THE SHAKING AND the apocalyptic noise began at 5:04 p.m. PST. It was 30 years ago today.
ABC was live on the air, just over four minutes into its broadcast. As the TV feed flickered out, Al Michaels could be heard saying, “I’ll tell you what! We’re having an earthquake!” Then, amid the chaos and confusion, he deadpanned, “Well, folks, that’s the greatest open in the history of television.” In the first few moments, some San Franciscans, who had experience with huge earthquakes, nervously made light of the situation. One writer, upon hearing it had registered 6.9 on the Richter scale, jokingly asked, “How did the Russian judge score it?”
The humor didn’t last.
The terrified looks on the faces of my colleagues as they fled the press box at Candlestick Park were unforgettable. The entire episode lasted 17 seconds, but it seemed like 17 minutes. Game 3 of the 1989 World Series was a few minutes from starting when the Loma Prieta earthquake rocked Northern California. It ravaged the Bay Area, killing 63, injuring 3,757 and causing roughly $6 billion in damage. It postponed the World Series for 10 days.
The Oakland Athletics went on to sweep the San Francisco Giants, but the series is now remembered because of the devastation, the fear and the strength of the people who survived. Not to be forgotten is the contribution of one of the stars of the series, Dave Stewart, a 21-game winner and eventual World Series MVP. Stewart’s work off the field would inspire the A’s to name their community service award after him.
But when the earthquake hit, on the evening of Oct. 17, 1989, Stewart didn’t feel or hear anything. Virtually everyone else did.
This is a story of that moment and what Stewart did next.
Terry Kennedy was the Giants’ starting catcher, a 33-year-old four-time All-Star near the end of his playing career. “When it stopped shaking,” Kennedy says now, “they played ‘We Will Rock You’ [on the public address system], and it was a big old joke … until we heard the reports.”
Massive damage had occurred all across the Bay Area. The upper deck of the Bay Bridge had crumpled to the lower deck. A 1¼-mile segment of the double-decker Cypress Street Viaduct along Interstate 880 had collapsed. The Marina District was on fire. People were dead.
Within an hour, the A’s and Giants were standing on the field, many of them with their families. Most every player had a chilling story to tell.
“My brother was a scout for the Giants. He was in the tent outside the Giants clubhouse. He said a couple of minutes before it hit, the police horses went crazy. They could feel it, sense it. They went bonkers,” Kennedy says. “I was sitting on the bench next to [hitting coach] Dusty [Baker]. I had just finished my running, and then came the noise. I’m from California, I’ve been through earthquakes, but nothing like this. The noise was so loud. It was like placing your ear on the ground next to a train track when the train goes by.
“I looked at the field, and the field was rolling, like a wave of water, two or three feet high. Dusty said, ‘Earthquake.’ I got out of the dugout immediately. I saw [teammate] Robby Thompson in the tunnel that leads to the field. It’s like a tomb in there. He jumped seven stairs at once just to get out. Then the edge of the stadium started to roll. I looked up at the loge level — I will never forget this — and there was a guy up there, with one foot on the window sill [of a loge box], and I could see the terror in his eyes. He was thinking about jumping just to get out of there. I thought, ‘Don’t do it, man. You will land on someone and kill them and kill yourself.'”
A’s shortstop Walt Weiss — 25 years old and one season removed from winning the American League Rookie of the Year award — was sprinting in the outfield “when I felt like I stepped in a giant hole on the field,” he says. “I had only played one game in my career at Candlestick. I knew it wasn’t a great field, but I thought, ‘There is no way there is a hole that size in the outfield.’ It was the ground, rippling.”
“I was running next to [teammate Jose] Canseco, and he told me, ‘I feel like I’m going to be sick.’ We were so disoriented without even knowing it. But an earthquake was the last thing on my mind. Lights were flickering, but we thought that’s what they did to get the crowd going at Candlestick. I was oblivious to it all. It took a good 10 minutes before we realized what was really going on.”
Dennis Eckersley, the Athletics’ future Hall of Fame closer, was in the middle of one of the greatest strings of seasons by any reliever in history.
At that moment, he was also in the middle of coiffing his hair in the clubhouse bathroom.
“I was looking in the mirror. I didn’t want to wear a hat because I wanted to look really good, to look hot, for the pregame introductions,” he says. “As soon as it hit, it was like someone had driven a train through the clubhouse door. It was that loud. I knew right away: This is an earthquake. Well, we got out of there — I mean, pronto. I went out to the parking lot first. It was hazy. It was eerie. Then I went in that long tunnel that led to the field. It was dark in that tunnel, a long, dark tunnel. When I got to the field, I was in denial: ‘No, this can’t be happening now. It’s the World Series. This is all going to go away soon.'”
It took a little longer for Stewart to realize what had happened.
