“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.”)