Spander: The day the Battle of the Bay was rocked

It began with more sound than fury, a rumbling as if every fan at Candlestick Park was stomping their feet. Up in the second deck, where tables had been knocked together to serve as an auxiliary press box, the man alongside choked out a question.

“What’s that?” asked Rob Matwick, now an executive with the Texas Rangers.

Twenty years ago, he was the public relations director for the Houston Astros. He had never experienced what he was about to experience. Neither had anyone.

“An earthquake,” I answered flippantly.

Then as the grandstand vibrated and the noise exploded, Matwick, panicky, gasped, “Is it a bad one?” Soberly, I responded, “Yeah, it’s bad.”

We know the date: Oct. 17, 1989. We know the time: 5:04 p.m. We know the setting: Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and A’s. We know the result, dozens killed, billions of dollars in damage, a Richter reading of 6.9.

Candlestick, nicknamed the “The ninth blunder of the world,” by the late, great Herb Caen, was a terrible place for baseball. “Blow it up,” was one man’s slogan. But when that quake hit, loathed, belittled Candlestick held firm. As do the memories across two decades.

When the quake stopped, the chanting started, “Play ball, play ball.” But they could not play. Power was out in The City. They would not play. The A’s and Giants were scattering from the clubhouses onto the diamond, looking into the stands for loved ones.

The first two games of what was nicknamed the Bay Bridge Series had been won, easily, by the A’s in Oakland. Someone had hung a bed sheet sign from the upper deck at Candlestick before Game 3: “I am the Giant. I will be heard.”

What we heard was a giant of another sort. One that tumbled freeways and severed a section of the Bay Bridge. One that had journalists wondering whether the 86th World Series should be resumed, which it was 10 days later.

The A’s had dressed at the Coliseum and traveled to San Francisco by bus. The quake created chaos. There was a famous photo of Jose Canseco in his uniform, pumping gas somewhere down the Peninsula, the car having been driven over by his wife at the time.

That first night San Francisco was dark, without any lights. Hotel elevators didn’t run. Visiting sportswriters hiked up pitch-black stairwells. The day after the quake, a candlelit press conference with baseball commissioner Fay Vincent was held at the St. Francis Hotel on Powell Street.

A few days later, Joe DiMaggio appeared in the rubble of the Marina district, waiting in line with others, to check on a residence owned by his family.

Baseball resumed Friday, Oct. 27. Ceremonial pitches were thrown by 12 public servants and rescue workers, one of whom, Steve Whipple, had seen Buck Helm alive in the wreckage of the Nimitz Freeway.

We sang, “San Francisco open your Golden Gate.” Someone held a sign, “Most Valuable Park, Candlestick, No Crumble Under Pressure.”

The Series was back, if not for long. The A’s swept. They were champions. It almost didn’t matter. We were survivors. Which did matter.

Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. E-mail him at typoes@aol.com.

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