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November 2, 2010

Another Look

1989 World Series Earthquake

by Bob Hertzel

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It came without warning, as so many of the earth-shaking moments in World Series history have. One second there is relative calm, then Willie Mays makes his catch or Bill Mazeroski hits his home run and there is chaos.

This held true on an uncomfortably hot October afternoon in San Francisco.

It was October 17, 1989, my son’s 15th birthday. The clock read 5:04:15 Pacific Daylight Time.

We were gathered in the upper deck press room at Candlestick Park, pre-game preparations going on as usual. There may have been 30 of us in that makeshift press room, filling in lineups, talking on the phone, laughing and joking while waiting for Game Three to start between the Athletics and Giants.

That’s when the room began to shake. At first it was just a tremor, but then it began moving back and forth, the giant stadium actually creaking as it rocked one way, then the other.

Everything seemed to go silent, the same thought running through every mind: “My God, earthquake.”

It was too quick to be scared. As I looked across the room I even had to laugh, a riddle coming to mind: “How many sportswriters can you get crammed under a door jamb?”

The answer is about 20 of them, including the wide body Bill Conlin of the Philadelphia Daily News, who would later inform anyone who would listen that a door jamb is the safest place to be during an earthquake.

That, of course, brought an image to mind, Candlestick Park crumpled into a heap of concrete and wires, except for this single door jamb on the upper deck with the only 20 survivors untouched under it.

They say the earthquake that stopped the World Series lasted about 20 seconds and registered a 7.0 on the Richter Scale, but it seemed like it had lasted not seconds, but weeks. The aftershocks that would come did not help any.

As the rumbling came to a stop, we all looked at each other before walking outside. The stadium still stood, the sun still shone, the heat remained, and as we looked over the edge to the deck below, the fans remained calm in the beer line, as if nothing had happened at all.

We began talking to fans, mostly joking about the quake, unaware of the damage it had done around the Bay area, not knowing there were fires and 63 deaths and destruction everywhere. Relatively speaking, things were fine at Candlestick, though some big chunks of concrete had broken loose and the electricity went down.

Finally, we reached the field to talk to the players, who admitted that minutes earlier they were under the picnic table in the clubhouse. Players’ wives and young children had been brought onto the field, secure from any collapsing parts of the stadium.

We went upstairs and began to write our dispatches, learning as we wrote that the game had been postponed and there was destruction all around us. We were told they were evacuating the building and that we should pack up and leave.

I waited until the last possible moment, got a story out over one of the last phone lines in the area for some time, and headed for the buses that would bring us back downtown.

It was now dark, and with the destruction to the interstate, traffic was at a standstill. I got on a bus with Dick Gernert, the former Red Sox and Reds first baseman who had become one of the best major-league scouts for the New York Mets.

The going was slow through the dark back streets; it took a couple of hours to get downtown. Finally, the bus had gone as far as it could go, for the streets were barricaded. It let us off about a dozen blocks from the St. Francis Hotel in unbearable heat. It was so dark we had no idea we were even downtown.

We started walking toward the hotel. It was quiet, the sound of falling glass about the only thing to break the silence. There were no lights, people, or traffic. The roads were closed, the police having enforced a curfew to avoid roving bands of pillagers (or villagers, for that matter).

Halfway home we came across a hotel with a glass storefront. Two cars were angled toward the building, their headlights on, casting a weird shadow on what had to be the only bar in blocks that was operating.

Gernert and I grabbed a couple of beers, thanked the people, and headed on, our collars open, our briefcases in one hand, the cold beer in the other.

In many ways it was like a New York City night in the ‘30s or ‘40s, portable radios picking up the news, people sitting on their stoops, just as they did then during the Depression and World War II.

We reached the St. Francis hotel. No electricity, candles illuminating the lobby.

No electricity meant no elevator. My room was on the 17th floor. Gernert was on the sixth floor. We settled on his room.

It was stiflingly hot. We wanted to go out and find more beer but were told none would be out there.

We went anyway, running into a group of tourists out celebrating their first earthquake. They told us a Japanese restaurant was still open.

“And they have cold beer,” they said.

We found it, and the beer was the coldest, best-tasting brew ever. It was also the most expensive, as were the candles they sold us. Those candles were confiscated as we entered the St. Francis for fear of us starting a fire.

It would be a long, dark night of tossing and turning and wondering what the town would look like in the morning.

We were no longer baseball writers. Now we were covering a disaster, wandering around the city, seeing fires still blazing, buildings collapsed. We heard about the Bay Bridge and the expressway in Oakland that had collapsed.

Shelters had gone up around San Francisco. What amazed us all was the resiliency of the people we met, their houses destroyed but not their spirit. They would start over, they assured us. Then they wondered what they would do that day and the next, for nothing was open, and there was nowhere to go.

The only people who made out were the homeless, who suddenly had the shelters to house them and feed them. In every storm there is one bright cloud.

We wandered the city for a couple of days, the World Series on hold, and though the stories were gripping, it was a depressing, difficult time, one that would spread out for 10 days before a game would be played, everyone running low on patience, and even lower on cash.

It was time to replenish the cash and spirit. I flew to Las Vegas and waited for the word that the Series would resume.

It ended in four games, with Oakland beating San Francisco.

 The 63 people who weren’t around for the finish helps you understand just how big the World Series really is.  

Bob Hertzel is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Bob's other articles. You can contact Bob by clicking here

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