed yourself down too much. I hope that makes sense. I've never tried to explain it before."

Sliding into first base might be a reckless play. After talking to Punto, you can't say it's a thoughtless play.

Jim Souhan can be heard Sundays from 10 a.m.-noon on AM-1500 KSTP. •