PEARL, Miss. — Hang tight, because this is a happy story. Really. You wouldn’t think so, not when someone loses an eye. Not when the pool of blood on the ground looks like something out of CSI: New York. Not when an emergency medical helicopter swoops in and rushes the man off to a nearby hospital, a life hanging in the balance.

Five years later, sitting in his office, that man looks across his desk at a visitor. Watch this, he says. My prosthetic eye moves right along with my good eye.

You look, and doggone if it doesn’t. Talk about the subtle miracles of modern medicine. Looking across that desk, Luis Salazar’s right eyeball moves to his right. The left eye trails along with it. He looks the other way, and the prosthetic left eye, now leading the dance, goes left with his good right eye following along.

It is a beautiful sight.

Tonight, he will manage the Double-A Mississippi Braves in another midsummer game. He will coach third base. He will help young Braves get better. He will suck in the baseball oxygen that has been his lifeblood for most of his 60 years, and then he will exhale a contented, healthy man.

And, oh, yes: He will spend part of the evening standing on the top step of the dugout, leaning against the railing while he works. Just like on that spring day in 2011, in another dugout, when a foul ball came screaming and crashed into his face.

“Man, you know what?” asks New York Yankees catcher Brian McCann, in another ballpark in another city. “A ball went into the stands the other night, and any time that happens, it takes me right back to that moment. Super scary.

“When balls are traveling into the stands, into the dugouts, man, it’s scary.”

You might call McCann an expert witness. He was the man at the plate that March day in Orlando, Florida, the lefty who swung early on a two-strike changeup and blasted that foul ball into the dugout. Nobody blamed him for the accident—least of all, Salazar. Goodness, no. It was just baseball. Things happen.

Tell that to McCann. If only it were that easy to accept when your bat is Point A and a man’s eye is Point B and the line between is a baseball rocketing so fast there is no time to react.

Yes, five years later, McCann still flashes back with horror to that moment every single time a hard-hit baseball lasers its way into the stands or a dugout. He still finds himself apologizing to Salazar whenever the baseball schedule brings them back together, usually during spring training in Florida.

Their dance is always the same.

Don’t worry about it, Salazar says.

Yeah, I know, McCann answers, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

I feel good, Salazar assures him. I’m back to work.

“When things get tough, we get tougher,” Salazar says on this impossibly humid Mississippi late afternoon. “I never give up. I try my best to reach the point where I can do anything I want.”

This story ends well, but it doesn’t start that way. It begins with a baseball lifer in his first spring with the Atlanta Braves organization, standing on the top dugout step, leaning against the railing. He is jawing with several players early in the game. Outfielder Nate McLouth is on his right, the side closest to right field in Atlanta’s first base dugout. Which is why the coach is glancing away from the plate at the exact split-second when the baseball comes calling.

“I thought he was dead,” Atlanta’s Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox says. “I was in a booth upstairs, and I saw him go down and he wasn’t moving. There was blood everywhere.

“He went backwards down the steps. That’s a five-foot drop, let alone the ball crushing him.”

Atlanta pitcher Julio Teheran was in the dugout, a few feet away.

“He was facedown on the dugout floor,” Teheran says. “It was really scary. The players, coaches, we wanted to help, but we couldn’t. His breathing was getting slow. He was losing blood.”

Jonathan Schuerholz, son of Braves president John Schuerholz, was also in the dugout. He was beginning his first season as manager of the rookie-level Gulf Coast League Braves.

“It was crazy how quick it was,” says Schuerholz, who today is the organization’s assistant director of player development. “You fall four-and-a-half, five feet, regardless of whether or not you’re conscious, it’s going to bang you up pretty good.”

The way he fell back, Albert Pujols, who was playing first base for St. Louis that afternoon and was not more than several feet from the Atlanta dugout, was more worried about his neck.

Inside the clubhouse at that instant was Dr. Joe Chandler, the Braves’ longtime orthopedic surgeon. The sudden, urgent screaming and hollering caused him to sprint from that clubhouse straight into the dugout.

And this is where we’ll step away from the blood and gore to begin to fulfill the pledge that, yes, indeed, this is a happy story. A very happy story.

“You know, I’ll tell you, when I listened to your voicemail, it was a reminder to me what is wonderful about the 30 years I spent in baseball with the Atlanta Braves,” Chandler, now retired, says from the other end of the cellphone not long after my Mississippi stop.

