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Bluffton plays first baseball game since fatal crash

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.

"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.