Candlestick Stood Firm on Shaky Ground
SAN FRANCISCO -- If ballparks were relatives, Candlestick Park would be a stereotypical mother-in-law: it's cold and windy and you don't want to spend a lot of time around her.
Unless you were around San Francisco 20 years ago this Saturday. The earth moved and it felt as if the whole world was going to collapse. The whole World Series almost did.
As people look back on the "Quake of '89," they've remembered victims, rescue workers and Jose Canseco still wearing his uniform while waiting in line 45 minutes for his wife to fill 'er up at a self-serve gas station.
Valiant as their acts were, one hero has been largely overlooked. Though bridges collapsed and fires lit the sky, the most maligned stadium in North America stood tall.
"I'd heard horror stories about it," Vic Voltaggio said.
Being an American League umpire, the 1989 World Series was his first trip to Candlestick Park. Voltaggio was scheduled to work home plate for Game 3 between the A's and Giants.
He'd packed his long johns, knowing what kind of weather to expect in October. Of course, it didn't matter if it was October or July. Candlestick usually felt like Siberia-stick.
The stories had become lore long before ABC went on the air that night. Stu Miller was blown off the pitcher's mound during the 1961 All-Star Game. The Mets went out for batting practice one day in 1963, only to have a gust of wind pick up the batting cage and deposit it 60 feet away.
Candlestick Point was one of the coldest, windiest and foggiest points of cold, windy and foggy San Francisco Bay. It was actually a landfill-turned-dump, so aromatic it was called "The Big Smell."
Why anything besides a meat-packing factory was built there is too long and twisted a story to get into here. But perhaps it was an omen that the first pitch on Opening Day 1960 was thrown by Richard Nixon.
He reared back and proclaimed Candlestick Park, "The finest ballpark in America."
And Nixon said he could not tell a lie?
Over the next 40 years, millions of frozen fans would have impeached Nixon for that statement. The conditions became such a joke that one year the Giants gave Croix de Candlestick pins to fans who stayed through extra-inning games.
They read "Veni. Vidi. Vixi."
I came. I saw. I survived.
October 17, 1989 didn't feel like a Veni Vidi Vixi kind of affair. It was sunny and mild as 62,000 fans settled in. First pitch was at 5:35 p.m. local time.
At 5:04, larger forces intervened.
"I thought the whole stadium was going to come down on top of me," Voltaggio said.
He was in the umpires' locker room rubbing mud on baseballs. Commissioner Fay Vincent had just stuck his head in to wish the crew luck. Voltaggio was the only one there when he was rattled off a bench.
For the next 20 seconds, the light towers swayed and the concrete overhang rippled around the boomerang-shaped stadium. Dugout benches turned into see-saws as players bounced up and down.
Electrical power was immediately cut off as Voltaggio ran down a hallway toward the entrance to the field. Like most players and officials, his main concern was finding his family and getting them to safety.
Everybody congregated in the infield. Terry Steinbach's wife was almost inconsolable. Most of the fans weren't quite so shaken up.
"Let's play ball!" they chanted.
One guy quickly scribbled a sign.
"HEY, IF YOU THINK THIS WAS SOMETHING WAIT UNTIL THE GIANTS COME BAT"
It turned out to be quite a wait. News traveled a little more slowly in those pre-cell phone days. After about 15 minutes, images started filtering in.
The double-decked Nimitz Freeway in Oakland had caved in on rush hour traffic. A 50-foot section of the Bay Bridge had collapsed. Smoke was rising over downtown San Francisco .
The earthquake measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, making it the most severe since the Big One of 1906.
"The mood turned very somber," Voltaggio said.
With the public address system out, police used bullhorns to inform the crowd that the game was postponed. The Candlestick peninsula and beyond became a mass of glacially moving traffic. It took a couple of hours before police could even begin escorting buses toward downtown.
"You could see the fires off in the distance. It was a scary thing," Voltaggio said. "I really thought it was the end of the World Series. Especially the next day when we found out how many people had been killed."
Sixty-three people died in northern California, another 3,757 were injured. The count of homeless ranged from 3,000 to 12,000. The damage tallied $6 billion.
As bad as that was, imagine the potential carnage at Candlestick. Imagine if section floors had crumbled or the concrete overhang had collapsed.
Some concrete chunks did fall from a section of the upper deck in right field. But in the following week engineers declared the stadium structurally sound.
When the World Series resumed on Oct. 27, there was more than one first pitch. A collection of firemen, police and rescue workers went onto the field and did the honors.
They were the heroes of '89, more than Canseco or Dennis Eckersley or anyone on the victorious A's. But if ever a stadium deserved to throw out a first pitch, it was the one everyone was standing in.
Maybe Nixon was right.
Veni. Vidi. Vixi.
They came. They saw. They survived.
Thanks to good old Candlestick.