“It is not about any individual game or winning a World Series. It is about the individual players, coaches and their families. When you say, ‘Luis Salazar,’ I think of strength. I think of the incredible strength his family showed during that whole ordeal. His wife, his son, his daughter, they didn’t leave his side during that whole thing.”

Graciela, Salazar’s wife of 36 years, was as graceful as her name. Son Carlos, now 34, and daughter Viviana, 32, were rocks.

“It was just amazing to me,” Chandler says. “People say, ‘He gave you a lot of credit for being with him.’ I didn’t do anything. I was amazed, sitting with his family…They go together and worked very well through this tragic, horrible thing. Never once was it ‘Woe is me, why me, what am I going to do now?’ It was, ‘What’s the next step? Let’s move on.'”

Look, they say. Watch this. It is as if the man is about to perform a magic trick: Salazar gives the baseball a good whack with his fungo bat, rifling a ground ball to top Atlanta prospect Dansby Swanson at shortstop, or maybe skying a pop fly to catcher Willians Astudillo, as part of infield work.

Repeatedly, his coaches and other managers throughout the Southern League watch this and cannot believe what they are seeing.

“They say it’s a miracle,” Salazar says, proudly.

How can he consistently put the bat on the ball? How can he regularly slap ground balls to each position that are so true to his targets?

Where does the depth perception come from?

As Salazar repeats these small miracles each night, let’s pause. Because these little, everyday tasks should not be taken for granted.

Listen to the eye surgeon who was waiting on the other end of that helicopter lift to the hospital on that day five years ago.

“On a scale of 1 to 10, his was an 8 to a 9,” Dr. Kourosh Nazari, Salazar’s eye specialist in Orlando says. “What happened was, the ball basically shattered his socket with multiple fractures of the orbital bone and also smashed the eye.

“The eye was kind of split open. I had to put it back together, repair it. The eye was back to its shape, but he had no vision because of the damage. The structures—the retina, the nerve—were not working.”

It was a lost cause from the beginning. But in an accident this catastrophic, knowing that the psychological damage can be devastating, Nazari’s first move, almost always, is to put the eye back together. Patients need at least some hope, however flickering it may be. And in the worst cases, they need time to assimilate that the curtain has been permanently closed on one of their two windows to the world.

It was a week later, with Salazar still unable to see from the eye and suffering from chronic pain, when Nazari performed a second surgery to remove the eyeball.

Then a year later, after he had given the seven fractures in the orbital bone sufficient time to heal, Nazari performed a third surgery to fix the parts of the socket that didn’t properly come back together after the trauma.

Because he lost consciousness immediately, Salazar does not remember the accident. Maybe that’s nature’s way of helping a person steel himself to, as Salazar says, get tougher when life demands it.

He remembers waking up in the hospital. And he especially remembers the kindness of so many.

“Bobby Cox, he’s one of the classiest guys,” Salazar says. “He came by the hospital every day. The coaching staff—Fredi Gonzalez (in his first year as Atlanta manager that spring), Terry Pendleton, Eddie Perez, (the late) Bobby Dews…every day.”

Phone calls lit up the switchboard. Tony La Russa. Pujols. Dusty Baker. Joe Torre. Davey Lopes.

The baseball family quickly mobilized with the Salazar family, pulling together tightly, like the webbing of a glove. When the New York Mets showed up to play the Braves that spring in Orlando, manager Terry Collins wanted to bring his entire team by the hospital to show them the courage of his friend. As you might expect, the hospital folks said, eh, maybe that’s not the best idea to crowd that many people in. The man is still in recovery.

“And Chipper Jones,” Salazar says of the Atlanta legend. “Every time he sees me now, he gives me a hug. And he tells me, ‘I got that picture in my mind. I thought you were dead.'”

There were others, too, who lifted his spirits. So many others.

“Fans in Atlanta wrote letters,” he says. “A lot of kids in middle school. I got at least 600 letters wishing me well, saying, ‘I know you’re going to get back on your feet and do well.’

“I really appreciate it.”

As he works today, others tell him they have tried to put themselves in his cleats. It’s easy, right? And human nature. To close one eye after meeting a man with one eye, to see what it might be like for him. It is a challenge the rest of us can replicate, if only for a minute or two. Close one eye and…

“I tried to hit a ground ball with one eye when I hit infield,” says Mississippi Braves coach Barbaro Garbey, who played with Detroit and Texas during a brief three-year career in the mid-’80s.

