The Earthquake Game


Wow!  Here we were, sitting in section 6, Row 10 seats one and two,  a couple of seasoned baseball fans, ages 41 and 11, taking in the surroundings of Candlestick Park, attending our first World Series game in 1989 between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.  My son, Ryan and I had tickets to the 1987 World Series games scheduled in San Francisco that never happened  A costly error sent the St. Louis Cardinals there instead.

This year, we broke the hearts of Cubs fans, those who had waited longer than us.  No regrets.  Our team, not the Cubs, had advanced to the World Series for the first time since the 1962 San Francisco Giants were defeated by those damn New York Yankees in the last inning of the last game, missing greatness by only a few inches.  The tickets for tonight’s game came via the friend of the mother of a colleague named Steve.  Ironically, it was friends in Los Angeles who “scored” our tickets for this all San Francisco Bay Area World Series.  The seats were great, upper deck, right behind home plate, a bit high, but we could see everything from here.  Due to strange winds, the jets from SFO were using an alternative flight pattern that took them roaring above the stadium, inciting the crowd of 50,000 people, hungry for blood after a 27-year drought.   At 5:00 pm, the players were finishing their warm-ups and national media was beginning to present our anthem to a national audience, sung a capella by local band, Huey Lewis and the News.  Brief eye contact and a quick smile toward each other reassured us that this was going to a memorable night.

Absorbing all the visual and audible images of this moment, I thought back to when I was selected as one of two mandatory eight-year-olds on the Lions youth baseball team in 1956.  I never played but got to sit in the dug-out with the twelve-year-olds and began to develop a passion for the game.  Then, the large book, The History of Baseball, a birthday gift from my parents, taught me everything I needed to know up until 1957.  With the surprising news that the New York Giants, with young star, Willie Mays, were moving to San Francisco for the 1958 season, I was instantly consumed, spending many of my summer days over the next few years, lying around in the yard listening to the game through a transistor radio held to my ears.

As I do during each memorable baseball experience, I also remembered  Mr. Robert Ishimatsu, our former neighbor and a person responsible for my love of the game.  Amid some neighborhood concern when the Ishimatsu family first moved next door in 1955,  my parents became vocal on the right side of the issue and our families became good friends, me especially with their son, Marty.   Two years later, when I visited Marty in the hospital after he became ill, I fully expected him to come home soon.  He did not, leaving his parents and two young sisters to quietly mourn.

One day, in the early summer of 1958, I had deposited myself on the backyard lawn with transistor radio in hand,  listening to the latest sports news when a soft, clear voice from the other side of the fence, said, “Hey Butch, would you like to go to the game today.”  It was Mr. Ishimatsu.  I was elated.  My transition from radio to a real game was long overdue.   I answered affirmative  and I thanked him until he politely asked me to stop.  Bob Ishimatsu took me to ten or so games over the next few years, all of them great memories, quietly cathartic for both of us.   To this day, I think of him every time I attend a baseball game.

My passion for the game dipped during the ensuing years.  An inability to hit a curve ball rendered it totally a spectator sport and normal distractions in high school and college pushed it back into my subconscious, including meeting and marrying a women who found baseball slow, boring and a temptation to eat junk food, preferring an active soccer match instead.  However, we had two sons together and my suppressed love for the game began to re-emerge.

My wife, Karen and four year-old son Cole stayed home in Los Angeles during this World Series.  Cole was too young to understand, but still a Giants fan in training.  Ryan and I worked together to suppress any influence from his new little friends who would most likely grow up being Dodger fans, something totally intolerable.  Supervising a “play-date” with these new friends,  Karen paused to answer the phone, responding, “Oh, hi Steve, what’s up.”  Hanging up the phone seconds later, she turned on the television and, for the first time in her life, became interested in a baseball game.

The tremor was loud and violent, like an explosion.  At first, it was sheer panic, instinctively reaching to brace myself, totally in the moment.  I reached for Ryan while looking up to see 200-foot light standards waving like the outfield flags.  Surprisingly, my first coherent thought was a recollection that Candlestick Park was built in 1960 on landfill in the San Francisco Bay.  The seemingly endless, muscular vibrations would surely take us down. Then it stopped, everything stopped, for a moment.  There was silence.  Strangely what followed the shaking and the stillness was jubilation.  With San Francisco and Oakland as the competitors, the crowd was mostly Bay Area locals who had lived to tell their past earthquake stories.  The only question was how long the game would be delayed.

