LYNCHBURG, VA. (AP) - 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 that was 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 about 2,000 fans mostly stood to welcome him.
The Hillcats lost 7-2 to the Pelicans.
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, and he broke a bone in his right forearm when he collapsed onto the floor. He’s had three surgeries since, and is hoping to get a prosthetic eye once the wound is healed.
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, and that’s the way I think about it, in a very positive way.”
That’s also how he has 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.’ 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 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.”