“I said, ‘Let me see what it’s like with one eye,’ and I could not do it.

“I missed the ball. And he does it so easy.”

That’s the thing. Salazar has made so much look so easy. The accident happened in early March 2011, and he was back in camp before the Braves headed north that spring.

“Usually, people who lose an eye go through depression,” Nazari says. “They don’t do anything, they feel sorry for themselves. Most people take two or three months off from work.

“But two or three weeks later, he was on the field again. He was back like nothing happened.

“That was amazing.”

If only that swing and its aftermath could be wiped from the hard drive of Brian McCann’s brain. While Salazar draws blanks from the moment of impact until the moment he woke up in the hospital, McCann remembers far too much. And you cannot help but feel for him, even all these years later.

He lights up at the mention of Salazar’s name: Really, you’re going to visit him? Say hello. Give him my best.

But he also goes dark at one specific question: Obviously, Brian, it wasn’t your fault, and there is nobody anywhere who would ever think of blaming you. Yet, even at that, all these years later…do you carry guilt?

“Now why do you have to ask that?” McCann snaps.

Maybe he’s right. Maybe it is one question too far, or too awkwardly phrased, or simply something that pokes just a little too deeply into the worst moment of a goodman’s well-decorated career.

He is Georgia-bred, which means he pretty much grew up with the Braves. They picked him in the second round of the 2002 draft, plucking him from Duluth High School in Georgia. Baseball always was a way of life: His father, Howard, coached at Marshall University. His older brother, Brad, was a first baseman in the Marlins and Royals organizations.

In the spring of 2011, the then-27-year-old was coming off his fifth National League All-Star appearance, and he was still three seasons from becoming a free agent and cashing in with the Yankees on a five-year, $85 million deal.

In other words, all he knew at the time was the Atlanta Braves.

“I’m just thankful that…you know, I think about it,” McCann, now 32, says quietly, sitting in the Yankees clubhouse this summer. “I think about it.

“It’s tough, man.”

Vividly, the Braves remember this part of Salazar’s accident, too. The McCann part, where the poor guy felt so horrible that he would have given anything he could to take that swing back. Is there a more helpless, or desperate, feeling than in the moments after a devastating accident?

Chandler has known McCann since the catcher was 18 years old, all the way back to those days after the draft when the world of professional baseball was still new and bright. He knows him to be tough and strong. But he also knows the sensitive side that McCann allows few others to see.

After the ambulance carried Salazar toward the helicopter, McCann settled back into the batter’s box to finish what now was a horrific at-bat. Two-strike count, McCann quickly waved at a pitch for strike three, then took himself out of the game and hustled back into the clubhouse.

“I remember this very well,” Chandler says. “Well-meaning people were telling Brian to stay away from the hospital. Well-meaning, because you don’t know what is going on there. ‘Don’t go to the hospital,’ they said. ‘Please don’t go to the hospital.’

“Brian came to me and said, ‘I’ve got to go.’ And I said, ‘Get in the car. Let’s go.'”

Says Teheran: “He left the game, and the next day he didn’t show up at the ballpark because he was really, really worried about Luis.”

To McCann today, so much of it is all still a blur. He remembers rushing to the hospital. Recalls sitting there praying for good news, waiting for any news.

“People were coming back and giving information,” McCann says. “At that point, you’re hoping for the best.”

Knowing this was a high-profile accident involving a Major League Baseball team, the folks at the Orlando Regional Medical Center set aside a special, private waiting area outside the emergency room for McCann, Chandler, the Salazar family, Cox, Braves president John Schuerholz and a few others.

First thing McCann did upon arrival was walk straight up to Graciela and, through his tears, wrap her in the biggest hug he could muster.

“It was powerful,” Chandler says. “His sensitivity to it, the power of Luis’ wife. Granted, she was upset, but she was so strong and full of grace that you just don’t see every day.”

Around this time, the first bit of good news arrived: Doctors knew Luis would live. That was the first enormous deep breath. Then came news that though there was severe damage to his eye, Salazar’s brain was OK.

You can do all of the extra pregame work you want, but there is no preparing for a baseball moment like that. And while those well-meaning people were warning him against racing to the hospital, McCann would change nothing about that decision.

“It was the right thing to do for Brian,” Chandler says.

