Commentary

'I'm lucky to be alive'

Although Luis Salazar lost an eye, he remains focused on his second chance at life

Originally Published: April 28, 2011
By Anna Katherine Clemmons | ESPN.com

When he was young, Luis Salazar's parents often couldn't see him.

Growing up in the small coastal town of Lecheria, Venezuela, Salazar would hurry home from school each afternoon, disappearing through the door and into the house. Hearing his footsteps, his mother would yell out for her son to start his homework. Instead, Salazar would slip outside, escaping down the street to find the nearest ballgame.

"My family would be looking for me and they said, 'Where's Luis?'" Salazar remembered. "And I'd be down the block playing street ball with the other kids."

[+] EnlargeSalazar
AP Photo/David GoldmanLuis Salazar was back at the Braves' spring training home two weeks after the incident.

His teachers often couldn't find him, either, especially at lunchtime. When the other students lined up for lunch, Salazar ran out in search of a game of street ball.

But baseball scouts saw Salazar, especially after one of his teams won the regional championship and Salazar had started in place of the team's injured shortstop. Two months later, the Royals signed the 15-year-old. He arrived in the U.S. in 1973, scared, homesick and unable to speak or understand English. He lasted a month and a half, playing for the Gulf Coast League Royals, before returning home.

A coach from a Caracas team called a few weeks later, telling Salazar that he needed to come to the capital to play winter ball. He'd seen Salazar's potential, he said, and could envision him playing in the major leagues.

Salazar listened. He was signed again -- in 1975 by the Pirates -- and returned to the U.S. in 1976, playing briefly in the minors and then as a utility man in the majors for 13 seasons and four teams before transitioning into coaching.

In early March, the 54-year-old attended spring training in Florida, preparing for his first season as manager for the Lynchburg Hillcats, a high-Class A affiliate of the Atlanta Braves.

His passion for playing baseball has morphed into a love of teaching and seeing his former players break into the big leagues, he said. Salazar loves hitting fungoes before games or standing at the pitching machine, instructing his young players on mechanics and patience at the plate.

So what did he do when that love almost killed him? When it took away half his vision and threatened to crush his spirit?

'It entered my mind that he was dead'

In the first inning of Atlanta's March 9 exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Salazar stood next to Braves outfielder Nate McLouth along the railing on the first-base side dugout. The two were discussing a play that had just happened at second base, McLouth says, and Salazar motioned toward second as he spoke, looking away from the plate.

Braves catcher Brian McCann, a left-handed hitter, stood at the plate. As Cardinals pitcher Kyle Lohse threw a changeup, down and inside, McCann swung.

Salazar said he remembers the ball "felt like a missile." Then everything went black.

McLouth saw the ball -- briefly -- and ducked to his right. (Salazar was on his left.) "We were talking, and then seconds later he was on the ground," McLouth said. "When it hit [his face], it sounded like the ball had gone all the way back to the cement wall."

Braves catcher David Ross was sitting a foot away. "That ball was hit so hard and so fast at such a close distance," Ross remembered. "It hit him [Salazar] and he fell five steps, all the way down. He was knocked out cold."

The baseball, traveling at an estimated 115 mph, struck Salazar on the left side of his face, shattering his bones. Stumbling and falling down the dugout steps facedown, Salazar sustained a concussion from the force of the fall, which also fractured his right arm and shoulder. He lay motionless as blood poured from his nose, eye and mouth.

"It was one of the scariest things I've ever witnessed on a baseball field," Ross said. "For a minute, it entered my mind that he was dead."

Brian McCann
AP Photo/Dave MartinBraves catcher Brian McCann visited Luis Salazar several times in the hospital.

Salazar lay unconscious for close to 20 minutes as paramedics rushed him into an ambulance and then a helicopter en route to an Orlando trauma center. Officials decided to continue the game, which the Cardinals won, 6-1. McCann checked himself out of the game and left the field. McLouth said that players on both teams were almost silent.

"Baseball seemed so unimportant after that, like I could've cared less about what was going on on the field," Ross said. "I wanted to go home to see my wife and kids and give them a hug. I remember being shaken for a whole day after that. Reality just took a full turn; we could go at any minute. There's no guarantees in life, right?"

