Off The Wall: The Earthquake Series

Steve Skinner’s living room is lined with old copies of Sports Illustrated. One by one, he’s taking them Off the Wall.

“Hi Dad.  Are you watching the World Series?”.

I remember the day and moment as if it had occurred only yesterday simply because I had never seen something like it before, and I haven’t seen anything like it since.

“No, why?  Is it a good game?”

“I think they just had an earthquake.”

Throughout our history we have been reminded time and again how life trumps sport. This was just such a moment, and the October 30th, 1989 Sports Illustrated that hangs on my wall is one of more than a few issues decorating the family room that reminds us how insignificant a sporting competition is when compared to all that encompasses our mortality.

That year, the World Series was supposed to be special for other reasons. It marked the first time in 33 seasons that two teams from the same metropolitan area were meeting for the world championship, and featured the powerful Oakland A’s of the American League who were led by “Bash Brothers” Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco (oh how naive we were then).  The National League champion San Francisco Giants came into the series riding the shoulders of Will “the thrill” Clark, Matt Williams and a couple of pitchers in the twilight of their careers: Goose Gossage and Rick Reuschel. The promos for the championship called it the “Bart” series (for Bay Area Rapid Transit), “The Battle of the Bay”, and the “Bay Bridge Series”.

The earthquake temporarily halted the series and defined it forever

After October 17th, it would come to be known as the “Earthquake Series”.

I usually recall details of the World Series that I have witnessed during the course of my life, and can often tell you some of the key participants names, who won, and even what plays or players made the difference in deciding the outcome. I’m a die-hard Yankees fan, but even more of a baseball fan so things like that come easy to me.

Until I researched the 1989 series and re-read the articles in the issue of the SI on my wall, my memories of that season’s title clash were restricted to Al Michaels’ and Tim McCarver’s broadcast being interrupted by the earthquake, and the horrible aftermath. I remember calling my dad to see if he was watching so that he could validate what I was seeing on the TV set in front of me, and I remember following the news for the next two weeks as real life-or-death dramas played out in front of cameras in the stricken city.

I didn’t remember who won or lost (the A’s ended up sweeping the Giants 4 games to none) , or who played (Dave Stewart was named MVP). That information had faded into the background.

The photograph by John Iacono that adorns the cover of my magazine shows Giants pitcher Kelly Downs carrying his 11 year-old nephew Billy Kehl in the moments following the ‘quake. It clearly captures the emotions and concerns of the moment, and shows us that while baseball players are often looked at as over-paid and selfish people who play a game for a living, deep inside they are just like us – people with families that they care deeply about.

Ron Fimrite’s article describes what it was like being in the ball park on that day.  At the time the earthquake occurred, not many in the stadium – including Fimrite – realized the magnitude of what had happened.  He writes:

“The entire stadium was reeling, and I watched as the television sets mounted on stands above the press tables swayed like giant cobras. “We’re having a quake,” I said with the studied nonchalance of a Bay Area native. When the rumbling finally ceased, some reporters, apparently regarding me as the resident disaster expert, asked what I thought this one would measure on the Richter scale. “Oh, maybe 5.4,” I said, arriving at a figure which would indicate a tremor that was significant, but hardly, as it were, earthshaking. “Five-four, max.”

That guess, I was soon to learn, was every bit as accurate as estimating Ty Cobb‘s career batting average at .225.”

Originally thought to be "just another quake", the 1989 earthquake left thousands homeless and lives destroyed

Like other members of the media sent to cover the game at Candlestick Park on that day, Fimrite’s assignment clearly changed the moment the earth shook and baseball became nothing more than an activity postponed until life would be ready for it again. His article tells of the bus ride from the park back to his neighborhood after the earthquake and seeing the broken dreams, and buildings, along the way. He also writes of how in the darkest of moments – like Kelly Downs in the cover photo – people rise to the occassion.

” While our trip along Third was without violent incident, it was more than a little eerie, and even frightening, because all the lights were out. Downtown was even stranger, in an almost impenetrable darkness, recalling for me the blackouts of World War II during which, as a boy, I would peer excitedly from under the window shades in search of Japanese bombers. As we drove along, I could make out shards of glass coating the sidewalks. Entire blocks were cordoned off, and I could see fallen masonry in the street. Pedestrians—some not knowing where to go, others with no means of getting anywhere—huddled on street corners. Our driver, a true Samaritan, dropped his passengers off at hotels all over town and even took me within a block of my own candlelit apartment.”

As I write this the San Francisco Giants lead the Detroit Tigers three games to none in the World Series. If they complete out the title win, it will be their second championship in three seasons (ironic how during Barry Bond’s “juicy” career, the team didn’t win any – alas, that is an article for another day). They play in a different stadium now, and their city has long since healed from the wounds of the 1989 quake, but the scars and lessons of that day will always remain. Sixty three people lost their lives then, and literally thousands were injured and left homeless.

Life has moved on and baseball has turned its focus to yet another October classic. If you are like me, and your favorite team ends its season on the losing end in October, remember that there are much bigger things in life than a game played with a bat and a ball. I only need to look back 23 years to a phone call to my dad and a series between two teams I normally don’t root for to remind myself of that.

Steve Skinner writes for TheFanManifesto. He can be followed on twitter at @oswegos1.  The entire FanMan team can be followed on twitter at @TheFanManifesto, or liked on facebook by clicking here.

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