LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. • Atlanta Braves coach Luis Salazar was knocked unconscious during Wednesday's game by a line-drive foul ball that left him hospitalized with severe facial fractures and initially had players in the Braves dugout unsure whether he was alive.
In the first inning, Brian McCann hit a foul ball that shot toward the Braves' dugout and hit Salazar in the left side of his face. Salazar fell backward down five dugout steps and landed face first onto the rubberized floor. He did not regain consciousness until after he was airlifted to a nearby hospital.
"That's the worst one I've ever seen," said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who was on first base at the time. "A ball hit that hard, at that short a distance, can certainly kill somebody if it hits them in the right spot. ... I wish I wouldn't have looked. But I did. It's just hard to put into words."
Cardinals manager Tony La Russa called it 'scary."
Salazar was not responsive at the ballpark, but he regained consciousness and could breathe on his own at Orlando Regional Medical Center, a Braves official said. A few hours after the incident, Salazar was responding to doctors' questions and brain damage had been ruled out, the official said. The extent of injury to his face, eye and orbital bone would not be clear until swelling had receded, an official confirmed.
The game was stopped for 14 minutes as the team and ballpark medics tended to Salazar, who was unconscious on the dugout floor throughout. He was transported from the field via ambulance to a helicopter. Braves officials discussed whether to continue the game, and it resumed. Back at the plate, McCann waved, as if uninterested, at the next pitch from Kyle Lohse and left the game. On Wednesday evening, McCann, several Braves officials, Salazar's wife and his 31-year-old son were still with the coach at the hospital.
"I saw it go off his face, so I knew," Lohse said. "It was tough. It was kind of hard to get refocused after that. I threw whatever, a changeup, to McCann. I don't think his heart was in that one either."
With McCann at the plate and two runners on, Salazar was standing with a group of players and leaning over the top rail of the Braves' dugout. Several players lurched back from the railing to avoid McCann's liner; Salazar dropped backward as quickly and suddenly as he was hit.
The uncertainty of the scene was familiar to some Cardinals. In September 2007, a foul ball struck Cardinals right fielder Juan Encarnacion in the left eye as he was waiting in the on-deck circle. The ball crushed Encarnacion's eye socket, and he has not regained full vision yet. The Cardinals relocated the on-deck circle after Encarnacion's injury.
Baseball adopted a rule requiring base coaches to wear helmets after minor-league coach Mike Coolbaugh died as a result of being hit in the head with a foul ball.
During spring training, coaches, including La Russa and members of his staff, routinely sit outside of the dugout during the game. At home games at Roger Dean Stadium, La Russa and his coaches sit on a metal bench that rests against the backstop, in unprotected foul territory.
Dugouts are protected by padded railing and a net from the railing to the ground. But players who lean over the railing are exposed.
"It's just one of those situations where it's a line drive off the bat, and it hit one of our coaches on the top step of the dugout," Braves general manager Frank Wren told reporters. "In a typical game, the rails are lined with players and coaches. It's just one of those freak accidents that happen. There's no way to prevent it. It's just one of those things that happen."
Salazar, 54, is in his first season with the Braves as their Class A manager. The 13-year major leaguer has been working as a coach since his retirement, and Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols met him back when he was in Class AAA. Pujols, playing in the field at the time of the injury, said he couldn't look into the dugout. He recalled Encarnacion and how the right fielder put his hands to his eyes. Pujols remarked how he didn't see Salazar do that after the fall.
Before Wednesday's game, Salazar approached La Russa on the field. La Russa, who managed him in 1985 with the Chicago White Sox, called Salazar, who finished his major-league career with the Cubs in 1992, an "athletic guy (who) was so versatile it probably hurt him because guys would use him all over the place." Salazar reminded La Russa about his son, who as a youngster would hang around the ballpark, getting teased by La Russa.
"I always kidded with him," La Russa said after the game. "And (Luis) says, 'Well, he's going to be here tomorrow. He wants to relive those old times.' ... I would have worried about anybody (getting hit), but with him it's personal. I have a great relationship with him."
Jones described McCann as shaken up by Salazar's injury. Wren said the whole team was "kind of in shock."
The Braves spend spring training on Walt Disney World grounds at ESPN's Wide World of Sports complex, and Disney sent a counseling team to the hospital to be with the family. A second counseling team was also available to the players in the clubhouse.
"I've really never, in baseball, been through a situation where I felt it was as serious at the time," Wren said. "I've seen guys hit on the mound with line drives. I've seen different situations. But this was pretty tough. ... Just feel very fortunate and feel blessed that Luis is alive."