Ryan seemed okay, although experiences like this one can linger.  I was still thinking of our vulnerability, sitting atop the saddle of a twenty-nine-year-old stadium built on land that was once water. The fans around us instantly became a community, providing updates, ironically, from transistor radios, the only reliable source of information available at a 1989 baseball game.  For the next hour, the least informed people in the country, regarding this most current event, were the people in the stadium.  At one point, someone shouted that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, later clarified to a section that fell into San Francisco Bay.  Otherwise, local officials were reporting no serious damage or injuries.  I also learned that only the parking lot, not the stadium, was built on landfill and even it did not fall into the bay.

That next thing to occur was the most surrealistic image of the entire experience.  Fifty-thousand baseball fans, calm, patiently waiting for the game to begin, were soon watching chaos on the field.  While the fans were local earthquake veterans, the players, the player’s wives, the New York media broadcasting the game were from various other places throughout the country as well as from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, hotbeds for grooming the game’s future stars.  Uniformed players were hugging their distraught trophy wives or girlfriends, guiding them to safety as they maneuvered their stilettos across manicured turf.  Soon, anyone who was in the catacombs beneath the stadium was on the playing field seeking the safety of open space and local law enforcement officials were responding to what could turn into a significant event.

With no public address system or electricity for the scoreboard, the fans stayed until Huey Lewis exited through the centerfield fence as dozens of police cars entered and surrounded the field.  The game was over before it started.  Soon, after word of mouth from ushers,  disappointed fans stood up and quietly exited the stadium.  We had avoided tragedy, but the night was still young.

After exiting into the parking lot, Ryan and I hovered around an ABC truck that gave us access to the television, covering what we were in the middle of.   We looked up as a small truck, driven by Giants manager Roger Craig, drove by with several players riding in the rear bed, reminding me how Mr. White would transport our team to little league games.  But professional prima donna baseball players, riding in the back of their manager’s truck was not what we had planned to see tonight.   The evening was rapidly moving beyond baseball.

The setting sun injected a new challenge to the situation, darkness.  Tonight, we would not benefit from light of the modern night.  No street lights, no neon, just a glow from the Marina District to the north, becoming visible as we accessed higher ground in our new station wagon.  We were then directed to an alternate route when leaving the stadium.  Expecting to turn right onto the access road to Highway 101, less than a half mile away, we were all forced to turn left and proceed through Hunter’s Point, a neighborhood that had dealt with inadequate street lighting and law enforcement protection for decades.  Soon, we sat in gridlock, in a bad neighborhood during a declared city emergency, the only illumination coming from car headlights,  We were sitting ducks on a pond.

Already feeling uneasy, we began to hear the sounds of breaking glass, Soon, several looters were using baseball bats to shatter store windows, helping themselves to what was inside.   Our worst scenario happened after one of them glanced toward the street and saw targets, unable to run.  First, there was a shattered windshield of the Corvette a few cars ahead of us.   Then, there was another loud and violent explosion.  The rear window of our car was splintered,  our shocked bodies jolted from fear.

For the first time, Ryan’s sounds of distress pushed my adrenaline and anger to the point of giving him bold assurances that no one would enter our car.  Sounding tougher than I was, it was time to find a way out.  Sirens were approaching which would give us some cover and survival instincts seem to be an antidote for traffic congestion.  We were moving again.

We turned left, drove awhile, then turned right because it looked hopeful.  Always boasting of my directional acumen, I had no idea where we were.  Soon, my headlights illuminated a very brave man, standing alone next to a motorcycle, waving his arms off to the right of his body.   “This way,” he yelled. “Turn this way.”   We did, shouting a thanks through our fractured window.  A few hundred feet ahead, the road veered to the left and there it was, a green CalTrans sign that read “San Jose Ave South.”  No longer lost, we would be at our friend’s house in thirty minutes.

Surviving the trauma, we began to feel safe again.  However, after continued assurances of public safety, the radio was now reporting numerous casualties, a collapsed freeway and multiple fires in the Marina District, real tragedies of the day my oldest son and I attended our first World Series game.

About Lyle W. Norton

Lyle is a freelance writer who specializes in “lifestyle” issues like wine, food, travel, music, film and memoir. He currently writes “On The Vine,” a weekly wine column for the San Francisco Examiner. View all posts by Lyle W. Norton

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