STEVE NESIUS / AP Enlarge
SARASOTA, Fla. - The Bluffton University baseball team entered the bottom of the ninth of their season opener yesterday with a two-run lead - but lost.
Some players hung their heads and sat in silence for several minutes after the game, while others bounded out of the dugout, hugged family members and chatted with friends, then headed to a picnic behind the outfield fence.
That's nothing out of the ordinary for a college baseball game, but this was no average season opener, and it certainly was not a run-of-the-mill heartbreaking defeat.
Bluffton played this first game of the 2008 season on the one-year anniversary of the team's tragic bus crash that rocked the small, Mennonite university in northwest Ohio. The crash claimed the lives of five players, the bus driver, and his wife on March 2, 2007.
So dropping a 4-3 decision to Eastern Mennonite University yesterday at Sarasota Christian School was disappointing for the Bluffton Beavers, but the players - the crash survivors - were able to put the loss in perspective.
"Today in general is a tough day," said sophomore outfielder Cody McPherson of Lake Township, who was one of two Bluffton players to hit a home run yesterday. "Last night was a tough day, knowing what time we left [for Florida] last year was a tough day. I just think being here as a team shows the integrity of the team."
The Beavers were heading to this same field to play the same opponent a year ago on March 2 when their bus flipped over an I-75 overpass in Atlanta and fell 30 feet back onto the highway just after 5:30 a.m.
Killed in the crash were sophomores David Betts of Bryan and Tyler Williams of Lima, and freshmen Scott Harmon of Lima, Zach Arend of Oakwood, Ohio, and Cody Holp of Arcanum, Ohio. So were bus driver Jerome Niemeyer and his wife, Jean, both of Columbus Grove, Ohio.
Nineteen of Bluffton's 29 players in uniform yesterday - and four coaches and staff members - survived that horrific crash. For them, it was a day of remembering the friends they lost and reflecting on their own near-encounter with death.
But the Beavers also felt the sun on their necks, the grass under their feet. They played a game that counted after more than a month of being held captive inside the school's gymnasium by Ohio's harsh winter weather.
"With it being March 2, and with the anniversary, and everybody's emotions are a little bit high, everybody handled themselves really well," said sophomore pitcher Matt Perkins of Convoy, Ohio, who gave up two runs in just over eight innings yesterday.
"I'm proud of my team and my teammates."
The Beavers arrived at the field in vans at about 2:15 p.m. from Fort Myers, Fla., where the team is staying and where it will play the rest of its games this week.
Buses, of course, are out of the question, and the Beavers reached Florida by flying from Detroit to Fort Myers on Saturday.
Bluffton University President James Harder said the team chose to hold a private memorial hours after yesterday's game, rather than go through such an emotional event before they played.
Meeting with about six reporters before the game, Bluffton coach James Grandey said he was worried about his team's ability to play good defense, pitch, and run the bases well.
As for those other thoughts, the ones reliving a single day of immense trauma followed by a year's worth of physical and emotional healing for him and his players, those were in the back, not the front, of his mind.
"I think those thoughts are with us all the time," Mr. Grandey said.
"The thing our players have done a remarkable job of is handling those emotions and handling the rigors of being a student-athlete. So today those thoughts will be with us, but our thoughts will also be on winning this game."
Loren Swartzendruber, Eastern Mennonite's president, said before the game that who wins was not important. He said his Harrisonburg, Va.-university's baseball team was greatly affected by Bluffton's accident, as it was also on a bus heading toward Sarasota when news of the crash spread.
Jameson Jarvis, a senior captain for the Eastern Mennonite Royals, said memories of having to reflect on Bluffton's tragedy rather than play the Beavers on March 2 last year will stick with him forever, but playing to win yesterday's game was what both teams were going to do.
"What better way to honor those who have passed than to do what they would've done, which is come out here, and they would've given everything they had," Mr. Jarvis said.
"That's what the point is today."
More than 100 Bluffton parents, alumni, and well-wishers were on hand yesterday, although the contingent did not consist of any parents of the players who died. Mr. Harder said he spoke with three of the five sets of parents on the phone yesterday, and each of them expressed wishes of hope for a good game.
Time and again, Mr. Harder, Bluffton players, and just about anyone wearing Beavers' purple and black, were asked if those five deceased teammates were somehow still with the team.
The answers were basically the same.
"I think about them every day," Mr. Perkins said. "I think they're up in heaven watching us, every day, every game. Sometimes you might get a little breeze, and you [say], 'Thanks, Tyler,' 'Thanks, Dave,' stuff like that. I think they're very much a part of the team."
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