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Bluffton players find solace at Jacobs

Bluffton players find solace at Jacobs

CLEVELAND -- Brandon Freytag stepped out of the visiting bullpen and onto the outfield warning track at Jacobs Field, mouth agape and eyes aglow.

Like the rest of his Bluffton University baseball teammates, he whipped out his camera, trying to capture every nuance of this special all-access tour of the Indians' ballpark.

"This," Freytag said, "is a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

And an experience, the Indians hope, will help soften the pain of what happened to the Bluffton boys in the early morning hours of March 2.

About 5:38 a.m. that fateful day, Freytag woke up in a standing position. Diesel fumes filled his nostrils, the sound of screaming filled his ears and, all too soon, the stillness of death would fill his eyes.

"I thought it was a dream," he said. "The whole time I was thinking, 'I'm ready to wake up now.' But I never did."

It was not a dream, but a real-life nightmare.

The bus carrying the Bluffton team to a tournament in Sarasota, Fla., had gone up a left-lane exit ramp that dead-ends on a bridge over Interstate 75 in Atlanta. The bus plummeted off the overpass and crashed down on the major highway below.

In a daze, Freytag busted through an emergency hatch and called 911. What he remembers most is the sight of a line of cars sitting on the southbound lanes of Interstate 75 and people rushing toward the scene of the accident, in which five players, the driver and his wife were all killed, and many others were seriously injured.

Five months later, sudden swerves in the car still get Freytag's heart beating a little faster.

"I was a huge roller-coaster fan," he said, "and I don't think I could ever ride in one again."

These are the scars Freytag and the other survivors will, no doubt, carry with them for years.

Still, the aftermath of the accident that shook their lives and souls has not been without its moments that reveal the inherent good in the world.

As news of the tragedy reached the airwaves, cards and letters came pouring into the tiny campus at Bluffton -- a Mennonite-affiliated school of about 1,150 students in northwest Ohio -- from all corners of the country.

Then came the equipment donation from the Indians to replace the items lost in the crash. Next, the invitation for some of the surviving players to be guests of honor at the College World Series. Finally, the donations to a fund that seeks to create a permanent monument to those who died -- students Tyler Williams, David Betts, Scott Harmon, Cody Holp and Zach Arend, the bus driver, Jerome Neimeyer, and his wife, Jean -- at the newly named Bluffton University Memorial Field.

"We're totally overwhelmed," said Bluffton head coach James Grandey, who suffered a fractured ankle and multiple broken bones in his face in the accident. "If we've learned anything, it's that there's a lot of good people in the world. A lot of great people."

On July 28, the latest show of support to the Bluffton squad, the Indians had Grandey and the boys over at The Jake for a luncheon with manager Eric Wedge and his coaching staff, assistant general manager Chris Antonetti and several Tribe players.

Following lunch, the group of 25 Bluffton players, four coaches and athletic director Phil Talavinia were escorted to the basement of the ballpark. They received a complete tour of the Indians' clubhouse, including the indoor batting cages, trainer's room and weight room, with their cameras clicking all the while.

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"Hey coach," senior first baseman Greg Sigg yelled to Grandey at the weight-room stop, "this might actually motivate me to lift!"

In the ballpark's press interview room, Wedge, Antonetti and bench coach Jeff Datz sat the Beaver players down for a talk that could inspire them in other ways. They explained the ins and outs of a Major League operation -- from the process behind trades and free-agent signings, to the construction of a lineup, to the value of having a scouting report.

It was invaluable insight to a group of young men with a keen interest in the game.

Senior Tim Kay, an all-region pitcher and designated hitter for Bluffton, was particularly intrigued by the in-depth discussion. A sports management major, Kay is interning in the front office of the Triple-A Rochester Red Wings this summer, and he made the drive all the way from northern New York specifically to be a part of the Jacobs Field tour.

"I wasn't going to miss this," Kay said. "I'd do it again."

For the Indians, giving the Bluffton crew a rare glimpse into their inner workings was something of a civic duty -- an opportunity to fulfill the obligation that comes with being at the forefront of the baseball community.

It's an opportunity the Cincinnati Reds also capitalized on earlier this summer, and one the Detroit Tigers will take advantage of in August, by giving Bluffton a similar all-access pass.

When Tribe manager Eric Wedge first heard about the Bluffton tragedy while sitting at his desk at the Indians' Spring Training home in Winter Haven, Fla., he knew his club had to do something to help. And he hoped the team's visit assisted the healing process in some small way.

"They have to rally around each other, which they've done," Wedge said of the Bluffton players. "They've got to go on with their life. Hopefully a day like this helps them keep moving forward."

Moving forward hasn't always been easy for the Bluffton team. Not long after the accident, Talavinia sat down with school president James Harder to discuss whether to cancel the 2007 season. Very quickly, that idea was dismissed. The games had to go on in order for the healing to begin.

Of course, with a makeshift lineup on their scorecard and grief in their hearts, the Bluffton players didn't have the best of seasons. The team finished 5-19 overall.

"It was tough," junior catcher Curtis Schroeder said. "With all the injuries and stuff, we didn't play as well as we could have. But at least we were out there."

Junior utility man Mike Ramthun, whose body was crushed in the accident, was told by doctors that he had no chance of being out there on the field in '07. But with a dedicated rehab program and the support of his tight-knit teammates, he made it back for the last six games of the season, getting a base hit in his emotional first at-bat.

"After the accident, I relied on the team a lot," Ramthun said. "Not once was anyone negative toward me about coming back to play baseball. Anything any one of these guys could have done to help me, they would have done it. It meant a lot to me.

"It's not like we weren't close before the accident, but it made us grateful for what we do have together."

What they had together was an experience that elicited grins out of the grieving. It was baseball that had brought the Bluffton boys together on that horrific March morning. And now, it's baseball that's helping to heal their wounded hearts.

Standing near the cage as the Indians took batting practice before their game against the Twins, Freytag, a senior right-hander, was reflecting on the emotional trials of the last few months. He saw his teammates smiling and laughing, enjoying the simple beauty that the game can give.

"It's not the way you want to have this moment," Freytag said. "But you're having it, so you want to get the most out of it."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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