“Even if he didn’t get to see Luis, he was going to see Luis’ wife and kids and express his concern. That’s another part of this story, to me, that goes unnoticed. He is a sensitive young man who obviously felt horrible, and instead of going to the corner and crying and feeling sorry for himself, he said, ‘I’ve got to do the right thing.'”

Even though he no longer plays in Atlanta, the affinity the Braves family has for him is clear. And vice versa.

“Brian is a really good guy,” Salazar says. “We stay in touch.

“Every spring training, he comes looking for me.”

And every time the Yankees play the Seattle Mariners, McCann goes looking for Franklin Gutierrez. The outfielder, you see, is Salazar’s son-in-law. Gutierrez began dating Viviana in 2003, when he was a Dodgers minor leaguer and Salazar was coaching at Vero Beach, then Los Angeles’ High-A affiliate. They married in 2007 and delivered Luis and Graciela their first grandson, Xavier, in 2013.

Usually, McCann will hit Gutierrez with a quick question from behind the plate when the outfielder steps in to hit. How’s Luis? Still doing well?

“Always, he says, ‘Tell him I said hi,'” Gutierrez says.

There is no psychological blueprint on how to handle the destruction when you’re the one who drives a baseball into another human being. Pujols, who phoned Salazar multiple times after the accident, knows this all too well.

Three seasons earlier, Pujols smoked a line drive up the middle during the third inning of a game in San Diego that crashed into pitcher Chris Young’s face. Young suffered a fractured skull and broken nose. Badly shaken when he batted again in the fourth with the bases loaded, Pujols struck out on three pitches and later was removed from the game by La Russa.

“It’s tough,” Pujols says. “The last thing you want to do is hit anybody.”

The next day, as the Cardinals traveled up the freeway to Los Angeles, a concerned Pujols, still unable to shake off the night before, phoned Young. As with McCann, it’s nobody’s fault; it’s just a bad part of the game. Maybe the most horrible part of the game. But still, guilt worms its way into the psyche.

“You care,” Pujols says. “Even though the guy was wearing a different uniform in my case, you’re talking about a life.”

Pujols echoes what McCann says: Thank God it wasn’t worse.

“I think about Luis quite often,” McCann says. “You’re playing a game, and next thing you know a ball travels in the dugout.

“You go back and, at this point, you’re thankful that it wasn’t more serious.”

See? A happy story.

“Most people have forgotten about this by now, but some, including me, got life lessons from it,” Chandler says. “I’ve learned to appreciate people more. I’ve learned not to take anything for granted.

“I don’t think about it as often now, but not a month goes by where I don’t think about Luis Salazar and his family. It’s a part of baseball that’s special.”

Salazar was a survivor long before this accident, a fact that is easily evident from scanning the 13-year career he built from 1980 to 1992 as a shortstop, third baseman and outfielder with the San Diego Padres, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Chicago Cubs.

During that time as a super-utility man, Salazar rapped 1,070 hits, thumped 94 home runs, stole 117 bases and was acquired by then-Padres general manager Jack McKeon on three—count ’em—separate occasions.

McKeon traded for him from Pittsburgh in 1980, then shipped him along with Ozzie Guillen to the White Sox in December 1984 for starter LaMarr Hoyt. Signed him as a free agent in April 1987. Let him go after the season as a free agent but reacquired him in March 1989 in a trade with the Tigers. Then traded him to the Cubs in August 1989.

He once told McKeon, per Dave Distel of the Los Angeles Times, “Jack, you’re like my daddy. You always take care of me.”

From his current first-place perch in the Southern League’s South Division, Salazar smiles.

“I guess I was his favorite player,” he quips.

Yes, McKeon, now 85 and a special assistant to Miami Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, phoned the hospital in Orlando a couple of times from his home in North Carolina. So, too, did front office representatives from each of the four teams Salazar played for during his career. And Tony Perez and Dave Concepcion. “I cannot tell you how many people called,” Salazar says, still visibly touched. Hundreds, he figures.

In a moment he will never forget, he was invited to Robins Air Force Base outside of Macon, Georgia, in 2013 to receive an award for courage and was presented with a United States flag that flew over Afghanistan.

Maybe that was all preparation to thicken his resolve for the biggest battle that was still up ahead. And though he’s made it look remarkably easy, it isn’t. Salazar is just back from five days away from the team because Graciela fell ill, developing pneumonia and suffering a minor heart attack.

“She passed out and I don’t know what to do,” Salazar says. “I was very scared.”

