The rest of the
campus was asleep when the Bluffton University baseball players converged on
their field at 8 a.m. last Sept. 30. It was a typical fall morning, needles of
sunlight poking through the changing leaves, the occasional train whistle
piercing the silence. The 40 players had gotten up early for the 50-inning
game, an annual intrasquad rite that their young coach had inaugurated when he
took the job a few years back. In truth the game didn't span 50 official
innings. Each hitter started with a 3--2 count, and each team batted three
innings at a time. The event lasted from the morning until the sky could no
longer hold daylight.
A few residents of
Bluffton, a village of 4,000 in a pastoral pocket of northwest Ohio, stopped by
to watch an inning or two. So did a few curious students. But mostly the game
was a team-building exercise, a means of getting acquainted with the freshmen
and their families. With few exceptions the players' hometowns were within an
hour's drive of campus, so it was an easy trip for their folks. After the 25th
inning everyone took a long lunch break, digging into monstrous sandwiches from
the Subway alongside the interstate.
The Beavers were
coming off a 17--21 season, successful by recent standards and with luck the
start of a turnaround. The baseball coaches believed that, as a hand-painted
sign in the Bluffton basketball locker room put it, TALENT IS IMPORTANT;
DEPENDABILITY IS CRITICAL. �But particularly with no seniors, 29-year-old
head coach James Grandey figured team chemistry would be important for the
Beavers to continue improving. The guys seemed to get along well; the coaches
would often run into a pack of them headed out for milkshakes at the Dari
Freeze or wings at Luke's. "Every coach tries to emphasize that the players
like one another," says Grandey, "but you can only lead them so far.
It's really up to them."
The 50-inning game
served another vital purpose: It was the baseball program's big annual
fund-raiser. Every year the team spent spring break in Florida, where it played
as many as nine games (a full quarter of its schedule), and the money raised
helped pay expenses. The 2007 opener would be in Sarasota against Eastern
Mennonite University, which like Bluffton is affiliated with the Mennonite
The Beavers used
to split into eight or nine cars and caravan to Florida, but in Grandey's first
season, 2004, they weren't halfway to Cincinnati before he said, "Never
again. Next year we're taking a bus." Problem was, bus transportation cost
an additional eight grand. That's how the 50-inning game originated. If your
aunt or neighbor or pastor pledged a dime an inning, that was five bucks.
"Everyone finds 20 sponsors," says Tim Kay, a junior pitcher. "It
adds up." At Ohio State, a two-hour drive from Bluffton, the baseball team
flies to Florida for spring games on a charter. The Division III Beavers were
playing a marathon game to raise money just so 28 of them could ride a motor
coach for 20 hours.
afternoon the sky started to spit rain. "We figured, by the 42nd inning it
counts as a complete game," says Grandey. Still, everyone had fun. And the
team raised enough cash to take a bus to Florida for the third year in a row.
"Other people don't always understand," says Ryan Baightel, a junior
shortstop and the team captain. "Once our season ends, the Florida trip is
all we think about for the next nine months."
baseball field is just a long fly ball from I-75. And as 28 players prepared to
head for southern sunshine on Thursday night, March 1, none would have guessed
that 600 miles down that same river of asphalt their lives would change
forever. They said a prayer for a safe journey and then boarded a motor coach
bound for Sarasota. The departure was delayed when the bus's DVD system went on
the fritz, potentially depriving the team of Talladega Nights and The Departed,
but Coach Grandey--"Handy Grandey!" the players yelled--fixed it.
At 4:30 on Friday
morning, an hour outside Atlanta, the bus stopped so that a new driver could
take over. A few of the players were awake to greet 65-year-old Jerry Niemeyer
and his wife, Jean, who left Ohio in their own car before the ballplayers
departed, got some sleep at a motel along the way and met the bus just over the
Tennessee-Georgia line. The Niemeyers lived 10 miles from Bluffton, and Jerry,
retired from a plant job with Philips Electronics, drove school teams on road
trips. Jean had recently stopped working after 23 years at McDonald's and
sometimes tagged along with her husband. Just as it was for the players, the
Florida trip was a treat for the Niemeyers. They could escape the northern Ohio
chill. Wearing purple-and-white Bluffton caps, they would sit in the bleachers
or on lawn chairs and cheer the Beavers, each of whom they knew by name.
By 5:30 a.m. the
bus was cruising through Atlanta at 65 mph in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane.
The players, their four coaches and the student manager were in various states
of sleep. Some lay stretched out on the floor. Some were sprawled across rows
of seats, partly suspended over the aisle. Others balled team jackets into
pillows and pressed their heads against the windows. According to reports, only
six seats--the driver's seat, the jump seat next to it and the four seats in
the first row--were equipped with seat belts.
It was Jean's
shriek that woke everyone. Investigators believe that her husband unwittingly
took a left exit thinking that it was the continuation of the HOV lane. The
exit wasn't particularly well marked, and, according to subsequent reports,
many accidents had occurred on that ramp over the years. As the bus reached the
top of the ramp, where it intersected with an overpass running perpendicular to
the interstate, Niemeyer was still driving at highway cruising speed. Trying to
turn at the last instant, he hit the retaining wall across the overpass with
such force that four passengers were ejected through the windshield and landed
on the bridge. The bus crashed through the fence on top of the wall, rolled
over in midair--flinging the remaining passengers around like socks in a
dryer--and fell 30 feet, landing on its left side in the middle of southbound
I-75. "I woke up as soon as the bus hit the wall," freshman A.J.
Ramthun said. "Next thing I knew I looked out and saw the road coming up at