When the earth moved the Series

OTL San Francisco Talkback 10/17 (6:58)

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the massive earthquake that hit the San Francisco Bay Area just before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. Bob Ley talks with former A's pitcher Dave Stewart, and Dr. James Betts about their experience that day. (6:58)

They used to play an evacuation video before every Giants game at Candlestick Park. On the hazy, small, barely visible scoreboard screen, arrows urged spectators toward their "orderly line" of safety in the unlikely -- they always included the word "unlikely" -- case of an emergency.

In California, while driving on bridges or walking under overpasses or sitting in enormous structures like Candlestick, we know there's really only one kind of emergency: earthquake. We have become walking seismometers, able to feel a tremor and immediately dismiss it as a "3" or a "2," as unworthy of serious concern as a romance novel. And when it hits like thunder and pitches side to side -- as it did when a 6.0 woke my town in the dead of night on Aug. 24 this year -- we know the difference. For a few seconds, as the house creaks and rocks and the street lights sway, the unthinkable becomes possible: Is this The Big One?

As someone who grew up in the Bay Area and spent quite a few frigid summer nights in Candlestick, I generally ignored the specifics of the evacuation video. But I can remember looking at the impressive amount of concrete spread out in all directions -- especially the sweet scalloped overhang ringing the upper deck -- and wondering what would happen if it all folded in on itself. Unlike Nebraskans who seem to accept tornado warnings as a fact of life, Californians shove earthquakes to a distant corner of the brain. We think about them only when they are happening or when someone -- the Candlestick Evacuation Video Crew, for instance -- brings them to our attention.

But then there we were, watching the opening to the third game of the 1989 World Series on television, when Tim McCarver started recapping Dave Parker's drive into the right-field corner in Game 2 and how Candy Maldonado hesitated before throwing late to second base while Jose Canseco crossed home plate with a run. Even now, watching it over, knowing everything we know about what happened immediately afterward, the temptation is too great:

Wait a second. Did Jose Uribe's tag get there ahead of Parker? Was he really safe? Would that have changed anything?

And then something weird happens to the feed and you're driven back into reality. The picture is beginning to break up as Al Michaels cuts in and says, "I'll tell you what ... we're having an earth ..."

The Loma Prieta earthquake, which happened 25 years ago at 5:04:15 p.m. PT on Oct. 17, 1989, reached a magnitude of 6.9 and lasted 17 seconds that felt like a month. It caused 63 deaths and more than $6 billion worth of damage. A piece of the upper deck of the Bay Bridge crumpled to the lower deck. A mile-long section of Interstate 880 -- the double-decked Cypress Structure -- pancaked during rush hour. Fires raged in San Francisco's Marina District. The sports angle cowered by comparison.

And yet, news of the quake reached the world through sports. The Giants and the A's were in the World Series -- how weird was that? -- and the iconic moment of a tragedy became a baseball game that wasn't played. ESPN, an eager 10-year-old at the time, had a generator in its center-field location, allowing it to stay on the air and give some of the only on-the-scene reports from a blacked-out city. The Goodyear blimp, hired by ABC to provide aerial shots of the ballpark, became a vehicle for documentary footage. Without baseball, who knows what we would have known?

There is so much lore surrounding the event. A geologist -- a guy whose touchy-feely predictions were seen as potentially panic-inducing by the major news outlets -- predicted the quake a week earlier in an interview with a reporter from the tiny Gilroy Dispatch. Willie Mays almost didn't come to Candlestick that night because he didn't like the way the hot, thick air felt in the city that day. In the clubhouse waiting for the game to start, Giants starter Don Robinson was getting his knee taped and outfitted with a brace he liked to call "The Shopping Cart" when the training room walls began to undulate.

The best description of the earthquake came from Giants pitcher -- and now broadcaster -- Mike Krukow, who said it felt like a 600-pound gopher had rolled in from behind the right-field fence.

The game was postponed, and in the days that followed, in candlelit hotel ballrooms, commissioner Fay Vincent talked about the insignificance of "our modest little game." It was a nice touch, cognizant of the wider situation while awaiting the proper moment to get back to business. There was no guarantee the Series would resume, so when it did -- 10 days later, when Candlestick took its well-deserved bow -- it represented one of the few instances in sports when the word "cathartic" actually fit.

Games 3 and 4 were repeats of Games 1 and 2. The Giants had to face Dave Stewart and Mike Moore all over again, which meant it wasn't really a seven-game series, but more like a pair of two-game series, and the Giants weren't built to compete with the A's under those -- or maybe any -- parameters. The A's were the better team regardless of schedule, but the Giants of '89 will go to their graves believing they'd have made a better showing if they'd been able to get deeper into the Oakland rotation.

No matter, though, because the highlight of the 2½-week World Series came before Game 3 was finally played, when the cast of "Beach Blanket Babylon" -- an only-in-San Francisco, cheesiest-of-the-cheesy operation -- sang "San Francisco" and everyone sang along with them. Fans sang, reporters sang, players sang -- cynicism, briefly, was dead.

I was 25 years old, immune to just about everything but my own ambition, and I stood there in the third deck -- beneath those deathly scallops -- and sang off-key and choked back tears. Nobody could get too worked up about the baseball, about who won or who lost or how. It felt like the players -- especially the Giants, who stayed in the city during the break while the A's worked out in Phoenix -- felt the same way. Baseball was just a symbol, a diversion, a reminder of something that seemed important not all that long ago. It was a way of continuing, of acknowledging and moving on. It was unfinished business.

It was also a reminder -- in much the same way as the Yankees' 2001 postseason was in the shadow of 9/11 -- that there's no shame in caring about something frivolous.

After all, where else can 60,000 people get together and sing their hearts out?

It's easy to say that sports can provide a temporary salve, that they can represent normalcy and hope in a time of chaos. On that day 25 years ago, when the earth shook and the ballpark held firm, baseball became something that people could get their arms around, something they could care about and scream about and sing about. Baseball didn't matter -- didn't matter at all -- but at the same time it mattered more than anything else.