By Beth L. Jokinen, Lima (Ohio) News
The Bluffton team hangs their heads in prayer Sunday before the game against EMU in Sarasota, Fla. (Photo courtesy of Lima [Ohio] News)
It was a day of remembering, a day of baseball, a day of new beginnings.
As the Bluffton University baseball team gathered at home plate before taking the field Sunday, Mar. 2, a crowd of 200 cheered, glad to see the team begin a new season, hoping that now a year after the tragic bus crash, maybe the young men can move forward.
Yet, the day was not without remembering the five teammates who will never take the field again.
“I think about them every day,” said junior pitcher Matt Perkins, of Convoy. “You see things that remind you and I think they are up in heaven watching us every game. … I think they are very much a part of the team.”
Bluffton took on EMU on Sunday, the same game the teams were to play on the day the bus crashed in Atlanta, killing players Tyler Williams, of Lima, Scott Harmon, of Elida, David Betts, of Bryan, Cody Holp, of Arcanum, and Zachary Arend, of Oakwood. The bus driver and wife, Jerome “Jerry” and Jean Niemeyer, of Columbus Grove, also died.
When the team arrived at Sarasota Christian School, many of their family members were already waiting. Many greeted each other with hugs. Mary Miller, of LaPort, Ind., had a big hug for her grandson, assistant coach Todd Miller.
Miller was in Florida last year and was expecting to have dinner with her grandson the day of the accident. Miller was thrown from the bus before the bus plunged below.
“There are a lot of memories today, and thankfulness that they are still here,” she said.
Game of Hope, New Beginnings
In opening remarks just moments before the first pitch, Bluffton President James Harder described the game as one of hope and new beginnings, and one played in memory of the five players lost.
Eastern Mennonite President Loren Swartzendruber led a prayer before the game.
“Today we celebrate hope even as we invite your continued healing touch,” he prayed.
Bluffton was the first to score and led the game 3-1 going into the ninth inning. Eastern Mennonite came back to win in the bottom of the ninth. Solemn players, a few who sat in the dugout staring out onto the field, proved the team was there to win.
Players knelt in prayer together before the game, much like they did before the first game following the accident. While thoughts of their lost teammates remain with them, Sunday was very much about baseball and beginning the season.
“We were just happy to be given the opportunity to come out and play today,” said sophomore outfielder Cody McPherson, of Northwood, adding that the five players are always on their minds and in their hearts.
The team left from Detroit on Saturday and arrived by plane in Fort Myers, around 8 p.m. The team’s first game of the Gene Cusic Classic is this afternoon. Players admit that leaving Saturday was tough and traveling brought some anxiety.
‘Integrity of the team’
“I just think that being here and being here as a team just shows the integrity of the team and shows how much we like to play,” said McPherson, who started the scoring off with a solo home run in the second inning.
Coach James Grandey said team meetings in the last few days have been about baseball, playing with confidence and being aggressive on the base paths.
“We’re excited to be here today, to be back on the field and being healthy,” he said, saying it never crossed his mind that the team would not return to Florida.
As he has much of the past year, Grandey spoke of his amazing team, both his players now and those five who didn’t survive the crash.
“They are five of the best people you will ever meet. They come from great families and they are dearly missed,” he said. “They are with us every day.”
Eastern Mennonite baseball players were also thinking about those players Sunday.
‘Honor those who have passed’
“What better way to honor those who have passed than to honor what they would have done. They would have come out here and they would have given everything they had,” said Eastern Mennonite senior and third baseman, Jameson Jarvis.
Many of the fans wore Bluffton shirts, caps and “Bluffton Remembers” wristbands. Like most any game, they cheered for their Beavers, and even moaned a little when they didn’t agree with the umpire’s call.
All were glad to see the team back on the field.
“It’s exciting. It really is a new beginning,” said Wapakoneta’s Gwynne Freytag, mother of senior pitcher Brandon Freytag. She wore a button with Brandon’s picture and “Bluffton mom” shirt. “They love to play baseball and it’s nice to see them out there.”
“It is a sad day, but yet a happy day,” former Bluffton football coach Carlin Carpenter said, saying it’s nice that the players have been “able to regroup and enjoy life like they are supposed to at this age.”
Parents in the Stands
Sitting in the stands Sunday made Dee Roberts feel grateful. Her son, junior pitcher and first baseman Steve Roberts, of West Salem, was on the bus last year.
“It is pretty amazing to see how these guys have pulled together, stayed together and continued to move forward through all of this,” her husband, Bill Roberts, added.
Mary Ann Moore, of Elida, couldn’t help but think about the parents who lost their children a year ago. Her sons, player Tony Moore, and then-coach Jason Moore, both survived the crash.
“I’m happy to see the boys out there playing because I think that really helps them,” she said. “Once they step out on the field I think they can sort of forget everything else.”
One person in the crowd first met the team a year ago as many of the injured came through the doors of Grady Memorial Hospital. Dr. Jeffrey Salomone, a surgeon at Grady, had trouble finding the words to answer why he needed to come to the game. It’s the same reason he flew to Bluffton to catch a game last season.
“There was a certain bond that developed,” he said from behind the Beaver’s dugout. “I want to see good come to these guys and see them succeed. They have come through a horrendous situation and they are obviously very resilient.
Eighteen Bluffton students took a break from building homes in Florida with Habitat for Humanity to support the team.
“These guys need emotional support,” sophomore Cyrus Weigand, of Akron, said. “I think the first step in healing is to embrace the tragedy and then move past it. We want to be here for them.”
Many from the university traveled to be with the team, there for support and perhaps to help in their own healing.
“I wanted to see this game happen,” said Eric Fulcomer, vice president of enrollment and student life. “This is a big event in the life of the baseball team to play this game. There is nowhere else I want to be.”
Beth L. Jokinen is a staff writer with the Lima (Ohio) News, from which this story is reprinted with permission.