Memories of bus crash still fresh for Braves minor leaguers

The death last week of 29-year-old former Braves pitcher Tommy Hanson was a reminder of how fleeting life can be. But for a group of Braves minor leaguers, something occurred last summer that already made them appreciate that axiom.

A bus carrying the Braves’ advanced Single-A Carolina Mudcats team ran off a road into a ditch and flipped on its side during the early morning hours May 12 in Columbus County, N.C. The harrowing accident sent seven players and an athletic trainer to the hospital and eventually landed six players on the disabled list, including top pitching prospect Lucas Sims and third base/outfield prospect Dustin Peterson.

Pitcher Tyler Brosius missed the rest of the season with a concussion and unspecified arm injuries, while the others eventually returned from the DL. The injuries forced the Braves to scramble and bring up players from low-A Rome to fill in, setting back both teams for some time.

Still, the Braves and Mudcats, who had 33 of their players and staff members on the ill-fated bus, felt extremely fortunate no one was killed or severely injured.

“I had my first DL stint and went through rehab for a hip contusion,” said Sims, who spent six weeks on the DL, then pitched better after returning than he had before the accident. “I just had to make sure it was all OK because of all the muscles that are connected through there. But it was more about, you learn that there’s bigger things in life. It could’ve been worse. Everyone was OK.

“You look back at (the accident) and one weird movement, something could have happened and my career could have been over.”

Sims, a first-round draft pick out of Brookwood High School in 2012, is among a group of those bus-crash players who’ve been back playing together in the Arizona Fall League for the past month. The Braves sent seven players — pitchers Sims, Dan Winkler, Mauricio Cabrera, Andrew Thurman, outfielder Connor Lien, shortstop Johan Camargo, catcher Joe Odom — to play for the AFL’s Peoria Javelinas.

The only one of the group that didn’t play for the Mudcats last season was Winkler, a Rule 5 draft pick who made his major league debut in September after coming back from Tommy John elbow surgery. Most of the others were sent to the AFL for more at-bats or innings after having their season disrupted by the bus accident.

The crash, which happened at about 3:45 a.m. while most on the bus were asleep, is a frequent topic of discussion among the Mudcats contingent in Arizona.

“I was fortunate enough to just come out of there with a couple of bumps and bruises,” Lien said. “We were all fortunate enough to get out of there alive. It reminded me of baseball and how quickly it can humble you. You can be on top of the world one day and be out of baseball the next, so it just makes you appreciate every moment we have between the lines.”

Winkler has shared a rental house in Arizona with Sims, Odom and Thurman. At 25, Winkler is a few years older than most others in the AFL. He’s been impressed by the maturity of the players who were on that bus and thinks what they went through together impacted them.

“They talk about it a lot,” Winkler said. “The mental aspect, just missing that much time and having to be here (in Arizona) now, it is a grind. Especially for guys who’ve gone through a whole season, it’s a grind. Mentally, to just get over that hump, I think it’s very impressive. They talk about (the accident) a lot, how scary it was.”

Odom said, “It was crazy how quick it happened. We were standing on the side of the road and guys were saying how lucky we all were. We had a couple of guys like Brosius who was pretty injured, and some guys that we really put it into perspective that we were all very lucky just to come out with minor scrapes and bruises.

“It made you realize, this is a great opportunity that we have, and it can be taken away in a split second. So, make the most of it while we’re here.”

Most players were asleep and woke only when the bus had left the road and was rolling on its side.

“(Sims) said he was coming out of the restroom when the bus just flipped,” said Javelinas pitching coach Gabe Luckert, the Braves’ low-A Rome pitching coach last season. “He didn’t know what was going on, and all of a sudden. … He said, ‘I thought we were going down somewhere.’ It’s something you don’t want to go through.”

Sims recalled the accident and the immediate aftermath.

“I called (my parents) and said, hey, don’t freak out, I’m OK, but I’m in the hospital right now,” Sims said. “They hadn’t heard about it because it was so late. I got to the hospital probably about 4:30, 5 in the morning. It was a mess.”

Some players described it as a surreal, confusing, terrifying moment. Six months later, the memories remain fresh. As does their belief that they were more than fortunate the accident didn’t end tragically.

“My head was against a window on the side of the bus the crash was on,” Odom said. “When I came up and came to, I was standing on dirt because the window and everything had blown out. It was a wild experience, for sure. I actually came away with nothing (no injuries). The wind got knocked out of me and I had contusions, but other than that it was nothing.

“So, like I said, definitely God’s hand in that.”

Said Luckert: “I heard a story of Connor Lien, how when they flew out to the Fall League, Connor was scared to death. When they landed here, they asked him and he said, ‘I was trembling, I kept thinking about that bus crash in Carolina.’ But Connor was the one that told me, ‘Once we got out of the bus, we were like, OK, we’re alive. We get a second opportunity.’”