Ohio Baseball Team Starts Season Friday After Losing 5 Players In Bus Crash

Friday, March 30th 2007, 6:08 pm
By: News On 6

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 team before Bluffton University took the field Friday to a standing ovation.

There was a festive atmosphere at the northwestern Ohio college for the game against the College of Mount St. Joseph in Cincinnati, with fans spreading out blankets and lawn chairs 10-deep along the fences and grilling hot dogs and burgers.

And a huge cheer erupted when pitcher Tim Kay, who was not badly hurt, struck out the first batter. Bluffton trailed 9-3 midway through the game.

But there also were reminders of the tragedy all around. Five white crosses hung on the chain-link fence next to the visitors' dugout. Banners with the victims' uniform numbers hung on the outfield fence. And the Beavers wore the black jerseys they will wear in place of their usual purple and white for the rest of the season to honor their missing teammates.

``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.''

Gwynne Freytag, whose son Brandon kicked out a hatch on the bus to allow players to escape the wreckage, said the game was an opportunity for the players to move forward.

``They're a team, and I've just got a feeling there's a lot of angels in the outfield today,'' Freytag said.

The father of one of the players who died said he felt compelled to see the game.

John Betts wore the purple ball cap that David Betts' teammates 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,'' Betts said. ``There's no question David would have wanted them to do it. He would have said, 'Please, play; play on.'''

The team was headed to Florida for a tournament when its bus plunged off an overpass March 2 in Atlanta. Investigators say the driver, who was killed along with his wife and the five players, apparently mistook an exit ramp for a highway lane.

The surviving players voted unanimously to go on with the season. The team resumed practices March 19 and hopes to make up the four games it has missed in the Heartland Collegiate Conference.

Assistant coaches Jason Moore and Todd Miller are leading the team while Grandey, 29, recovers. A student coach showed some improvement Friday but remains hospitalized, his mother said, and up to six players could miss all or part of the season because of injuries.