San Francisco earthquake 30 years later: Out of the past, the voices of Krukow, Beane and Baker

This story by sportswriter S.L. Price originally appeared in The Sacramento Bee on Oct. 18, 1989. Price was covering the World Series between the Giants and the A’s at Candlestick Park. Price’s latest book is “Playing Through the Whistle: Steel, Football, and an American Town.”

It came at 5:04 p.m. Tuesday, rumbling up through the earth, the concrete, the seats of Candlestick Park, and at first no one knew if it was just an airplane or a steel handtruck rolling nearby. Then the world shook loose, and the people who came for a ballgame grabbed each other. By then there was no mistaking what it was.

A huge laughing, roaring bellow of recognition went up from the 62,000 fans on hand for Game 3 of the World Series, and at first the thought of an earthquake seemed amusing. For an instant the fans liked the irony: Welcome to San Francisco, A’s fans.

“Welcome to California,” Giants pitcher Mike Krukow said. “The backstop was flapping back and forth, about 15 feet. The photographers panicked. The crowd was great; they thought it was part of the show, a special effect. . . . It almost knocked us down.”

But this time it didn’t stop. It kept going, up through feet, thighs, into the stomach, stopping hearts. On the field players from both sides had been strolling about, talking and laughing and trying to fill the dead time between infield practice and the opening ceremonies. Game 3 was only 31 minutes away. Then it hit.

In a seat along the first-base line, newly elected baseball Commissioner Fay Vincent found himself standing in the middle of his first earthquake. “It was scary,” Vincent said. “I was standing up, and it was rocking, and I don’t have great balance to start with.”

Vincent is presiding over his first World Series. “It’s a hell of a way to start,” he said.

A’s outfielder Billy Beane looked around wide-eyed as fans began rushing for the exits. Cracks had formed in Sections 7, 9 and 11 of the upper deck. Pieces of concrete began falling from the ceiling. Beane said, “This is history, huh?”

A’s catcher Terry Steinbach pointed to a man in a Giants hat behind home plate, holding a small TV showing a picture of the collapsed Bay Bridge. “What does that tell you, right there?” he asked.

The man with the TV screamed at the A’s players as they crowded around for a look at the television. “I want front-row tickets out of one of you guys,” he said. “Got it? I’m sick of this second-deck stuff in Oakland.” Most of the players ignored him, but Rickey Henderson, whose mother lives in Oakland, had to ask.

Oakland Athletics pitcher Storm Davis holds his baby daughter Erin on the field at Candlestick Park after the Loma Prieta earthquake struck during Game 3 of the World Series on Oct. 17, 1989. Davis’ daughter had been in the stands prior to the quake and was handed to him after the quake struck. Skip Shuman Sacramento Bee/ Skip Shuman

“It didn’t go down?” Henderson asked of the bridge. “It’s down like a ramp?” He wasn’t on the field then; his mind was somewhere else.

The guy in the Giants hat asked A’s manager Tony La Russa for seats back in Oakland. La Russa held up his hands. The fingers on both were crossed. “I hope we get a chance to go back,” he said.

“I was out on the field,” Giants outfielder Pat Sheridan said. “Then all of a sudden I thought I was getting sick.”

Said Beane: “I didn’t feel it. I was walking across the field, and I didn’t feel it. I thought someone had stripped down nude on the upper deck. I thought they were getting fired up for the Giants, down 2-0. I thought they took it a little far.”

Giants coach Bob Lillis spoke up to his wife as she leaned over the rail. “Right now it’s difficult to move,” he said. “You’re all right where you are.”

A police officer spoke into a loudspeaker, talking about restoring power and asking people to stay in their seats. They didn’t care. A group began chanting, “Play ball, Play ball.”

In the jammed walkways behind the seats, the atmosphere spoke more of festive weirdness than of fear. People cracked jokes about shaking up the A’s; people lined up by the dozens for beer; people had that strange exhilaration that comes from surviving a disaster. “Why am I so happy?” a man shouted in the parking lot later.

Only in isolated incidents did the magnitude of what happened finally descend. Steinbach was seen leading his wife, crying and shaking, her hand over her face, from the field. A man lay down on a bench in the Giants’ dugout, taking oxygen. It turned out to be the father of Giants trainer Mark Letendre. “He has a heart problem,” his wife, Blanche, said. “I guess he got a little shook up from the earthquake.

“We were right up here,” she added, pointing up to the seats behind the dugout, “and he said, “This is my first experience.’ “

Minutes later an ambulance pulled up for Mr. Letendre, a heart attack victim. Meanwhile, all the players’ wives and children had scrambled from their seats and assembled with their men on the field. By 5:42 p.m., the A’s and Giants had begun the walk across the field toward the clubhouses.

Questions about when the World Series would be played circulated, but no one had an answer. Director of stadium operations Jorge Costa stood on the field, surrounded by reporters. “We’re not going to jeopardize 62,000 people unless we know the building can stand it,” Costa said. Rumors of playing the final games in Oakland or Los Angeles made the rounds; no one knew. Later, National League president Bill White said moving the Series to a neutral site had been considered.

Between Sections 51 and 53 in right-center field, the quake left a crack that started at the steps of the upper-reserved level and grew wider as it went up. Pieces of steps crumbled, and by Row 13 the crack became a hole. The fans underneath in the lower deck suddenly saw the sun. “My mother was sitting below it,” said Phil Koehler of San Ramon. “She looked up and said the sky opened in a crack about a foot wide.”

Giants hitting coach Dusty Baker experienced several quakes while in Los Angeles with the Dodgers. “They’re all dangerous to me,” he said. “I try not to think about it. There’s nothing you can do. It just makes me think how weak we are, how we think we’re in control and we’re not.”

MW Loma Prieta 4.JPG
A structural engineer checks for damage to Candlestick Park’s canopy the day after the Loma Prieta earthquake of 1989 which caused a delay in the World Series between the Oakland A’s and the San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park. Michael Williamson The Sacramento Bee

After it happened, 62,000 fans filed out of Candlestick without panic or trouble. They sat in the parking lots and waited long hours for the traffic to thin.

Just after the quake hit, Krukow had laughed over the weirdness surrounding the Giants and A’s pitcher Bob Welch. On Oct. 1, 1987, the Giants lived through a medium-sized quake in Los Angeles. That night Welch, pitching for the Dodgers, beat them with a one-hitter.

Tuesday night the Giants were scheduled to face Welch again. The game never happened. And after hearing about the damage to the Bay Bridge and the fires and the looting, Krukow’s manner changed completely. He wasn’t laughing about Welch or anything else.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I can’t even fathom the magnitude of this. When it first came in, we were just looking to our immediate families, but then the magnitude of the quake came down. We’re lucky a major tragedy didn’t happen in this ballpark.”

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