John McGrath

John McGrath: 25 years later, World Series earthquake still a big deal

I forget what he looked like, this guy who knew everything. All I remember is his voice, booming from the row behind me before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.

“No big deal,” he assured. “All these out-of-towners have no idea what a real earthquake feels like. We’ve got a bunch of rookies around here. Rookies!”

No big deal? I took the home-schooled seismologist at his word. He obviously lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and I was, well, an out-of-towner whose closest encounter with a natural disaster was seeing a funnel cloud from five miles away.

The rumbling at Candlestick Park — it lasted about 10 seconds — was akin to an amusement park ride for the little ones not tall enough to qualify for the roller coaster. It had done no damage to the temporary benches installed to accommodate the media in the upper deck. No cups were spilled, no papers were scattered, and when the shaking subsided, the fans cheered.

San Francisco, I thought to myself, is one wacky place. People are so used to earthquakes around here, they applauded. I went back to filling out my scorecard. No big deal.

Moments later I noticed a man and a woman, maybe 65, heading down the stairs with their souvenir bags and windbreakers. The ghostly look in their eyes was my first clue that perhaps the brief, amusement-park rumbling was a very big deal. .

I turned on my transistor radio and got a second clue.

“Oh, my God,” a woman was saying. “We've just had an earthquake.”

The Loma Prieta earthquake, which killed 63 people and injured more than 3,700, occurred 25 years ago Friday at 5:04 p.m — precisely four minutes after ABC began its telecast of the World Series game between the Oakland A’s and San Francisco Giants.

As then-commissioner Fay Vincent put it a day later, while announcing that the Series would be postponed indefinitely, the catastrophe reduced baseball's championship to a “modest little event.”

And yet baseball — specifically, a World Series between Oakland and San Francisco — prevented more fatalities. Bay Area freeways and bridges are jammed during the 5 p.m. rush-hour peak, but traffic was unusually light on the afternoon of Oct. 17, 1989. Tens of thousands of commuters left work early in order to watch Game 3 in its entirety.

The initially casual response to the calamity by fans at Candlestick Park also prevented fatalities. If a major quake were to jolt San Francisco before a 2014 World Series game at AT&T Park, the scope of the disaster is understood in the nanosecond it takes to transmit a text message.

Such a scenario brings a word to mind: Panic

More than 62,000 tickets were sold for Game 3 of the 1989 World Series. Between the late arrivals who never got to their seats and fans oblivious to the situation — beer taps at the ‘Stick continued to flow — there was some order to the mass exodus.

Although I wasn’t familiar with earthquakes, I wasn’t a rookie around Candlestick Park, a destination San Francisco cabbies answer with a frown. They’d sooner swim to Alcatraz than venture into that neighborhood for a passenger pick-up.

Once the game was postponed, I found a bus in the parking lot and climbed aboard.

I had no idea where the bus was going, only that it was going. I was surprised to find a seat, and even more surprised to see the person in the seat next to me: Buffalo News sports columnist Jerry Sullivan, a former college roommate and among my dearest friends.

When you’re bewildered, and your heart is beating so hard you can hear it — OK, I was scared — it never hurts to find an empty bus seat next to the guy primarily responsible for your inability to graduate with your college classmates.

The aftermath, 25 years later, remains a power-blackout blur. Sirens throughout the night … A flashlight trip, up a staircase, to a fifth-story hotel room … Vincent conducting a press conference, the following day, in a dark hotel ballroom illuminated by candles. The candles turned the mood of the press conference into something like a church service, and maybe it was.

The World Series resumed 10 days later, and that part is a blur, too. The A’s, who had won both games in Oakland, went on to a four-game sweep. They chose not to celebrate with Champagne in the clubhouse.

As World Series’ go, it was both the least interesting and the most compelling. If nothing else, it taught this Chicago-area native a lesson:

When the earth beneath you rumbles, when a force beyond your control takes over, it is never not a big deal.