If there was a photo of the moment Chris Salamida walked into the Goldeyes clubhouse, it would have been full of faces lit by more than lights.
The pitcher was supposed to be retired until he landed in Winnipeg last week, wandering through the Shaw Park stomping grounds that were, for three seasons, his professional home. He saw a lot of new faces on a team that's greatly changed from the group that won last year's American Association championship. But there were a lot of familiar grins too, old friends with whom he won it all.
"There's nothing like seeing the smiles on the whole team's faces," Salamida said, a day after putting the exclamation mark on his return with a winning start Saturday. "When I came back, I was just hanging out in (the clubhouse), and Amos (Ramon) comes in and his face was beet red, biggest smile from ear to ear. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel wanted."
How's this for wanted: When the Goldeyes officially signed Salamida back on Saturday, manager Rick Forney called the 29-year-old one of "the best starting pitchers in the league." Catcher Luis Alen said he was "so excited" upon learning he would be looking across the plate at Salamida again. After three years playing together, the two had built a lot of trust, Alen added.
On Sunday, Goldeyes pitching rock Matt Rusch welcomed back the colleague with whom he'd won a championship ring. "It means the world to us," Rusch said. "He's a proven guy. He still has a big love for the game. He's our bulldog. He's going to go out there and really help this team, I think."
In only one start, he already has. On Saturday, Salamida made his first pro start since last year's playoffs, taking the mound to warm applause from a grateful Goldeyes crowd. He then proceeded to lock it down. He caged the visiting Trois-Rivières Aigles in an 8-3 win, allowing only six hits in six full innings and striking out five.
It helps that he kept throwing after leaving the pro game. Though announcing his retirement back in April on the same day as pitchers Ace Walker, Brian Beuning and Zach Baldwin, he joined the Albany Athletics in an amateur league near his home in upstate New York. He didn't exactly want to leave baseball. "I was just ready to move on to the real world," he said.
The goal was to study to be a firefighter, and that plan hasn't changed -- he's still working on completing the entrance requirements. But when he came back to Winnipeg for the home opener in May to accept his championship ring, the roar of the crowd brought him back to the love of the game. "I kind of got the itch then, being here and seeing the games," Salamida said, and he told pitching coach Jamie Vermilyea to keep him in mind if they needed help.
The two stayed in touch, and when Salamida felt ready to compete, he dialled Vermilyea again. With left-handed starter Mark Hardy headed to the inactive list while healing from an injury, the team had room for Salamida to come up.
Now, Salamida hopes to help the Goldeyes climb into a playoff spot and keep their championship. They're currently well behind the North Division-leading Fargo-Moorhead RedHawks, and sit in the middle of the wild-card pack, but the Fish are also on a hot streak, having won seven of their last 10. Maybe the returning pitcher's energy can help with that -- and his first game back in the Fish fold, well, it felt a little fresh again.
"It was like when I got signed professionally," Salamida said. "It was those jitters and nerves in me, and then the adrenaline kicks in and you take it from there."