LYNCHBURG, Va. – 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.
He began hearing details when he woke in a hospital bed several days later to find Braves players Chipper Jones, Nate McClouth, Martin Prado and several coaches at his bedside.
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."
She understands his return to baseball.
"He's in the place he wants to be, he loves to be," she said.
Salazar's approach has turned a tragedy into an uplifting story.
"Everybody knows in the town what happened to me and the story has gone around everywhere, and especially on opening day with my wife here and the opposite team, players, coaches, and my coaches and players," he said. "They lift you in good spirits when they say nice things to me."
Salazar also is not unaccustomed to overcoming big obstacles.
In 1985, while playing for the Chicago White Sox, he tore ligaments in his left knee and was told he would probably never play again. Just 26 at the time, he chose instead to have surgery and spent the next 18 months rehabbing the injury; he played nine more seasons after that.
"I made the doctor and everyone wrong and I was right," he said.
Salazar spent the past 10 days in Orlando making sure he was ready before flying to Virginia on Thursday. He hit infield fungos over the past three days, and threw at 60 feet, even though doctors had warned him his arm might take some time to get back to its throwing strength.
"When I start throwing BP, that's when I'm going to feel good," he said.
Phil Gosselin, a first-year pro, said Salazar is clearly where he wants to be.
"You can tell he's chomping at the bit," he said after the pregame workout. "He was hitting fungos and just loving it, so it's great to see him out here with a smile on his face."
Before the game, Salazar said he would share with his team some details about his journey the past five weeks, but he really was looking forward to bringing them his real message.
" 'I'm going to teach you the right way to play this game. Take advantage of the experience and the wealth of knowledge we have, and brains of all my coaches,' " he said he'd tell them.
"That's my goal down here. That's my job."
And one he's delighted to be doing again.