Salazar remembers waking up in the hospital, briefly, that night. He couldn't recall what had happened to him and says he "saw a very bright white light." He passed out again and woke up the next day after his first surgery.

"I was in a lot of pain," Salazar said. Because of braces placed on his legs to allow for circulation, Salazar had trouble moving and got up only to use the bathroom. His wife, daughter and son visited him in the hospital.

Friends and strangers sent notes or called to offer their support. Messages of encouragement came from around the world from as far as Venezuela and as close as Albert Pujols and Johan Santana in their respective spring training camps.

After almost a week, Salazar said he began to feel better. He also looked in a mirror for the first time.

"I saw my [left] eye, and I knew something very bad had happened," Salazar said. "I still had my eye then, but my face was so swollen, so huge. I didn't recognize myself."

McCann and his wife, Ashley, visited Salazar in the hospital several times.

"Talking with Brian, the first conversation, he [felt] very bad; he almost cried," Salazar said. "I said, 'Don't worry about it; it's an accident. Now, I want you to move on.' He said that was the best news that he ever got."

The two talked for almost three hours during that first visit. They still keep in touch today: McCann said his wife often corresponds with the family through Salazar's daughter, Viviana, who's married to Mariners center fielder Franklin Gutierrez.

Salazar's good friend, Rafael Belliard, a former major leaguer now coaching with the Tigers, stopped by the hospital a few days after the accident.

"The first thing he [said] to me is, 'Rafe, I'm lucky to be alive,'" Belliard said. "He talked to me for about 15 minutes, and he was OK. I was a little shaky at what had happened."

Doctors tried to save Salazar's left eye, but after almost a week they realized they would need to remove it. Salazar's biggest fear wasn't losing his eye -- it was losing his job.

"I thought my career [was] over," Salazar said. "But then I [talked] to the guys at the Braves, and they said, 'No, you gonna be doing what you love: coaching.'"

Although Salazar's wife of 33 years, Graciela, said she never saw him depressed or frustrated during his hospital stay, she shared Luis' concern about his future in baseball.

"I said to the Braves organization, 'I don't want him sitting at home, getting a check every two weeks. I want him doing something.' Because he loves to be out on the field," Graciela said.

'He has no fear'

After a week in the hospital and another week resting at his home in Boca Raton, Fla., Salazar visited the Braves on March 23 at their Orlando spring training home.

Wearing sunglasses, Salazar "was in really good spirits, and you saw how happy he was to be back," McLouth said.

"He has such a passion for baseball," McCann said. "He wanted to get back on the field even when he was in the hospital. He was just thankful for this opportunity again."

After his visit with the team, Salazar began a program at the Braves' Orlando rehabilitation center, where he stayed for almost two weeks under the tutelage of head physical therapist Troy Jones.

I lost my eye, but at the same time I thank God he saved my life. I have a second chance at life, and I very much appreciate it. Now, the rest is up to me.

-- Luis Salazar

In addition to working on the injury to Salazar's arm, Jones said the two focused on balance and depth perception: catching with two hands, one hand, different speeds, changing the size and weight of the ball, as well as everyday tasks like learning how to reach for a cup of water.

Throughout the exercises, Salazar picked up each skill with remarkable speed and poise.

"He's pretty phenomenal as far as how rapidly he gained his depth perception, balance and how quickly he picked up catching and throwing," Jones said. "The first time we had him try fungo work, he was incredible. It was as though he hadn't even missed a step.

"He has no fear -- even from the first day that we went out on the field, he jumped out there like it was another day at the ballpark, with no hesitation. I was a little apprehensive when we first went out and started to throw, but my apprehension disappeared quickly. It was just like tossing a baseball with anyone else."

According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, more than 2.5 million eye injuries occur in the U.S. each year. Approximately 50,000 people permanently lose part or all of their vision. Ninety percent of all eye injuries can be prevented by using protective eyewear (which Salazar now wears), and 14.7 percent of eye injuries occur during sports. Although several coaches and players have been killed by hit baseballs throughout history (well documented in Robert Gorman's book, "Death at the Ballpark"), there are no available statistics that show the number of people who have lost an eye as the result of a baseball.

