“I know — it’s not bad, huh?” says Salazar, manager of the Class A Lynchburg Hillcats, raising his left eyelid to offer a better view of his new prosthetic eye. “It’s pretty good.” Shifting his head to show off his healthy right eye as a point of comparison, he says, “The color, see? It’s very close.”
Salazar’s relationship with the mirror has been complicated these last few months. He still remembers the first time he looked into one after the accident. He was still at Orlando Regional Medical Center, three days after being struck in the eye by a foul ball while in the Atlanta Braves’ dugout during a spring training game March 9. Doctors had purposely avoided giving him a handheld mirror, so he walked to the bathroom and looked.
“It wasn’t me,” Salazar says, recalling the image of his swollen, purplish face. “It was somebody else. It was tough to swallow. The eye was there, but I couldn’t see anything.”
Four days later, after doctors concluded they could not save his eye, it was removed, and Salazar was presented with yet another self-image to contemplate: Where his left eye once was, there was suddenly an empty socket, which, over the next two months — as he resolved to return to the game, then followed through — would frequently be covered by a bandage or a patch.
Finally, three weeks ago, Salazar, 55, left the Hillcats — a Braves affiliate in the Carolina League — for a few days to return to Florida to get a temporary prosthetic eye. (In August, it will be replaced by a permanent one, attached to the muscles behind it so it will move in concert with his right eye.) Afterward, the doctors immediately handed him a mirror. A grizzled veteran of nearly 40 years in baseball as a player, coach and minor league manager, Salazar surprised himself by nearly breaking down in tears. He hadn’t expected his own appearance to matter so much to himself.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is amazing,’ ” Salazar recalls. “Now I can leave the house and not feel like everyone is looking at me. . . . Sometimes I look at myself and I’m surprised, because I forget I have the eye in there.”
Salazar’s wife of 33 years, Graciela, took one look at her husband with his prosthetic eye and cried.
“Luis,” she said, “you look like you again.”
The almost cosmic confluence of coincidences and random events that had to occur in order for him to lose his eye, and nearly lose his life, on March 9 is still too much for Luis Salazar to get his head around, so it is not something he spends much time thinking about.
Had it been two days later, when the Braves’ minor league spring training camp opened, Salazar would not have been in the dugout during the team’s game against the St. Louis Cardinals. For that matter, had the Braves not been the first team to call with an offer in response to the job-seeking letters he sent out that winter, after he had taken a year off from the grind, he wouldn’t have been in their uniform at all.
Had there not just been a close play at second base involving Braves outfielder Nate McLouth, which had given Salazar an opening for an impromptu seminar on base-running intricacies, he would not have left his seat on the dugout bench to approach McLouth at the railing.
Had Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse not thrown a change-up to Braves catcher Brian McCann, McCann wouldn’t have been so far out in front of it, slamming his bat-head into the ball well in front of the plate and pulling it, at a velocity estimated at 115 mph, toward the very spot at the railing where Salazar, moments before, had chosen to stand.
“I didn’t have a chance,” Salazar says now.
It is a wonder Salazar didn’t die on the spot, and it is something approaching a medical miracle that he suffered no brain damage. The ball had caught him flush on the eye, colliding with a sickening thump and sending him to the floor of the dugout (breaking his right arm in the process), where he lay face-down, bleeding from his nose, mouth and eye. He was unconscious for nearly 20 minutes, regaining consciousness in the helicopter that flew him to the hospital.
Numerous orbital bones around the eye were broken, and Salazar would undergo three surgeries before being released March 17. By far the worst of these, at least in terms of Salazar’s emotional state, was the removal of his eye. It is the only moment, Salazar says, when he felt a twinge of defeat.
“I was thinking, ‘Well, what am I going to do? Is my career over?’ ” Salazar recalls. “One of the doctors told me, ‘You’re going to be fine. The [players] are waiting for you down there [at minor league camp]. When you’re ready to go, you’ll be there.’ That’s what picked me up.”
‘My biggest thrill’
If Salazar was going to make it back to the field, he figured he might as well do it as quickly as possible. He told Braves officials he was targeting April 15, the Hillcats’ home opener in Lynchburg, and a little less than a month after his release from the hospital.
What followed was a rapid succession of milestones and benchmarks on the way to making Salazar whole again — which, by his own definition, meant not only resuming a normal life, but also returning to his job and resuming all the duties he normally would as the Hillcats’ manager.
Two days after his release, Graciela drove him to a parking lot, where they switched seats, and Luis started learning how to drive with one eye.
His rehabilitation included exercises to improve his balance, which is thrown off when someone loses an eye. He had to become accustomed to a diminished sense of depth perception. Eventually, the rehab staff took him outside and handed him a fungo bat — an essential tool for a minor league manager — and he tossed a ball in the air with his left hand, swung the bat, and connected on the first try.
He also had to rebuild strength in his broken right arm, to be able to throw batting practice. (One thing that required no rehabilitation was his innate fearlessness of the ball. “It’s nothing,” he says of throwing batting practice, which he now does before every Hillcats game, never even flinching when line drives rattle against the protective screen. “It’s something I’ve done all my life.”)
On April 15, right on time — and having missed only the Hillcats’ season-opening trip — he walked to home plate at City Stadium to exchange lineup cards, bringing a sellout crowd to its feet for a standing ovation. Graciela walked down to the net behind home plate, leaned in and told him, “I’m so proud of you.”
“It was my biggest thrill in baseball,” Luis Salazar says. “Bigger than my big league debut as a player. It was so important to me to get back in the uniform. And now, I wake up every day and thank God I’m still alive, and for giving me another chance to do this job. I feel lucky.”
That’s the thing that blows people away about Salazar, from his own players to his family members to his countless friends and former teammates within the game, many of whom have called to wish him well: How remarkable it is that someone can maintain such a positive outlook after such an ordeal.
“He’s amazing,” says Hillcats second baseman Phil Gosselin. “He’s the same every day — always upbeat, always smiling.”
“One of the best teammates I ever had,” says St. Louis Cardinals Manager Tony La Russa, for whom Salazar was a third baseman on his mid-1980s Chicago White Sox teams. “There was a reason he was so popular with his teammates then, and why he’s still so popular now — he’s just a good-natured, good-hearted man who has a way of bringing people together.”
Salazar, too, has been blown away by the response from friends and strangers, alike. He has become good friends with McCann, who was one of his first (and most frequent) visitors in the hospital, and who still calls once or twice a week. At every ballpark, fans come down to the Hillcats’ dugout to shake his hand and tell him how his story inspired them.
Salazar looks at the future differently now. He coached only one year in the major leagues, for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2002, but was put off by the way money and ego had corrupted today’s big leaguers. Now, he says he won’t rule out a return to the majors.
“I used to say, ‘When you going to retire?’ ” Graciela says. “He’d say, ‘I retired in 1993!’ I’d say, ‘No, that’s when you retired from playing. When are you really going to retire?’ But I don’t ask him that anymore. This is what he loves. He’s so happy.”