He was joking around with teammates Dave Henderson and Dave Parker when he was ordered out onto the field. “I heard nothing. I felt nothing. I had no clue, no idea,” he says. “Then Harvey, our clubhouse manager, said that everyone had to get out on the field immediately. We didn’t know what had happened. We went onto the field, and it was the weirdest thing. I couldn’t hear a sound. It was so eerie. But the sound was still unmistakable: It was the sound of fear. You could feel it looking at all the fans in the stands.”
“The edge of the stadium started to roll. I looked up at the loge level — I will never forget this — and there was a guy up there, with one foot on the window sill, and I could see the terror in his eyes. He was thinking about jumping just to get out of there. I thought, ‘Don’t do it, man. You will land on someone and kill them and kill yourself.'”
On the home side of the field, Giants reliever Jeff Brantley found himself sprinting — and stumbling — out of the dugout. When the quake struck, he was walking with teammate Mike LaCoss. They had just turned the corner out of the clubhouse and into the tunnel that led to the San Francisco dugout.
“All of a sudden we thought, ‘What the heck was that?’ It was so loud. It all happened in a split second,” he says. “I was standing right next to him, but Mike couldn’t hear me. I couldn’t hear him. But we both realized that we had to get out of that tunnel. So we started running to the only sign of daylight. The emergency lighting was out. We were tripping over everything in that tunnel. My teammates looked at us when we got out and said, ‘Where the heck have you been!?”‘
Each news report from around the Bay Area described more devastation. Major League Baseball officials huddled, and within an hour, Game 3 was postponed, with no idea when — or if — it would be made up. Then came the issue of evacuating thousands of people from the ballpark. The emergency lighting had gone out, and it was getting dark. “If it had been a night game,” Kennedy says, “it would have been total chaos.”
A’s infielder Mike Gallego tried to enter the clubhouse to retrieve his beloved glove from his locker but was stopped by a security guard, who said, “You can’t go back in there. It might collapse!” Gallego ignored him, entered the pitch-black clubhouse and somehow found the glove.
Writers who had returned to the press box were ordered by security to vacate it. It was too dangerous. But most refused.
“You can arrest me later,” one writer said. “But I am finishing my story!”
“We went on to the field, and it was the weirdest thing. I couldn’t hear a sound. It was so eerie. But the sound was still unmistakable: It was the sound of fear.”
Then there was the massive challenge of getting people to their homes and hotels. Many people who had driven to the game had to leave their cars in the Candlestick parking lot, but many cars had been damaged when the concrete rolled from the quake. Packed city buses transported thousands of people. For a panicked situation, it was remarkably under control and civil, as if everyone recognized that they were cramped and uncomfortable but still alive. When the bus I was on arrived in downtown San Francisco after midnight, the entire city was dark, no lights anywhere, like in a disaster movie. A bunch of writers spent the night sleeping on the floor of a hotel ballroom.
“LaCoss had an early cell phone. You know, the ones that charged like $8 a minute,” Kennedy says. “We all called our homes to tell the babysitters that we weren’t going to be home for a while. My house was 8 miles from the ballpark. It took three-and-a-half hours to get home.”
For Weiss, the scene driving home was surreal, “real ‘Twilight Zone’ kind of stuff,” he says. Adding to his concerns: Members of his family had been on their way to the ballpark at the time of the earthquake.
“My wife, who was then my fiancée, and my dad never made it to the park. They were driving. They said it felt like they got four flat tires at the same time,” he says. “The team bus went from Candlestick back to the Coliseum, but it took about four hours to make that trip — normally, that’s a 30-minute trip. Along the way, we saw, like, end-of-the-world-type stuff. Total gridlock. It was so eerie. It was the epitome of chaos. … I didn’t know how bad things in the Bay Area were until the drive back home. And I didn’t know that my family was OK until I finally walked in my house.”
Brantley had his parents to take care of. His five-hour route home — brief compared to the trek of Eckersley, who says it took him eight hours — included stopping at the airport hotel to pick up their belongings. “They weren’t staying there another night. My parents are Alabama folks. They were way out of their comfort zone,” he says. “All the lights were out in the hotel. There were cracks in the walls. And that’s when it started to feel like a movie to me.”
Stewart’s journey? It would change him forever.
“I got in my car, in full uniform,” he says. “I lived in Emeryville, which is halfway between Oakland and Berkeley. We obviously couldn’t use the Bay Bridge. And the San Mateo Bridge wasn’t accessible, either. We had to use the Dumbarton Bridge. That’s about a 20-to-25-minute drive to my house … it took me six hours. The Cypress looked like an accordion. It was so mangled. It seemed to me that anyone who was on that freeway when the quake hit did not make it out. I passed that freeway every day on my way to and from the Coliseum. I watched the police frantically pulling people out of the wreckage. That’s something I’ll never forget.”
Brantley sighs deeply.
“It has been 30 years since that happened,” he says, “and every time I go back to the state of California — and I mean every single time — the first thing I think about is looking into the eyes of Mike LaCoss in that tunnel on that terrible day, thinking, ‘Oh, my gosh, what is this?'”
THIS WAS A disaster in Dave Stewart’s town. These were his people. So he got busy.
