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Friday, March 30, 2007
Updated: March 31, 9:25 AM ET
Bluffton plays first baseball game since fatal crash

Associated Press

BLUFFTON, Ohio -- Some players who survived a bus crash that killed five teammates said they wanted their first game since the accident to be about baseball, but it was much more than that.

Bluffton University
The Bluffton baseball team gathers at the mound Friday before the start of its first game since a bus crash killed five teammates.

"The whole season is for the five of them," team captain Ryan Baightel said after the game. "We owe it to them not just to play but to compete."

Opening day came a month later than it should have for Bluffton University. The Beavers took the field Friday in black jerseys to honor the five teammates. Some of the starters still had scars and bruises from that awful morning in Atlanta.

Underneath the bill of outfielder Tony Moore's cap, he left a tribute in black marker.

"Scottie I Play For You," his message read.

Moore's hometown friend, Scott Harmon, was among those killed four weeks ago.

Since then, the players have attended memorial services and questioned why they survived and their friends didn't. For a few hours Friday, they could focus on the game.

"Once you get out here, you're a baseball player," said coach James Grandey. "Obviously today had a little more meaning."

Grandey couldn't coach and watched from the sidelines. His jaw is wired shut and his right leg is in a metal brace.

There was a festive atmosphere under bright sunshine at the ball field next to the flat farm fields of northwest Ohio. Fans sat on blankets and lawn chairs along the fences and parents of players grilled hot dogs and burgers.

The crowd 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 ball game. "My heart goes out to them. It's got to be a tough situation," he said.

The Beavers lost the opener 10-5 against the College of Mount St. Joseph from Cincinnati. Too many errors and walks, Grandey told his team.

He laughed at the suggestion that the score didn't matter. "You guys don't know me well," he said.

The players who died were never far from anyone's thoughts.

"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."

Five white crosses hung on the chain-link fence next to the visitors' dugout. On the outfield fence, banners hung by the team displayed the uniform numbers of the dead.

"It's almost like they're here with us," said Moore, a junior outfielder from Elida.

John Betts, whose son died in the accident, wore his son'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," he said. "There's no question David would have wanted them to do it. He would have said, 'Please play; play on."'

Freshman A.J. Ramthun watched the game from the bullpen, his left arm in a sling.

As the team took the field, he had just one thought.

"Let's play baseball," he said. "That's what we were all thinking.

"Really we've had too much time to think about our accident," Ramthun said. "Playing baseball is a step in the right direction toward recovery."

Nearly a month ago, the team from the Mennonite-affiliated school was headed to Florida for a tournament when investigators say the driver apparently mistook an exit ramp for a highway lane.

Their bus plunged off an overpass March 2. 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.

None of the survivors wanted to give up on the season.

They talked about playing again just a day after the crash. They sought the permission of the victims' families before making the final decision.