Nearly three months ago a foul ball struck Luis Salazar in the face, costing the Braves' coach his left eye. The popular baseball lifer is back in the dugout, able, he says, to see the game with a whole new clarity
Leave it to Luis Salazar to see some humor in a near-death experience. See, it was funny, he says, that he was even on the field in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on March 9. The longtime big league infielder and minor league coach had been out of baseball for a year, happily sitting at home in Boca Raton. But last August he got the itch to return, so, with the blessing of Graciela, his wife of 33 years, Salazar sent out his résumé. The Braves offered him a job managing their Class A Carolina League team, the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats. Had his wife not granted him the equivalent of a summerlong hall pass, he would have been poolside, not in the home dugout in Champion Stadium, when Atlanta played the Cardinals in a spring training game.
"There's more," says Salazar, shaking his head at the irony. March 9 was two days before his minor league position players would arrive. Had it been 48 hours later, he wouldn't have been at the game with the big league team. Plus, he usually watched the action from inside the dugout, near the bench. But then Nate McLouth was involved in a close play at second base, and Salazar, not one to pass up an opportunity to teach, sidled up to the Braves' outfielder on the top step of the first base dugout, leaning against the rail. As the two discussed the play, catcher Brian McCann batted. Early on a slider, McCann whistled off a foul ball.
There's scarcely a baseball player who hasn't been accidently drilled by a batted ball—"smoked," in the vernacular. Batting practice might as well be target practice. Balls fly at all angles. Outfielders play catch as hitters smite ropes to every pocket of the field. During games, it's not exactly an OSHA-approved job site either. Foul balls strafe dugout dwellers and, of course, those in the stands. After a line drive to the head killed minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh (SI, Sept. 24, 2007), first and third base coaches began wearing helmets. But in general the safety issue has been met with a collective shrug. To use the voguish phrase, it is what it is. Part of the game.
June 5, 2011
Salazar is 55, a former third baseman whose reaction times are not what they once were. No matter. He had no chance. Not with McCann hitting from maybe 60 feet away and the foul ball traveling in excess of 100 mph. The projectile smacked Salazar in his left eye, making a hideous sound and knocking him backward down the dugout steps. He fractured his right arm in the fall, but that was the least of it. He was unconscious, concussed, and blood poured from his nose, mouth and eye, puddling around his head as he lay facedown. As a helicopter transported Salazar to an Orlando trauma center, the players struggled to keep it together, not least McCann, who left the game. "I was praying to God that he was going to be O.K.," the catcher says, "but it's human nature for the worst things to come in your head."
HOLLYWOOD HAS "six degrees of Kevin Bacon." Baseball has "one degree of Luis Salazar." "Louie," says Rafael Belliard, a former major league infielder, now a Tigers coach, "knows everyone." Part of this is the math. Play and coach for nine organizations over 30-some years and you'll meet a few people along the way. But it's mostly because of Salazar's personality. He's relentlessly outgoing, quick to laugh, and he remembers names and games with a stunning level of precision. "Such a great guy to be around, always has been," says Derek Botelho, a former major league pitcher who met Salazar playing winter ball in the 1980s and is now the Lynchburg pitching coach. "He respects baseball and he respects people, so his relationships run deep."
Salazar was 17 when the Royals signed him for $3,000 in '73 and shipped him to rookie ball in Florida. After a chronic case of homesickness, he went back to the Venezuelan fishing village where his father made a living trolling for snapper. Two years later the Pirates' organization signed him. Salazar found a Spanish-speaking roommate, catcher Tony Pe√±a, and this time he stuck. He pinballed around the minors but persisted, making his major league debut at 24, a utilityman able to play any of seven positions.
In 1985, Salazar was stationed at third base for the White Sox when Rod Carew drilled a ball his way. Salazar knocked down the ball but landed awkwardly and shredded the ACL in his left knee, requiring surgery that left a nasty six-inch scar still visible today. Chicago's management, including manager Tony La Russa, assumed the injury was career-ending. Salazar's agent told him to accept a $1.5 million insurance policy. But cashing the insurance check would mean quitting baseball. "Take away your love, just for some money?" he asks, still incredulous. "Are you crazy?" He was 29, still lacking fluency in English and marooned in the Chicago suburbs. But every day Graciela drove him to rehab. It took two years, but he made it back as a full-time major league player.
Salazar ended up playing 13 seasons, hitting .261. Nothing remarkable. Except that he amassed 10 friends for every hit. He was the consummate "glue guy," never aspiring to be the star, befriending the veterans and the rookies, the Americans and the Latins, the pitchers and the position players.
He retired in 1992 but, predictably, stayed in the game. He ticks off the towns in the manner of Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere. Salazar's been to Beloit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, Vero Beach.... Between the majors, minors and winter ball, he reckons he's had more than a thousand teammates. As a coach, he's worked with thousands more. (The day of the accident, Salazar and Albert Pujols were reminiscing about their roles in the 2000 Triple A World Series. Pujols was a first baseman for the Memphis Redbirds, Salazar was a hitting coach for the Indianapolis Indians.) Plus, Salazar's daughter, Viviana, is married to Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. "Teams are all over the country, players come from all over the world," says Salazar, "but baseball really is a community."
Salazar regained consciousness in the hospital that night. He says he saw a white light—"very bright, so bright"—and fell back asleep. He woke up the next day after a surgery, the first of three. "What happened?" he asked his wife. She told him. He nodded. He went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Then the gravity set in. "It's scary when you don't recognize yourself," he says. "That's when I knew how bad it was."
