Bluffton Loses First Baseball Game since Tragic Accident

BLUFFTON, Ohio (AP) - Baseball coach James Grandey's jaw is wired shut and his right leg is in a metal brace, so he couldn't lead his team in its first game since a bus crash injured him and killed five of his players.

But he couldn't stay away, either.

Grandey leaned against his crutches, exchanging hugs and high-fives with his players before his Bluffton University team started playing Friday.

Shortstop Ryan Baightel sprinted onto the field just before the first pitch and hugged second baseman Corey Conn, who started the game in place of David Betts, who was killed in the crash.

The players had spent an entire month at memorial services, crying and questioning why they survived and their friends didn't. For a few hours, they could be kids again.

There was a festive atmosphere as the sun shone at the northwestern Ohio college during the game against the College of Mount St. Joseph from Cincinnati, with fans sitting in the sun on blankets and lawn chairs along the fences and grilling hot dogs and burgers.

But there also were reminders of the tragedy all around. Five white crosses hung on the chain-link fence next to the visitors' dugout, and banners with the victims' uniform numbers hung on the outfield fence.

"Part of our team isn't out there, said Gwynne Freytag, whose son Brandon kicked out a hatch on the bus to allow players to escape the wreckage. "But it's a chance to move ahead for the boys. They're a team, and I've just got a feeling there's a lot of angels in the outfield today."

Playing with gold gloves donated by the Cleveland Indians, the Beavers took the field wearing black jerseys in honor of the victims instead of their standard purple and white ones.

Curtis Martin, a freshman at the Mennonite-affiliated school, couldn't help but stare into right field where his friend Tyler Williams would have been standing.

"It hurts because I'm not able to watch him play," Martin said.

The crowd of about 2,500 people cheered when pitcher Tim Kay, who was not badly hurt in the crash, struck out the first batter he faced, Ryan Meyer.

The batter's father, Jimmy Meyer, 52, of Cincinnati, said it was more than a ballgame. "My heart goes out to them. It's got to be tough situation," he said.

Bluffton lost 10-5.

The crowd gave the team gave a standing ovation after the final out. The players then gathered in a circle along the left field line just in front of the five banners bearing the numbers of the players killed.

The team was headed to Florida for a tournament when its bus crashed March 2 in Atlanta. Investigators say the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a highway lane.

"It's a baseball game. You've got to keep it in perspective. But it's breaking the ice," said Bill Schroeder, 52, of Shelby, whose son Curtis is Bluffton's starting catcher and had minor injuries in the crash.

"It really doesn't matter if they win or lose, they're coming together as a team."

John Betts wore his son David's purple ball cap that the team gave him after the crash, and a black T-shirt retrieved from his son's luggage that still smelled of diesel fuel.

"To play on takes a lot of courage," said Betts, of Bryan. "There's no question David would have wanted them to do it. He would have said, 'Please, play; play on."'

Before the game, Grandey, 29, swapped stories with players and their families while standing on the field behind home plate. Two assistants coached the game.

Parents cooked hot dogs and hamburgers on a portable grill next to the ball field while the players tossed around baseballs.

"This is for the boys today. They have had it really bad, and this is great for them," said Chris Baightel, whose son Ryan is the team captain.

Baightel was unhurt in the wreck and helped lead his teammates out of the bus as it leaked fuel. Chris Baightel and the other parents felt conflicted on opening day.

"We're happy, but then you stop and think about what happened and it brings you down," he said.

Four players, the bus driver and his wife died on the day of the wreck. A fifth player died a week later.

Student coach Tim Berta, 22, of Ida, Mich., remains in critical condition in an Atlanta hospital but is improving. Berta had been sedated, but Friday "is the first day he really woke up and was able to follow commands," said his mother, Karen Berta.

He will be moved to a Toledo hospital closer to home when he recovers enough, she said.

Five players injured in the accident were not able to play in the opener.