Leave it to Luis Salazar to see some humor in a near-death experience. See, it was funny, he says, that he was even on the field in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on March 9. The longtime big league infielder and minor league coach had been out of baseball for a year, happily sitting at home in Boca Raton. But last August he got the itch to return, so, with the blessing of Graciela, his wife of 33 years, Salazar sent out his résumé. The Braves offered him a job managing their Class A Carolina League team, the Lynchburg (Va.) Hillcats. Had his wife not granted him the equivalent of a summerlong hall pass, he would have been poolside, not in the home dugout in Champion Stadium, when Atlanta played the Cardinals in a spring training game.
"There's more," says Salazar, shaking his head at the irony. March 9 was two days before his minor league position players would arrive. Had it been 48 hours later, he wouldn't have been at the game with the big league team. Plus, he usually watched the action from inside the dugout, near the bench. But then Nate McLouth was involved in a close play at second base, and Salazar, not one to pass up an opportunity to teach, sidled up to the Braves' outfielder on the top step of the first base dugout, leaning against the rail. As the two discussed the play, catcher Brian McCann batted. Early on a slider, McCann whistled off a foul ball.
There's scarcely a baseball player who hasn't been accidently drilled by a batted ball—"smoked," in the vernacular. Batting practice might as well be target practice. Balls fly at all angles. Outfielders play catch as hitters smite ropes to every pocket of the field. During games, it's not exactly an OSHA-approved job site either. Foul balls strafe dugout dwellers and, of course, those in the stands. After a line drive to the head killed minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh (SI, Sept. 24, 2007), first and third base coaches began wearing helmets. But in general the safety issue has been met with a collective shrug. To use the voguish phrase, it is what it is. Part of the game.
Salazar is 55, a former third baseman whose reaction times are not what they once were. No matter. He had no chance. Not with McCann hitting from maybe 60 feet away and the foul ball traveling in excess of 100 mph. The projectile smacked Salazar in his left eye, making a hideous sound and knocking him backward down the dugout steps. He fractured his right arm in the fall, but that was the least of it. He was unconscious, concussed, and blood poured from his nose, mouth and eye, puddling around his head as he lay facedown. As a helicopter transported Salazar to an Orlando trauma center, the players struggled to keep it together, not least McCann, who left the game. "I was praying to God that he was going to be O.K.," the catcher says, "but it's human nature for the worst things to come in your head."
HOLLYWOOD HAS "six degrees of Kevin Bacon." Baseball has "one degree of Luis Salazar." "Louie," says Rafael Belliard, a former major league infielder, now a Tigers coach, "knows everyone." Part of this is the math. Play and coach for nine organizations over 30-some years and you'll meet a few people along the way. But it's mostly because of Salazar's personality. He's relentlessly outgoing, quick to laugh, and he remembers names and games with a stunning level of precision. "Such a great guy to be around, always has been," says Derek Botelho, a former major league pitcher who met Salazar playing winter ball in the 1980s and is now the Lynchburg pitching coach. "He respects baseball and he respects people, so his relationships run deep."
Salazar was 17 when the Royals signed him for $3,000 in '73 and shipped him to rookie ball in Florida. After a chronic case of homesickness, he went back to the Venezuelan fishing village where his father made a living trolling for snapper. Two years later the Pirates' organization signed him. Salazar found a Spanish-speaking roommate, catcher Tony Peña, and this time he stuck. He pinballed around the minors but persisted, making his major league debut at 24, a utilityman able to play any of seven positions.
In 1985, Salazar was stationed at third base for the White Sox when Rod Carew drilled a ball his way. Salazar knocked down the ball but landed awkwardly and shredded the ACL in his left knee, requiring surgery that left a nasty six-inch scar still visible today. Chicago's management, including manager Tony La Russa, assumed the injury was career-ending. Salazar's agent told him to accept a $1.5 million insurance policy. But cashing the insurance check would mean quitting baseball. "Take away your love, just for some money?" he asks, still incredulous. "Are you crazy?" He was 29, still lacking fluency in English and marooned in the Chicago suburbs. But every day Graciela drove him to rehab. It took two years, but he made it back as a full-time major league player.
Salazar ended up playing 13 seasons, hitting .261. Nothing remarkable. Except that he amassed 10 friends for every hit. He was the consummate "glue guy," never aspiring to be the star, befriending the veterans and the rookies, the Americans and the Latins, the pitchers and the position players.
He retired in 1992 but, predictably, stayed in the game. He ticks off the towns in the manner of Johnny Cash's I've Been Everywhere. Salazar's been to Beloit, Indianapolis, Louisville, Jacksonville, Chattanooga, Vero Beach.... Between the majors, minors and winter ball, he reckons he's had more than a thousand teammates. As a coach, he's worked with thousands more. (The day of the accident, Salazar and Albert Pujols were reminiscing about their roles in the 2000 Triple A World Series. Pujols was a first baseman for the Memphis Redbirds, Salazar was a hitting coach for the Indianapolis Indians.) Plus, Salazar's daughter, Viviana, is married to Mariners outfielder Franklin Gutierrez. "Teams are all over the country, players come from all over the world," says Salazar, "but baseball really is a community."
Salazar regained consciousness in the hospital that night. He says he saw a white light—"very bright, so bright"—and fell back asleep. He woke up the next day after a surgery, the first of three. "What happened?" he asked his wife. She told him. He nodded. He went to the bathroom and caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Then the gravity set in. "It's scary when you don't recognize yourself," he says. "That's when I knew how bad it was."