SAN FRANCISCO — It was 25 years ago this week. It was a warm Tuesday afternoon in the Bay Area. At Candlestick Park, 58,000 fans of the San Francisco Giants were getting ready for their first home World Series game in 27 years.
And then the earth shook. For an interminable 20 seconds. A few miles from the park, an elevated section of the Route 880 freeway collapsed and pancaked onto another stretch of highway. To the east, a huge panel of the Bay Bridge pavement dropped to the deck below. Across the area, 63 people died.
Sitting in the upper-deck auxiliary press box at Candlestick Park, I felt the keyboard moving under my fingertips and turned to my right, where two-time Globe Pulitzer Prize winner Stan Grossfeld immediately started snapping photos of terrified baseball fans holding their children and staring at the light towers that were swaying like palm trees.
It was a feeling of powerlessness, like getting caught in an unforgiving riptide. I wondered if the huge concrete bowl would succumb to this unnatural motion and crash down on the thousands seated below.
It was the nation’s worst earthquake since 1906 (6.9 on the Richter Scale) and it raged just minutes before the scheduled start of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series featuring the Giants and the cross-bay Oakland A’s. The A’s held a 2-0 series lead when the angry earth moved, and the Series was interrupted for 10 days before Oakland came back to win Games 3 and 4 at the Stick.
A quarter-century later, baseball’s postseason is back in San Francisco, where the Giants will play the St. Louis Cardinals on a warm Tuesday afternoon in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series.
The Giants have won two World Series in the last four years and long ago abandoned Candlestick in favor of their perfect downtown ballpark . . . but it’s impossible to be here this week and not remember what it was like when a natural disaster interrupted the Fall Classic in dramatic fashion.
It was a rough summer for the national pastime in 1989. On the 70th anniversary of the Black Sox scandal, new commissioner Bart Giamatti banned Pete Rose from baseball for gambling transgressions. Just a few weeks after punishing the game’s all-time hit leader, Giamatti — who’d been on the job for only five months — died of a heart attack while vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, and was succeeded by Fay Vincent. Vincent made all the hard decisions in the moments and days after the World Series earthquake.
It was obvious to all that there would be no game played on the night of the quake. Most electrical power was lost, and the ballplayers and fans were encouraged to evacuate the park in orderly fashion.
Emptying the press box was another matter.
I had been working on a boring feature about slugging Giants third baseman Matt Williams (now manager of the Nationals), who was being forced to move to shortstop.
But there were new stories to write after the game was postponed. New York Times legend Dave Anderson scribbled his story in longhand and prepared to dictate to his office while MLB officials urged (and eventually demanded) that we clear out of the park.
As I typed feverishly, hoping there would be a working phone line for transmission (no Internet in those days), another reporter walked by, looked at my screen, and asked, “How does it turn out? Do we die in the end?’’
With the Bay Bridge out, those of us staying in Berkeley had no way to drive back to our hotel. I found refuge in the dark lobby (limited electricity everywhere) of the Fisherman’s Wharf Marriott, where guests emptied the contents of their mini-bars and gathered around an auxiliary-powered big-screen projection of ABC’s post-quake coverage.
The next day, Vincent held a candlelight press conference on the third floor of the Westin St. Francis and announced that there would be no game Wednesday.
The Series would be interrupted for a full 10 days.
“It is a difficult time for San Francisco and the whole Bay Area,’’ said Vincent. “It is a great tragedy and it coincides with our modest little event.’’
The commissioner was asked if he had been bothered when the NFL played its full schedule of games two days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, and he said he did not remember being offended.
While the commissioner spoke in the dimly lit room, fires still smoldered in the Marina District as evacuated residents attempted to get permission to return to their homes. It was at a Red Cross shelter there that the intrepid Grossfeld took a photo of an unshaven, 74-year-old Joltin’ Joe DiMaggio, standing in line, trying to determine the whereabouts of his sister.
On Thursday, we were allowed back in the Stick, where the Giants took batting practice. The upper deck was still closed while safety inspections were being done, but I sneaked into the auxiliary press box to recover a jacket I’d left behind.
Like a bell-tower clock that always reads 5:30, the upper deck was an eerie space, frozen in time with filled-out scorecards, half-full cups of beer, and unswept peanut shells under the seats.
The Series did not resume until late the next week, and the A’s picked up where they left off, beating the Giants two more times to sweep the series. A’s manager Tony La Russa, now in the Hall of Fame, needed only two starting pitchers for the entire Series. Dave Stewart and Mike Moore each went twice. With 12 days of rest.
One of Grossfeld’s photos from the quake wound up on the cover of the Sacramento Bee, and a couple of weeks later, he got an angry call from the man in the photo who’d been captured looking terrified while he clung to his young child.
“It turned out that the guy had called in sick for work that day so that he could take his kid to the Series,’’ remembers Grossfeld. “Then his boss saw the photo and the guy got in trouble.’’
We all have our stories.
It’s easy to get swept up in moments like this. It always seems like the biggest thing ever. Until the next thing happens. Still, every 25 years or so, it’s worth taking a look back and remembering what it was like when the earthquake at the World Series was just about the biggest story there ever was.
Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com