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."