LYNCHBURG, Va. – Luis Salazar has been through a lot of opening days in his 38 years of professional baseball and knew his 38th on Friday night was going to be very different.
It comes just about five weeks since the manager of the Atlanta Braves’ high Class A Lynchburg Hillcats lost his left eye after being struck by a line drive in a spring training game.
“It’s my passion, baseball, and being down here, tonight is going to be a very emotional night, a home opener,” he said a few hours before making his return to the dugout in uniform.
“To me, it’s another challenge,” he said, a bandage and clear glasses covering the eye socket shattered March 9. “They’re not going to take baseball away from me.”
Salazar was the last person introduced before the Hillcats’ game against the Myrtle Beach Pelicans, and the still-arriving crowd of 2,000 mostly stood to welcome him.
Salazar recalls nothing but seeing “the missile” coming at him off the bat of Braves catcher Brian McCann. The impact shattered bones on the left side of his face and knocked him unconscious. He broke a bone in his right forearm when he collapsed onto the floor of the dugout. He’s had three surgeries, and is hoping to get a prosthetic eye once the wound is healed.
He began hearing details when he woke in a hospital bed several days later to find Braves players Chipper Jones, Nate McClouth, Martin Prado and several coaches at his bedside.
Learning he’d lost his eye was an adjustment, he said, but as he’s heard stories of being airlifted out of the stadium and that people feared he might die, he knows he’s fortunate.
“What happened was an accident, and at the same time, I thank God I’m alive,” he said. “I’m very grateful to be alive. That’s the way I think about it, in a very positive way.”
That’s how he’s approached McCann, insisting he stop apologizing.
“Since it happened, we became good friends, very close,” Salazar said.
The message he and wife Graciela have had for the Braves’ catcher?
“You don’t have to be ashamed or worry about what happened,” he’s told him. “It’s an accident and accidents can happen to anybody, but the thing I want you to know just looking at me is I’m here talking to you and that’s the most important thing.”
Salazar said, “He gave me a big hug, and that’s the best feeling I’ve had in a long time, and a real relief coming out of his soul.”
Graciela, who traveled from the family’s home in Boca Raton, Fla., to attend the home opener, said the past five weeks have been harder on the family than on her husband, and that he actually “kept the family in shape” by telling them over and over again, “Don’t worry. I’m fine.”
She understands his return to baseball.
“He’s in the place he wants to be, he loves to be,” she said.
Salazar’s approach has turned a tragedy into an uplifting story.
“Everybody knows in the town what happened to me and the story has gone around everywhere, and especially on opening day with my wife here and the opposite team, players, coaches, and my coaches and players,” he said.
“They lift you in good spirits when they say nice things to me.”
Salazar also is not unaccustomed to overcoming big obstacles.
In 1985, while playing for the Chicago White Sox, he tore ligaments in his left knee and was told he would probably never play again. Just 26 at the time, he chose instead to have surgery and spent the next 18 months rehabbing the injury; he played nine more seasons after that.
“I made the doctor and everyone wrong and I was right,” he said.
Salazar said he will probably share details with his players, but mainly he wants them to learn how to play the game the right way.
“That’s my goal down here. That’s my job.”
And one he’s delighted to be doing again.