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When the World Series took a Back Seat

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A's and Giants had the World (Series) all to themselves in 1989. Then Mother Nature crashed the party.

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Brian Bahr

On Tuesday October 14, ESPN will air its latest installment of the 30 for 30 series: "The Day the Series Stopped." The documentary takes us back a quarter-century to the 1989 World Series, which featured Bay Area baseball at its finest, and Mother Nature at her most destructive. Below is a sneak preview with personal reflections tossed in for good measure.

The film’s first words, from the mouth of hip-hop artist Too Short, echoed the sentiments of pretty much every A’s fan in 1989:

"I can tell you what the feeling was in Oakland. Just no doubt about it, we were going to kick their ass."

Man, we were spoiled. The A’s won 306 games from 1988-90. Every day at the park was like a stroll through a candy store. So many choices, man.

Rickey alone could beat you several different ways. But if it wasn’t Rickey, it was Jose. If it wasn’t McGwire, it was Parker. If it wasn’t Lansford, it was Steinbach. Stew was the death-staring ace; Hendu, the grin-wearing assassin. Weiss and Gallego up the middle? Geez. And that bullpen. If the A’s had the lead after seven, forget about it. When Eck removed his warm-up jacket, you grabbed your coat. Thanks for coming and drive home safely.

They bashed forearms and pumped fists. They admired their homeruns and took their sweet time around the bases. The Swingin’ A’s? Try the Swaggerin’ A’s. They got so far into the heads of the Toronto Blue Jays during the 1989 ALCS that baseball etiquette took precedence over winning baseball games. The A’s took the series in five.

So it’s no wonder Too Short was feeling Too Sure. We all were.

***

Within the first minute of the documentary, we get the obligatory shot of downtrodden, crime-infested Oakland with its blaring rap music, followed by a view of lovely San Francisco crooning about flowers in their hair.

On the baseball diamond, it was an entirely different scene. The A’s were the league’s model franchise with a glorious stadium, while the Giants were forever a bridesmaid looking to abandon chilly Candlestick Park for the balmy pastures of Florida.

With five days to kill before the Series opener, the media tried to put the tale of these two cities—and their teams—in proper perspective. From the magnificent book, "Three Weeks in October":

The A’s, like Oakland itself, are authentic," wrote Examiner reporter Scott Winokur. "They’ve paid their dues and earned their day in the sun. There’s a great deal that’s good in Oakland, but it’s a constant struggle. Oakland isn’t pretentious. It isn’t gazing in the mirror saying, ‘Aren’t I wonderful?’"

Chronicle scribe Bill Mandel took a baseball approach in siding with San Francisco:

"The major contrast between the Giants and the A’s is tradition vs. modernity, hope vs. cynicism, confidence vs. bragging. If the A’s made a movie, we could call it ‘Outlaw Biker Ballplayers from Hell.’ The Giants are ‘Rocky’."

To A’s fans, the idea that the Giants were underdogs was laughable, even if it was true. We embraced our role as red-headed stepchildren too much to let facts get in the way. We had, hands down, the best team in baseball, but the only way to remove that enormous chip from our shoulder was to win the World Series. This World Series. The importance of it all was not lost on the players.

Pitcher Mike Krukow:

"There was a competitiveness that we had never seen before within the Bay. There was an urgency. It wasn’t comfortable. That’s for damn sure. I mean, ideally, you win the World Series, and the team across the Bay loses 100 games. And I’m sure the A’s felt the same way."

(I felt the same way).

***

Animosities aside, the A’s and Giants were basking in the October limelight, much to the envy of everyone outside the Bay Area. It was bad enough that California was lapping the field when it came to major team sports. Between June 1988 and January 1989, Magic Johnson’s Lakers repeated as NBA champions, the Dodgers upset the A’s in a stunning World Series, and Joe Montana orchestrated a last-minute drive to lead the 49ers to their third Super Bowl victory in eight years. Now, for the second straight season, the World Series featured two teams from the Golden State.

It was, like, totally awesome, dude. Unless you lived somewhere else. Then it probably sucked.

To cut out airline expenses completely, the returning A’s invited their Bay Area brethren along for the BART ride. It was the first time since 1956 that two teams from the same metropolitan area met in the World Series, back when the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers made it an annual thing. In their last meeting (before the Dodgers switched coasts anyway), the Yankees’ Don Larson pitched the only perfect game in World Series history.

The A’s and Giants would upstage Larsen in 1989. Just not on the diamond.

They had met three other times in the World Series—in 1905, 1911, and 1913—when the Athletics called Philadelphia home and the Giants were stationed at the Polo Grounds in New York. In 1911, heavy rains forced a record six-day delay between games, yet another feat that would be topped by the events surrounding the 1989 Series. The same franchises were involved both times.