“After I got home and knew my family was safe, I changed out of my uniform, and I went back to the Cypress area at about 2 a.m.” he says. “It was utter chaos. I brought some food and some coffee for anyone who might need it. It was like a little city of people who had been removed from their homes. That’s when I first realized what a fireman really does. They were pulling out people who were trapped.
“I knew there was very little that I could do, but I wanted to help in any way possible. I went there to see what I could do to help get some things done. The next night, I went back. I rallied a bunch of store owners and market owners to help provide the things that people needed. They all helped with everything. I didn’t have to beg. For three or four nights, I went there.”
That came as no surprise to Weiss.
“I already knew Stew for two years. He was already one of the greatest teammates I ever had,” Weiss says. “He cared about the team. He cared about the community. This was his town. When Stew spoke, he spoke for our entire team. That carried a ton of weight for everyone. He didn’t ever talk about all the things he was doing in the community, but we knew those things. We all knew he was really involved. For him, it was close to home — literally.”
“After I got home and knew my family was safe, I changed out of my uniform, and I went back to the Cypress area at about 2 a.m. It was utter chaos. I brought some food and some coffee for anyone who might need it. It was like a little city of people who had been removed from their homes. That’s when I first realized what a fireman really does. They were pulling out people who were trapped.”
It made perfect sense to Eckersley, too.
“Before that, he was already the leader of our team, and he was an exceptional leader,” Eckersley says. “Most pitchers aren’t leaders of teams, but he was the leader of our team. He had a lot of pride in his community in Oakland. He brought it every day. He was the best.”
Stewart organized toy drives for quake victims and for the impoverished. He met some of the security guards from the Coliseum, and when they started a softball team, he sponsored them. A few times, he played in their games. All of the money raised went to the Red Cross.
“I remember going to Children’s Hospital to visit some kids,” Stewart says. “I met a young boy named Julio whose leg had to be severed to get him out of the car in the wreckage. His mom didn’t make it. It was an honor for me to see this young man fight his way through. It brought tears to my eyes. I have a picture taken with him. It hangs in my office.”
10 days later
AS STEWART HELPED the injured, MLB officials were deciding what to do about the World Series. The day after the quake, baseball commissioner Fay Vincent, from a candlelit ballroom in San Francisco, talked about the “insignificance of our modest little game.” After several days, MLB decided the World Series would resume on Oct. 27.
“That’s my vaguest memory because there was so many other things going on.” Stewart says. “The World Series was threatened. We didn’t even know if we were going to play. But [A’s manager] Tony [La Russa] made sure we got back to work, just in case. We went to Arizona to play games [against minor leaguers for the A’s] because it was a place that there would be fewer distractions. Carney [Lansford], Eck [Eckersley], Hendu [Dave Henderson], Rickey [Henderson], we were all from the immediate [Bay] area, so there were still going to be some distractions. When we all got back together, I don’t recall any player saying that we shouldn’t be playing the World Series after this, and I don’t recall any saying we were ready to play. But once they said the World Series would resume, we all started getting ready.”
Says Kennedy: “The A’s did the right thing, going to Arizona. I wish we had. We played sim [simulated] games. Our thinking was, ‘If we play, we play. If we don’t, we don’t.’ It was hard to get that mojo back.”
To Brantley, it felt like the Fall Classic had ended on Oct. 17. “We didn’t know if we were going to play in three or four days or three or four months. But once the quake came, it didn’t seem like the World Series anymore,” he says. “I know we’re not supposed to feel that way, but that’s how it felt. It was time to go home and take care of our families. This was not baseball. This was life. This was a disaster situation.”
No one recognized that more than Stewart.
“But I thought it would be good to start playing again,” he says. “As baseball players, we are, in a sense, entertainers, and I thought it might take people’s minds off the tragedy, at least for a while, and concentrate on something good. I knew I was going to be first one [starting pitcher] out of the gate [for Game 3]. I got myself mentally ready. I was trained to do that, but I wanted to do it. I wanted to be on the mound in that situation.”
He had won Game 1 of the World Series 5-0 with a five-hit shutout. In Game 3, he pitched seven innings and allowed three runs in a 13-7 win. The A’s won Game 4 the next night to sweep the Series.
Since then, Stewart has done many good things in the game. He has been the general manager of the Diamondbacks, he has been an agent ,and now he, among other things, serves as an adviser to the Acereros de Monclova, a baseball team in Mexico. He remains involved in the community in Oakland. The Walter Haas Community Service Award, originally named after the widely respected former owner of the A’s, is now called the Dave Stewart Community Service Award. Next year, Stewart will join Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Rickey Henderson and Eckersley as Oakland A’s whose numbers have been retired.
His number will be retired for the way he pitched, yes, but also for the way he helped people after the earthquake.
“I was at the Coliseum doing pre- and postgame stuff [earlier this year] when an aunt of Julio reintroduced herself to me,” Stewart says. “It was unbelievable. I vaguely remembered her, but she told me how well Julio was doing as an adult. She had tears in her eyes. So did I.”