25 years later, Ken Rosenthal remembers the 1989 World Series earthquake

This week marks the 25th anniversary of a 6.9 magnitude earthquake that hit the Bay Area just as Game 3 of the World Series between the A’s and Giants was set to begin at Candlestick Park. FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal was at the ballpark that night, and these first-person memories of the experience and the days that followed mark the first in JABO’s two-part series on the anniversary of the quake. Come back Tuesday for Erik Malinowski’s profile on Fay Vincent, the commissioner who led MLB through a difficult time as the Bay Area tried to reconcile the importance of baseball amid tragedy.

I had never been in an earthquake. But as the press box started swaying at Candlestick Park, I knew exactly what was happening. The box seemed ready to crash into the lower deck. It was a quake, all right. What else could it be?

Game 3 of the 1989 World Series was about to begin. At 5:04 p.m. PT, the weather was unseasonably warm — “earthquake weather,” I would later hear it called. By luck of the draw, the beat writers from Baltimore and Washington — Tim Kurkjian, Richard Justice and myself — had prime seats in the box, just behind home plate.

The crowd actually cheered seconds after the quake hit, perhaps thinking it was a good omen for the Giants, who trailed the Athletics two games to none. But Jay Alves, the A’s director of media relations at the time, turned around from the first row and said grimly, “That was a big one.” Sure enough, he was right.

Twenty-five years later — Friday marks the anniversary — the memories are still vivid. The Series was interrupted for 12 days. I temporarily became a news reporter. I stayed with friends, then relatives of my fiancée. I nearly missed being the best man at a wedding. I witnessed first-hand the greatest newspaper effort I have seen, the publication of the San Francisco Chronicle the day after the city seemed ready to crumble.

There were no cell phones then, no Internet, no social media. Seconds after the quake hit, I used a land line to call my fiancée, who three months later was to become my wife. To this day, I have no idea how the call got through. The city lost power almost immediately, and most phones in the press box went dead.

I told my fiancée that I had just been in an earthquake, but not to worry, everything was fine. There wasn’t much else I could say. I hung up and joined a group of reporters who scurried down to the field to interview players, some of whom were holding their children. Everyone was relatively calm, but sort of unsettled, uncertain of what to do, even after the game was postponed.

Unlike most of my brethren, I worked for an evening paper — the now-defunct Baltimore (Evening) Sun. For reasons that I cannot remember, I decided to hop in my rental car and leave Candlestick. I had later deadlines than almost everyone else. Most likely, I wanted to find a place with power, a place to write.

Already there were radio reports indicating major damage — a portion of the upper level of the Bay Bridge had fallen onto the deck below, a section of the double-deck Nimitz Freeway had collapsed in Oakland. The early estimates were that hundreds had died. As it turned out, the numbers were much smaller — 63 deaths, 3,757 injuries.

My drive back to the center of San Francisco didn’t last long. Traffic was completely stopped. I went back to Candlestick, parked and started walking back toward the stadium, not knowing if I could even get back to the press box.

As it turned out, I got lucky.

Three writers were walking out of the stadium — Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle, Tom Boswell of the Washington Post and Barry Bloom of the San Diego Union-Tribune. I didn’t know any of them well, but the sports-writing fraternity is very tight-knit. The three allowed me to tag along, no questions asked.

We hopped into Barry’s rental car, wound through the back streets around Candlestick and eventually arrived at the offices of Bruce’s paper, the Chronicle.

“What I remember most was the darkness,” says Barry, who is now a columnist for MLB.com. “All of the skyscraper and traffic lights were out.”

I was 27 at the time, and Bruce and Tom already were big-time columnists at their respective papers, jobs they hold to this day. It actually was a thrill for me to be in their company, even under such circumstances. I even recall Tom blurting out his lede: “The ‘Stick took a seven count and was still standing.” The “seven” was a reference to the magnitude of the earthquake, which actually turned out to be 6.9.

There was no power at the Chronicle. There would be no power anywhere for days. But people were working; earthquake be damned, the paper was going to publish. The only light came from a series of tall, dim lamps; I imagine they were battery-powered. I sat down against a wall and began typing. I had no idea how I would send my stories back to Baltimore. But I had to try.

Our laptops were primitive then — they were word processors, really. To transmit stories, most of us used acoustic couplers that fit over a phone’s earpiece and mouthpiece. A few phones must have been working at the Chronicle; the paper indeed would publish a special edition the next day. I wrote several stories, dictating them all rather than risking it with the couplers.

Of course, the lede to my main story wasn’t as good as Boswell’s.

“This wasn’t the World Series,” I wrote. “This was the world shaking.”

Looking back, there was no way for any of us to properly capture what had happened; none of us knew the extent of the tragedy. As it turned out, the earthquake would cause an estimated $6 billion in damages. I don’t recall being especially scared. I was mostly worried about doing my job.

I could not get back to my room at the Hotel Nikko; the elevators weren’t working. I contacted a college friend from Penn, someone with whom I had worked at the school’s newspaper. My friend was living with his future wife in an apartment in San Francisco. They invited me to sleep in their living room, but I remember waking up frequently as the aftershocks hit, even screaming once or twice.

In the days that followed, I wrote mostly “scene” stories, reporting about the extensive damage in the Marina District, passing along vignettes from other parts of the city, occasionally providing an update on the Series. At one point, then-Commissioner Fay Vincent held a candle-lit news conference at the St. Francis Hotel. Reporters wanted to know when play would resume, and Vincent said he would take his cues from the local authorities, referring famously to the relative insignificance of “our modest little game.”

Crazy things happened. That first day, a writer I knew was freaked out because he had driven over the Bay Bridge moments before the quake struck. The writer should have been inside the park by then, but he often arrived late. He was understandably upset, and his luck would only get worse. Later that night, the poor guy got mugged.

There were lighter moments, too.

After about a week, a number of writers returned to Candlestick to retrieve their rental cars; we all had scattered after the quake, getting rides from others. I was with Kurkjian, who now is with ESPN but then was the baseball writer for the Baltimore Morning Sun. I worked for the Evening Sun, and we often traveled together. Tim crushed me in print daily, but I worshipped him. He was — and is — one of the nicest people you will ever meet.

When we arrived at the stadium, Tim immediately saw that his car was getting towed. The driver told Tim that he had to pay $130 if he wanted his car. Tim pointed to me and said, “He doesn’t have to pay. Why should I?” The driver proceeded to pull away, and Tim chased him with $130 in his hand, yelling, “OK, I’ll pay!”

Well, the driver didn’t stop. Two other writers, Tracy Ringolsby and Gerry Fraley, drove Tim to the towing center where he could retrieve his car. As Tim recalls, Tracy and Gerry laughed at him the whole way, then howled when the tow-truck driver saw Tim and screamed, “You’re the little a–hole that wouldn’t pay!”

The driver set the new price at $220.

Tim paid.

We all can laugh now, but it was a stressful time, to say the least. With phone service limited, I initially went days without calling my fiancée, who is now my wife of nearly 25 years. She had no idea how I was doing. Neither did my family. And I had another problem. I was scheduled to be the best man in my college roommate’s wedding on Oct. 28. He actually had worked the date around my schedule.

As the days passed, I started getting worried. The Series, it turned out, would not resume until Oct. 27, a Friday. The Evening Sun did not publish on Saturday and Sunday, so I flew back east for the wedding, figuring that I would return to the Bay Area if the Giants extended the Series. They did not, getting swept in four games.

I still remember the day I left, my plane idling on the runway, delayed by a tremendous rainstorm. For once, I couldn’t wait to get out of San Francisco.

My nerves were shot. I was ready to go home.