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Baseball helping Bluffton players heal

Baseball helping Bluffton heal

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- It will never erase their memories of that horrific night just over a year ago, but baseball under the Florida sun is just one more bit of normalcy that helps to ease the pain.

"So far, so good," said Bluffton University baseball coach James Grandey. "We're 5-2, so that's a good start to our season right now. But emotionally, personally, it's been very healing. If I feel that way, I'm sure most of the players feel that way, too."

Grandey is in Fort Myers with his team, playing in the Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic, which is sponsored by the Lee County Parks and Recreation Dept. The team was on its way to Sarasota, Fla., on March 2, 2007, when its bus overturned in the early morning on Interstate 75 in Atlanta. Five players were killed in the accident, along with the bus driver and his wife. The deaths devastated the 1,100-student campus in Ohio.

On Thursday, the team was the guest of the Lee County Sports Authority in an open-air suite in right field at City of Palms Park, as the Red Sox played the Dodgers.

On Sunday, the one-year anniversary of the crash, Bluffton played Eastern Mennonite University, the team it was supposed to play a year ago, in Sarasota.

"It's hard to describe, because the year anniversary of the accident is so significant in all of our lives," Grandey said. "We had anxiety about traveling, and we had anxiety about what kind of baseball team we were going to be. So it's really complex emotions.

"But they've responded well, no question. These kids are just super young men. They come from great families, and they've handled this whole situation the past year remarkably well, remarkably well. I'm proud to be their coach."

Bluffton lost that first game, to Eastern Mennonite, 4-3. The outcome did not matter as much as being on the field did.

"I think we were ready to play," Grandey said. "They wanted to make it as much about baseball as they could, and so we were able to do that. I know we didn't play as sharp as we wanted to on the day of the anniversary, but it was also our first time on a field. So since then, it's been great. We had a team remembrance meeting where we shared some words about the players we lost and some of the things we remembered about them, and that was great for all of us."

"It was different," said senior captain Ryan Baightel, of Wapakoneta, Ohio. "You're always nervous for the first game of the season. But I think we had different emotions this year. But just once you got out on the field, it was good to be out and back to playing, rather than just practicing, rather than just thinking about everything. Just finally play for once."

The Beavers found out that they would be attending the Red Sox-Dodgers game in the eighth inning of their game Thursday morning against Dominican University.

"This was a surprise," Baightel said. "We didn't know we were doing this. So we changed and came right over. We appreciate it. It's been a good time."

For many Major League players, the news of that accident hit close to home, long bus rides in the Minors and college not far from their memories.

"It was devastating," said Sox knuckleballer Tim Wakefield of hearing news of the crash a year ago.

Wakefield, who started Thursday's game, went to Florida Institute of Technology before being drafted by the Pirates in 1988, and he spent parts of seven seasons in the Minors.

"Hearing that kind of news, remembering back to my college days and taking bus trips, late nights, and just trusting that you're going to get there safely," Wakefield said. "It's just amazing that something like that could happen.

"It affects you, knowing that, hopefully, my son will play college sports or my daughter. It's unforutante that the crash had to happen and they lost [five] of their teammates. It's a sad story."

Wakefield was on his way out of the clubhouse, where the Bluffton players, some still in their uniforms, others wearing their purple team T-shirts, waited. Most held baseballs for Sox players to autograph.

Just another bit of normalcy.

"I think everybody holds onto them [the teammates who were killed] in their own way," Baightel said, "but it gets you through days and gets you through the season in your own way."

Maureen Mullen is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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