For Oakland, these appearances had become old hat; it was their fifth Series trip since 1972. For its cross-bay rivals, it was their first time to the Stage since a heart-breaking, seven-game defeat to the Yankees in 1962. For the mighty A’s, 1989 was about unfinished business, having experienced their own World Series torture against the Dodgers. Heavily favored after a 104-win season and a sweep of Boston in the ALCS, Oakland fell to one mighty swing off the bat of a player that shall not be named and a dominant Orel Hershiser.

Andy Dolich, A’s front office:

"We had built this incredibly great, strong, omnipotent baseball team that was laying waste to everybody. And then…we lose to the Dodgers. That was unconscionable. In 1989, every player was focused on bringing a World Series (title) back here."

For the upstart Giants, they were just happy to be here, darling.

It was a shindig not short on names, but its most commonly used moniker was the Bay Bridge Series. Well, at least that’s what they called it before October 17 at 5:04.

***

The A’s cruised through the first two games. The scores were 5-0 and 5-1. I was there. The games weren’t even that close. When I got back to Mom’s after Dave Stewart’s shutout in the opener, my brother John, who was accustomed to nail-biters from the early 70’s, practically blamed me for how "boring" the game was. "Just the way I like it," I replied.

The next game mirrored the previous for complete lack of suspense. For the second straight night there was no scoring after the fourth inning. Terry Steinbach hit a three-run bomb to make it 5-1, and that’s how it stayed.

Yawn.

***

The documentary takes us to Game 3, alternating between pre-game footage and real-time interviews. The morning of October 17, said one fan, "was a beautiful day, not a cloud in the sky."

Later, that same fan describes the scene in the parking lot as a "rolling motion", just as chaos is about to break out in the broadcast booth and Candlestick Park. Earthquake.

***

For the next forty minutes, director Ryan Fleck does a marvelous job of merging the during-and-after recollections of players, fans, media types, stadium employees, and unwilling participants to the nightmare that had taken place at the collapsed Cypress freeway in Oakland.

All the while, he constantly returns to 5:04, to that first moment of horror.

You have to remember that mobile phones were not widely available in 1989. There was no way for those at the game to grasp the magnitude of Mother Nature’s fury. Not right away, anyway. So the mood inside Candlestick Park was decidedly different from what was happening all around the Bay Area. There was a sense of, "Hey, it’s California, what did you expect?"

A’s closer Dennis Eckersley:

"All the fans were looking down at us from the second deck, and they were like getting into it, making fun of it."

Eventually Game 3 of the World Series was postponed. There was no baseball for ten days. I always wondered what that felt like from the perspective of people residing outside this area. I guess they just returned to their normal lives.

Their normal lives.

No such luxury here. Here they were tallying up how many had been lost; 63 all told.

***

My earthquake story is a modest one. I left work with my brother John at 5 o’clock on the dot. Departing Hayward, we headed south to Fremont to pick up John’s stepson from daycare before driving to San Leandro to watch the game at Mom’s. We figured we would miss an inning, maybe two.

As we drove under the Whipple freeway, John suddenly pulled over into a dirt lot. "I have a flat tire", he said. It wasn’t until we saw the other cars in that same lot, all with "flat tires", that we realized there had been an earthquake.

It took us nearly two hours to get home. No cell phones. No radio feed. Just lots and lots of sirens.

I will never forget the tortured look on my sister-in-law’s face, followed by relief, when we had finally made it home with her son.

***

Al Michaels of ABC Sports and Series MVP Dave Stewart (who tirelessly visited the Cypress site during the break) take turns discussing baseball’s place amid the death count and destruction. Baseball appropriately stepped away, put its Biggest Show on hold. And baseball knew when to come back, even if the priorities had changed.

But that didn’t mean there wasn’t a trophy to bring home, and Too Short knew it:

"The Bay is a real caring kind of community. But still, we knew we were going to win. We just knew."

And win the A’s did. Thoroughly. They didn’t trail at any point, of any game, the entire Series. Their 18-run total margin of victory tied the 1932 Yankees for largest run-differential in a four-game sweep. They hit five home runs in Game 3, tying the 1928 Yankees. When they start rearranging the record books to place you next to Babe Ruth’s teams, you’ve done alright.

Since the playoffs were first introduced in 1969, only Baltimore (1969-71) and Oakland (1988-90) have appeared in three consecutive World Series’ while winning over 300 regular season games.

Such was the domination of the Oakland A’s of that era. Was it enough to place them on the short list of all-time great teams? Debatable. Some will point to the Series failures of 1988 and ‘90 and say they are a cut below. But then you look at that 1989 team, and you go, damn.

The A’s locker room was noticeably absent of the champagne-spraying ritual that accompanies the coronation of a baseball champion. Further proof that for all their bash and brass, they were the class of the league in between and outside of those white lines.

History tell us that the Oakland A’s, our baseball heroes, won the Series in 1989. But the Bay Area, and its real-life heroes, won the World.