After tough road, Salazar gets to feel joy of title

November 19th, 2017
Luis Salazar shakes off the cold of a Gatorade shower after Peoria's win Saturday. (I.B. Lee/

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The bucket of Gatorade doused Peoria Javelinas manager Luis Salazar on Saturday with the usual mixture of cold, wet, sticky goo. His club had just defeated the Mesa Solar Sox, 8-2, at Scottsdale Stadium to win this year's Arizona Fall League championship.

This was a happy moment for the 61-year-old native of Venezuela who has endured more than enough grief in recent years. The championship came just a little more than six years after Salazar lost his left eye in a freak baseball accident.

"Oy, I'm soaking wet," said a gleeful Salazar, who will manage again in the Braves' system this year, moving to the Class A Florida State League in Kissimmee, Fla., not far from his home in Boca Raton. "That's a perfect fit for me."

This fall, he was given the task of managing some of the Braves' top prospects: Third baseman Austin Riley, catcher , left-handed pitcher and left fielder Ronald Acuna. At 19, Acuna was the youngest player ever named Fall League MVP with his slash line of .329/.414/639, seven homers, 53 total bases, 16 RBIs and 22 runs scored in 23 games.

"This was a bunch of great guys who played like a family," Salazar said. "I told them from the get-go that I was down here to enjoy this league. 'I want you guys to have fun, have a great time.' The big thing to me is that they came from different organizations and come out of here with a great friendship that they will remember for a long time."

I have known Salazar since 1983, when he was the starting third baseman for the Padres and I began covering the team for the old San Diego Tribune. Just prior to the '84 season, the Friars acquired Graig Nettles in a trade with the Yankees to strengthen the lineup, displacing Salazar as a utility player.

He never complained as the Padres battled to their first of only two National League pennants, fighting with future Hall of Fame manager Dick Williams all the way to a five-game loss to the Tigers in the World Series.

Salazar played third base, shortstop and all three outfield positions, hitting .241 in 93 games for that epic team.

"That was a great year. You can never forget it," Salazar said on Saturday. "The best time of our lives."

That team boasted three eventual Hall of Famers -- Williams, right fielder Tony Gwynn and closer Rich "Goose" Gossage. First baseman Steve Garvey is one of nine players on the current Modern Era Committee ballot that will be determined in early December.

Even more interesting about it now is that Salazar and a number of his 1984 teammates went on to manage or coach in either the big leagues, Minors or in college.

The list is topped by then-backup catcher Bruce Bochy, who's going into his 23rd season managing the Giants and Padres, winning four division championships along with the 1998 NL pennant before leaving San Diego after the 2006 season for San Francisco, where he's won three World Series titles.

Terry Kennedy, the starting catcher, managed the Padres' Triple-A team and is now a scout for the Cubs.

Backup infielder Tim Flannery managed for the Padres at all three Minor League levels and later was third-base coach under Bochy for many years in San Diego and San Francisco.

Starting shortstop Garry Templeton was a Minor League manager in the Angels' system.

Gwynn, the eight time NL batting champ, was head coach at his alma mater, San Diego State, from his retirement in 2001 to his death from cancer in '14.

Pitcher Andy Hawkins was the bullpen coach for the Texas Rangers until '15, and then was hired as the pitching coach for Kansas City's Triple-A team.

Salazar has either been a Minor League hitting coach or manager since 1999.

Though as players no one could get along with the tough Williams -- who had an authoritarian and strident managing style -- to a man they all praise him now.

"He taught me just about everything I know about managing a team," Salazar said. "Nobody really understood it back then."

Those sentiments have been echoed through the years by Bochy, Flannery and Gwynn, particularly in 2008, when Gossage and Williams were inducted in the Hall together a year after Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. Williams died at 82 in 2011.

That team has had its share of sorrow. Gwynn, Williams, Alan Wiggins, Eric Show, Mario Ramirez, Champ Summers, coach Jack Krol and owner Joan Kroc all died too young. Left-hander Dave Dravecky lost his throwing arm to cancer at 33 and became a preacher.

Salazar joined the Braves' organization in 2011 and was set to manage their Class A team in Lynchburg when he stood on the railing of the home dugout during a Spring Training game at what is now called Champion Stadium in Orlando, Fla. Salazar glanced to the side in conversation just a split-second long enough to miss 's foul liner that crashed into the left side of his face.

Salazar was rushed to the hospital unconscious in life-threatening condition, and while he survived the initial impact, he lost the eye a week later. He has had four reconstructive surgeries since, but continues to plow forward.

After the initial injury, Salazar vowed to join his Lynchburg team for the start of the season and was there on April 15, 2011. He has managed in the Braves' system ever since, the last few seasons at Double-A Mississippi, winding all the way to Saturday's big win, the win his Padres never could get.

The eye is gone, he said, no use crying over something you can't control. He'd loved to manage in the big leagues, but right now he's content.

"When you start coaching or managing in the Minors, that's always your ultimate goal," Salazar said. "But I'm very happy doing what I'm doing now."

With no accountable loss of depth perception, he continues to throw batting practice, field grounders and toss the ball around.

"It never bothered me to coach here, throw BP or anything like that," Salazar said. "I play golf, ride the bike, you name it."

If anything, Salazar is a proven survivor. Three times Padres general manager Jack McKeon traded for him, got rid of him and ultimately brought him back, prompting the once famous quote from Salazar: "Jack, you're like a daddy to me. You take care of me."

Salazar said he still talks to McKeon, who just left the Marlins' organization at age 86. He saw Kennedy, scouting the Fall League this year for the Cubs.

Salazar's a bucket-doused championship manager now. The long, bumpy road graciously taking him to this joyful place.