Afraid of the time it would take an ambulance to arrive if he called 911, he picked her up himself, put her in the car and raced to the hospital. Thankfully, all is good now, but how many challenges must one man face, anyway? Last year when he was managing High-A Carolina, the team bus flipped over at 3:45 a.m. on a North Carolina highway, injuring seven players, shattering windows and producing another harrowing escape.

Sitting in the front seat, Salazar lost his cellphone and his glasses in the accident, but miraculously emerged unharmed.

Then, last February, he had a fourth surgery on the eye. He had developed a sinus infection. It traveled into the eye and the socket was beginning to collapse anyway, so Nazari went back in to build it back up.

“It happens with injuries that have a lot of bone damage,” says Nazari, who put more support behind the socket so the prosthetic eye stayed in place.

At first after the injury in 2011, the Braves didn’t want him coaching third base (as most minor league managers do), but Salazar insisted. On the advice of Nazari, he always wears shatterproof glasses to make sure to keep his good eye protected. He owns five pairs, each shaded a little differently for different times of the day or night.

Otherwise, as Nazari told him before turning him loose, the only thing he cannot do is fly a plane. Salazar thinks this is funny, given that he never had a pilot’s license anyway.

So off he went, taking Nazari’s words to heart. When he and Graciela traveled home to Boca Raton, Florida, from Orlando after he was released from the hospital? He drove. He is a hands-on manager, throwing batting practice, coaching third, hitting fungoes, doing everything as if nothing of the foul-ball sort ever happened to him.

“He’s doing great,” Cox says. “He can drive like always. That’s hard. I tried it. Five-hundred feet. I couldn’t do it.”

Worst thing that can happen, Graciela told Braves president John Schuerholz as her husband laid in that hospital bed, is if he cannot go back to work.

Don’t worry, Schuerholz told her. He’s going to manage again.

“He’s been remarkable,” Jonathan Schuerholz, the assistant director of player personnel, says. “Awesome. A true pro. He cares about the players. He works his tail off. His work ethic is unmatched.”

And, inspirational. Two weeks after his most recent eye surgery in February, he was back in the hospital when a blood clot developed in his lung. He bumped into a woman there who wanted to know if she could ask him something.

Are you, she wondered cautiously and politely, the baseball man who lost his eye?

“I said yes, and she started crying,” Salazar says. “She said, ‘I have a son who lost his left eye and I read your story and it’s unbelievable.'”

The boy, 13 or 14, was in middle school and he plays baseball. Of course, Salazar was happy to talk with him, and now the boy is back on the baseball field. Just like Salazar was happy to speak with the man from Texas who wrote him a letter detailing his depression after losing an eye.

“So I called him,” Salazar says. “And then when I talked to him later, he said, ‘Thanks to you, I’m back to work. I’m playing golf.'”

In so many ways, even from a catastrophic accident, the human spirit can ascend.

“It makes me feel good to help others,” Salazar says. “Others sometimes think it’s over, but it’s not over.

“God has me here for a reason.”

Says Gutierrez: “I’m very proud of him, because he shows a lot of courage. He’s a really strong man.”

As you would expect, both Salazar and McCann follow with great interest baseball’s ongoing dilemma regarding the installation of more safety netting in ballparks throughout the land. Not that it would prevent every accident, but both men know all too well the sickening reality of unintended consequences.

So does every other person who was in the ballpark on that spring day.

Teheran says he doesn’t even like standing in the dugout anymore, that he now prefers to sit on the bench where he feels more protected.

“It’s one of those visions you never lose, no matter how many years it’s been,” says Chandler, who knows that, like clockwork, he will receive a phone call each Thanksgiving or Christmas, and it will be Salazar checking in on him and his family. “You never lose that incredible, gut-wrenching feeling when the ball hit him.”

It is 80 degrees here in Mississippi, down significantly now that an afternoon rainstorm has moved through. Stifling humidity has been downgraded to simply thick humidity. It’s how it is in this part of the country as summer flexes its muscles, but one thing hasn’t changed all season: The view is crystal clear, and it is gorgeous.

“I don’t worry that I lose one eye,” Salazar says. “I look at it like it was an accident. It happened. And when I look in the mirror now, it looks like normal. I see better now than I did with two eyes.”

In so many ways.

“People look at me as if nothing happened,” Salazar continues.

And perhaps that is the best ending possible.


Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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