A long road back from spring training

LYNCHBURG, Va. — It was the most ordinary of baseball moments.

Which was what made it so extraordinary.

The scoreboard temperature at City Field showed 93 degrees on a recent afternoon as the minor league Hillcats ran through their usual pre-game drills. Players ran wind sprints and shagged fly balls in the outfield of the 72-year-old stadium where the Braves affiliate plays its home games. Coaches leaned in behind the backstop, chattering nonstop to each other and the hitters waiting their turn for batting practice.

Out on the pitcher’s mound, the Hillcats’ manager, Luis Salazar — bareheaded and only partially protected behind a screen — fired a ball in to L.V. Ware, a lithe, deceptively powerful outfielder who graduated from North Atlanta High School. When Ware smoked a belt-high line drive into the screen, which normally would have the opposing pitcher diving for cover, Salazar nodded approvingly.

“I love to throw batting practice,” said Salazar, 55. So much so that when he finally threw his first BP a month after he arrived in mid-April, he could scarcely contain his glee. “I told my wife, ‘Hey sweetie, I just threw my first batting practice! I made it. I’m back.’”

The statement was all the more remarkable considering how far he’d come: Since being struck in the face by a brutal line drive off the bat of Braves catcher Brian McCann in spring training in March, Salazar had cheated death. He’d lost his left eye, an organ considered so vital in baseball, it’s part of the vernacular (“Good eye!”).

Most surprising of all — to people who don’t know “Louie” the way his peers do, anyway — is how he’s managed to put away fear like some slowpoke hitter running out a ground ball and emerged from the experience even stronger and more productive.

“That’s what makes him so special,” McCann said.

The two men will be reunited this week after the Hillcats end their season Monday. Salazar will join Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez in the dugout to help coach the big league squad for a week.

McCann said he’s kept in touch with Salazar by phone and text throughout this season. Much of the conversation is of the “How are you doing, how’s the team doing?” variety. But to the All Star catcher, there’s nothing understated about what Salazar has accomplished: “I mean, how many people can stand to lose the eyesight in an eye and keep seeing things as positively as he has?”

Doing so wasn’t easy. But the way there was obvious to Salazar, a Venezuelan native who’d sold empanadas in a ballpark to help support his family as a kid, then played for 13 years in the big leagues here.

He’d follow the same game plan he always had.

“All he could talk about in the hospital was getting back on the field,” said former Braves director of player development Kurt Kemp, who hired Salazar to manage the Hillcats in the high-Class A team Carolina League this year. “His family and the game are the two great loves of his life. Once he knew he’d be able to hug his grandchildren someday, it immediately crossed over to ‘OK, how do we get him up and managing again?’”

Meanwhile, the September “call-up” to coach in the majors is a plum assignment handed out to some minor league staffers each season; yet it can’t help but pack an extra wallop in Salazar’s case.

The game, after all, is one of setbacks and adjustments. Of streaks and slumps and finding the will to excel over the sport’s long season. And sometimes, of unlikely comebacks.

During his recovery, Salazar found himself taking comfort in that knowledge. He leaned on many of the same principles that had helped carry him through his playing career.

“Baseball is a game of patience,” he explained during one of several lengthy interviews with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, in which he acknowledged practicing what he preached to his young players. “We explain to them, ‘It’s not the way you start. It’s the way you finish.’”

Braves General Manager Frank Wren can’t think of a better person to have in the Braves organization at any level, but particularly working with young players in the minors.

“Life is tough,” Wren said. “It’s not all going to be everybody getting to the big leagues and everyone having a successful career. It goes beyond baseball. Watching Luis and how he’s dealt with this really tough blow, frankly, it’s made everyone take a closer look at how they deal with adversity.

“It can either defeat you or drive you,” Wren said. “With Luis, it drives him. And that’s a great life lesson to witness.”

A horrific moment

Salazar’s brush with tragedy came on March 9, in the first inning of an Atlanta Braves spring training game in Florida.

He was standing near the dugout railing when McCann came to the plate. Whether it was pure baseball instinct, eagerness to learn his new job well or a combination of the two that put him so close to the action, no one will ever know. All that mattered was what happened next: A 115-mph McCann line drive hit Salazar flush on the left side of his face.

Salazar tumbled from the fifth step of the dugout and landed hard, face first on the dugout floor. He was unresponsive, bleeding profusely and unable to breathe on his own at first. Trainers and medics worked on him for 14 agonizingly long minutes before he was airlifted to Orlando Regional Medical Center.

“I was beyond scared when it first happened,” recalled McCann, who kept a vigil with the Salazar family in the hospital that first night. “I mean, you’ve heard of people dying because of stuff like this.”

Indeed, some people feared he was dead, a fact Salazar found out only later when his wife, Graciela, made him watch clips of the incident that had been posted on YouTube.

“[She] said ‘I want you to see this and see how bad it was and how the fans and coaches and Braves broadcasters were talking about it,’” he recalled. “The way they sounded, it wasn’t very good.

The initial prognosis wasn’t good. At least not from the standpoint of a lifelong baseball guy about to be handed the managerial reins for the Braves. The start of Lynchburg’s 140-game season was a little under a month away, and Salazar — whom doctors checked for, and ultimately ruled out, brain damage — had suffered multiple facial fractures and a broken right forearm.