Doctors first told him the good news. He was alive. And, blessedly, he'd suffered no brain injury. Then, a few days later, the bad news: his left eye was so damaged it would need to be removed. The Baseball Man worried about his job. But from team president John Schuerholz (who was the Royals' assistant farm director when the team signed Salazar in 1973) to special assistant to the G.M. Bobby Cox (who managed against Salazar the player in the '80s), the Braves quickly reassured him that his position would be waiting for him. "There's a reason," says Salazar, "that they're known as a class organization."
His other abiding concern was McCann. Salazar knew of the catcher's sensitive personality. Visibly shaken, McCann was among the first to visit the hospital. Salazar had a simple message. It could have happened to anyone. I'm not worried about this, you don't worry about this either. "That conversation I had with him was priceless for me," McCann recalls. "My spirits were only going to be as good as his."
Six days after he was hit, Salazar's left eye was surgically removed, his socket suddenly resembling a garage without a car. He concedes, that was "a tough day," but he was more focused on thanking God that he had come out of the ordeal relatively unscathed. The doctor told him that losing the eye meant only that he couldn't be a fighter pilot. Otherwise there would be no restrictions. He put a bandage over the eye—beating others to it by making the obligatory Pittsburgh Pirates joke—and went about his business.
By then, the well wishes were pouring in. Former teammates, opposing players. Young, old. He was taking a call from Mets manager Terry Collins while Mets pitcher Johan Santana buzzed on the other line. Salazar starts ticking off names, and it's as if he's reading from The Baseball Encyclopedia—Dusty Baker, Andre Dawson, Dave Dravecky—and then he quits, realizing the futility of trying to enumerate them all. Their concern was mixed with an element of survivors' guilt. "It's horrifying, tough for me to talk about," says Rockies manager Jim Tracy, who has known Salazar since the 1980s. "You're bringing it up, and if I lifted up my sweatshirt, you'd see I had goose bumps.... It's a freak accident obviously, but you're standing on the rails, there's a guy right there with a bat in his hand, there's always a chance something could happen."
When Salazar was finally released from the hospital, he drove the three hours from Orlando to Boca Raton. "I needed to do that for myself," he says. On April 15 he made his managerial debut in Lynchburg. By this point, his story had generated some media attention—particularly among Braves fans—and a capacity crowd turned out to welcome the new manager. Graciela was in the stands as well. "Just putting on the uniform, going to home plate and handing the lineup card to the umpire," he says. "That was the best moment of my baseball career."
Two months after the accident Salazar looks, again, like a baseball man: He's a compact 5'9", 180 pounds or so, with abnormally thick forearms, tanned leather skin, a thick caterpillar for a mustache. His arm has healed, his face is no longer swollen. The eye patch, the only outward physical sign of the injury, should come off this month when he receives a prosthetic eye. "The technology is amazing," he says animatedly, not unlike a man describing a new hi-def TV. "It will be able to move in the same direction as the right eye. Amazing!"
He says that psychologically he is unscarred. No nightmares. No fears. The image of the ball colliding with his face isn't exactly engraved in his mind. He even watched the video of himself getting hit. He hits pregame fungoes and throws batting practice. As batted balls clang angrily off the metal fixture of the protective BP screen, Salazar—standing behind a net, his eyes shrouded in shatterproof Oakleys—doesn't flinch.
During games, he stays in the dugout, though he vows to soon begin coaching third base (as many minor league managers do). His overworked right eye sometimes dries up. On cold nights the left side of his face can ache, the orbital area still fragile. For the same reason, he is careful to avoid dugout celebrations or inadvertent elbows. Otherwise, he's fine. "I keep an eye on him, You O.K., Louie?" says Botelho. "But he always waves me off."
Salazar's accident would have be an easy rallying cry for his team. When Admiral Nelson lost sight in his right eye, he even used it tactically, raising a telescope to his blind eye, claiming not to see his commander's signal to withdraw and continuing to attack the enemy in one 19th century battle. Not Salazar. "He doesn't bring it up much, so we don't bring it up much either," says Lynchburg first baseman Joe Terdoslavich.
McCann still talks regularly with Salazar, though the conversations often have nothing to do with the events of March 9. Likewise, Salazar will still spend the duration of a bus trip returning voicemails from friends. "In a way, I see more now than I did with two eyes," he says. "I see friends, teammates I haven't spoken to in 25 years. I notice more around the ballpark. It's maybe crazy to say, but in some ways it's been a blessing."
As the Baseball Man travels the Carolina League, there are abundant reminders that this isn't the big time. Before a recent road trip to Wilmington, Del., the Hillcats' bus broke down and the new bus took the team to the wrong motel. A pregame buffet consists of a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and a bag of Fig Newtons splayed on a folding table. The Hillcats ballpark is a sparse bandbox framed by the Blue Ridge Mountains that rise behind the outfield. The walls are adorned with placards for local car dealers and insurance agents. All that's missing is the hit bull, win steak promotion.
But this is where Salazar wants to be. "At this level you can still teach baseball," he says. "The kids still listen." He team is filled with Braves prospects, most in their early 20s, born shortly before he retired. Still, Salazar can impart the Code of Baseball, whether it's digging a ball out of the dirt, sloughing off misfortune or showing how treating your colleagues right will one day pay you back in spades.
"You know the best part of this level?" Salazar asks. "When players you coached get called up. They've made it, and you feel like you've done something to help them. They call you, so excited. You know what I tell them? Look around. And then don't look back."
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HOLLYWOOD HAS SIX DEGREES OF KEVIN BACON. BASEBALL HAS ONE DEGREE OF LUIS SALAZAR.
"I SEE MORE THAN I DID WITH TWO EYES," SAYS SALAZAR. "I NOTICE MORE AROUND THE BALLPARK."