'This is what I love'

On April 15, Salazar stood before a TV camera on a windy Friday afternoon in Lynchburg, Va., his first day at the Hillcats' helm as they were about to face the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. The stadium sits high above the street, its brick-walled entrance worn with age. (The park was built in 1939.) Looking out from behind home plate, the Blue Ridge Mountains are visible in the distance, a jagged skyline reminiscent of a rapid, steady heartbeat line on a hospital monitor.

Salazar was wearing a blue workout shirt and shorts, and his calves and arms still held the muscle from his playing days. Jones said that Salazar's sturdy build on his compact 5-foot-9 frame had aided his speedy recovery.

Under a baseball cap, Salazar wore a pair of protective shatterproof Oakley glasses -- one of two pairs, he said, he will don during games for protection. Before the accident Salazar had never needed contact lenses or glasses, and he has retained the 20/20 vision in his right eye.

He expects to receive a prosthetic eye as early as mid-May, which his doctors say is ahead of schedule. Until then, he often wears a protective bandage over his left eye socket.

After several interviews, Salazar hit fungoes to his players. He neither flinched at the sound of bat hitting ball nor shied away from baseballs thrown in his direction. Playing catch with Tom Shields, a roving Braves instructor, Salazar laughed and smiled, taking a step back after each throw. He later spoke with Shields about his lingering arm soreness, although he's now thrown a baseball as far as 60 feet.

Approximately 5,170 fans filled City Stadium that evening, the largest crowd in Lynchburg's home opening history. Graciela flew into town for her husband's first homestand and sat several rows behind home plate. Instead of feeling nervous, she said she was happy her husband was back on the field. "It's the place he wants to be," she said.

During the announcement of opening lineups, the Hillcats' staff decided collectively to introduce Salazar last, rather than first (as is customary).

"Luis Salazar would like to thank God and the fans for his second chance at life," the PA announcer read during his lengthy pregame introduction.

[+] EnlargeSalazar
AP Photo/Don PetersenAt Lynchburg, Luis Salazar plans to coach third base in addition to his managerial duties.

As Salazar stepped onto the field, the entire crowd stood and cheered. Salazar walked down his lineup of players, shaking hands and fist-bumping. Then he walked over to the Myrtle Beach side, shaking hands with their players as well. After the national anthem, after the pronouncement of "Play ball!" and after all the players had returned to the dugout for the first pitch, Salazar remained on the field, standing near home plate and talking to two umpires.

When he finally returned to the dugout and play began, Salazar didn't sit back against the wall. Instead, he stood near the dugout steps or just behind them during his team's at-bats, watching closely. He will soon resume his role as third-base coach.

"I have no fear being back on the field," Salazar says. "This is what I love -- teaching, coaching baseball."

He is especially cautious of errant elbows in the dugout, ensuring that he protects his right eye. He continues the physical therapy work he began with Jones and says that life's daily routines don't feel any differently than they did before.

"Losing an eye is a traumatic event, and for a lot of people, the psychological effect is profound," says Dr. Michael Brennan, a comprehensive ophthalmologist in Burlington, N.C., and the past president of the American Academy of Ophthalmology. "But Luis is a confident guy who knows himself, and he will fight back fast."

Brennan says that some major league teams, including the Boston Red Sox, now offer training to pitchers on how to defend themselves from being injured by a hit ball. They spend time talking with young players about protection, coaching pitchers to finish their delivery so that they're not as vulnerable. McLouth said the Braves have talked about ways to make the field a safer place, especially for fans.

Salazar laughs often and is profusely thankful. The most common phrase he utters is "I want to give thanks," before offering gratitude to his family, the EMT staff, Jones, his friends, the Braves organization or the fans who sent him notes of support.

"When you have something tragic happen in your life, the only thing you can do is take the positives out of it, or you're gonna be miserable," McCann said. "He's taught me a lot about that. The way he looks at life is amazing."

Salazar said he is proud to be a role model, motivated by a renewed sense of thankfulness.

"I lost my eye, but at the same time I thank God he saved my life," Salazar said. "I have a second chance at life, and I very much appreciate it. Now, the rest is up to me."

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a reporter for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com.

Anna Katherine Clemmons is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.