Worse, his left eye was so extensively damaged, it had to be removed and, several months later, replaced with a prosthetic.

Adjusting emotionally

At first, Graciela Salazar worried that her husband had blinders on. Oh, she understood all about his incredible drive, his ability to stare down adversity. She knew that he had helped to support his family financially starting around age 11, when he’d delivered bread and milk to people’s homes.

What she didn’t understand in the days and weeks following last March’s accident, though, was why he didn’t seem all that upset. Years ago, when he’d played for the Chicago White Sox and torn the ACL ligament in his left knee, he’d been “more down” emotionally. Now it seemed like she was doing the “What if’s?” for both of them. Especially when it finally hit her how close she had come to losing her life partner of 33 years.

She says she cried for a month after the accident, always trying to hide her tears from her husband.

It was no good. After a lifetime in baseball and more than three decades of marriage, he turned out to be adept at stealing her signs.

“She was more affected than me,” Luis Salazar confided. “I can tell, whenever it comes on, I can see her sadness, especially in her face. I think she was afraid she [might have] lost me completely.”

He asked if she wanted to see a therapist. When they went and she brought up how calm he seemed now compared to his knee injury, Luis explained the difference. He was 55 now, not a young father of two toddlers. He knew he could manage a team just fine with a prosthetic eye — not like back then, when he’d sometimes feared his playing career might be over.

“After the doctor told him you’re going to see and walk and be able to travel, he was like ‘That’s it,’” recalled Graciela Salazar, 50. “He’s always been a fighter. Nothing stops him.”

She also knew the bedrock role baseball played in his life. If she hadn’t already known how much he craved its constant presence and comforting routines, she discovered as much last year when he was briefly without a job. Instead of positioning fielders and pitching batting practice, he’d taken to rearranging her kitchen.

“He was moving all the dishes,” Graciela Salazar recalled with a rueful laugh. “He was like the lady of the house and I said, ‘No, this is my kitchen.’”

She stated the obvious: “‘You need baseball.’ Within a week, he got a call from Mr. Kemp” — his entree to the Braves.

The Braves had assured Salazar that the job would wait for him, and that he should go at his own pace. On Opening Day of the Hillcats’ season, Salazar told hitting coach Bobby Moore he’d be back for the team’s first home stand.

One week later, Salazar made good on that pledge. A bulky patch covered his left eye socket, but he was in uniform and at his spot near the dugout railing.

A reunion

Still, the Carolina League schedule is grueling even for players in their early 20s: From April to September, the Hillcats had a total of 11 days off scheduled. Geographically, the league stretches from Potomac, Md., to Wilmington. N.C., and the team travels everywhere by bus.

In early August, Wren suggested Salazar swing the team by Washington, D.C., where the Braves were playing the Nationals. It seemed like a nice perk for the young minor leaguers. Nothing more than that.

That is, until the Hillcats’ bus had trouble entering the parking lot at Nationals Park. As Salazar hopped off to investigate, a cab happened to pull up with a late arriving player.

Out stepped Brian McCann.

Five months after coming together in such a horrible, unplanned way, the two men embraced in the nearly empty parking lot. Nobody had planned this impromptu meeting, everyone involved insists; in some ways, they say, that makes the story even better.

“It was so nice,” Salazar said, beaming at the memory. “It just ... happened.”

Said McCann: “It’s the first thing I thought of. What are the chances of me showing up late at the exact moment when he’s looking to get into the clubhouse? It’s one of those things where, you know, it was meant to be.”

Cosmic contemplations such as those aside, the accident hasn’t changed his job approach, Salazar said. He’s in Lynchburg to “help [players] get better and send them on to the next level.” If some of what he’s instilling in them — a sense of discipline, respectful behavior — rubs off on them off the field as well, even better.

“Down here in the minors, you’re being like a father to these kids,” he said. “They’re learning about the process of baseball and a little bit here and there about life.”

Salazar admits he had to be willing to take some of his own advice. He was “desperate” to get his prosthetic eye in mid-May, but the recommended surgeon was unavailable then. Yet now, looking back on how that gave him another month to heal physically and emotionally, he realizes the delay was “one of the best things” that could have happened to him.

As for a reason for that freak accident, he never pressed too much, never asked “Why me?”

And then one day, he says, the answer showed up in the mail. A card and package arrived from a federal law enforcement officer in Texas, who wrote that he’d been despondent since losing his own eye in an accident. But hearing how Salazar had picked up the pieces of his life and gone back to work had inspired him to do the same; he’d even enclosed an eye patch he’d worn.

Things continue to look up for Salazar. Back in his native Venezuela, the La Guaira Sharks, his Winter League team of 18 years, will retire his number this fall. And in a few weeks, surgeons in Florida will insert a prosthetic left eye that attaches to and moves in conjunction with his good right one. That, in turn, will replace the slightly less sophisticated (but very realistic) brown prosthetic eye he got in Fort Lauderdale on June 9.

Before that happens, though, there’s that second-chance September call-up with the Braves for him to make the most of.

For everyone to make the most of.

“He’s told me he’s a stronger person now that he’s gone through this,” said McCann, a small smile flitting across his face. “It’s all coming full circle here in September, where we’re going to be going through the stretch run and he’s going to be part of it.

“I couldn’t be more excited.”