OAKLAND — There was an awkward moment here a few weeks ago, after the A’s won the pennant. Dave Stewart, their star pitcher, was brought to the interview podium along with American League president Bobby Brown. At least 300 journalists were crushed in a tight crowd. They wanted to ask Stewart about the game. Brown, who held a trophy in his arms, stepped to the microphone first.
“Before we get to any questions, I want to announce that the MVP award of this series goes to the man behind me . . . Dave Stewart!” And nothing. Dead silence. It was a moment for applause, but no one applauded, because reporters have this thing about applauding; it makes them seem like fans. “No cheering in the press box,” goes the rule. And so Stewart took the trophy and stood there, in uncomfortable silence, like a man who’d wandered accidently into the ladies room.
It was a humbling moment — much like this whole World Series has been for Oakland. But I remember looking down and seeing my hands poised to clap. Maybe I should have clapped anyhow. Some things, after all, are more important than rules and trophies.
One year ago, the earth shook in this bay area. Homes were crushed. Highways collapsed. People were alive one moment and dead the next. It was the most horrific kind of tragedy, the random kind, good people, bad people, healthy, sick, didn’t matter. You were in the wrong place, your life was over.
That night, and for many nights thereafter, Dave Stewart journeyed to the collapsed Nimitz Freeway, where workers tried to rescue bodies from the awful wreckage. He talked to those workers. He cheered them up. He patted them on the shoulders and said keep the faith. He always waited until 3 or 4 in the morning, because that’s when his presence would cause the least distraction.
He wasn’t there for autographs. This was not about showing how good a guy he could be. Stewart’s reasons for those post- midnight visits were wonderfully simple: Oakland was his hometown.
He felt an obligation. Disaster brought out the best
I, too, was here during that earthquake. I felt Candlestick Park wobble like an old drunk. I saw four-story houses swallowed by the earth, until the roofs were at street level. I saw bridges snap in two, cars dangling over the water, and people lined up at relief shelters, all kinds of people, the poor, the wealthy, the bleeding, all of them suddenly united by tragedy. I remember sitting down in one of those shelters, so stunned by it all, and a Red Cross worker came up with a towel and soap. “Here,” she said, “you can use this.”
The horror from that week is etched in my mind, the rubble, the cars crushed like soda cans, streets covered with so much broken glass that at night, in the moonlight, they looked like lakes. And yet what stays with me most is not the destruction, but the survival.
I have never witnessed such civic pride as in the crumbled moments after last years earthquake. Barriers seemed to break down. Rich people who might otherwise look away from the poor were dishing out soup and handing out bread. Restaurant owners posted signs that read “Needy can eat free.” Hotels normally exclusive now had dozens of strangers sleeping in their lobbies.
And I remember thinking: “Is this what it takes to make us behave the way we always should? An earthquake?” He deserves some applause
It is part of the reason I now salute Stewart. Although he was right there during the tragedy, he has never needed tragedy to motivate him. Long before the earthquake, and long before he was the famous pitcher, he was calling high schools in the Oakland area, asking whether they wanted him to come and speak to the kids. Today, he is involved in seemingly countless charities, and the more he helps, the more people seem to ask. He keeps saying yes.
You meet a lot of creeps in this business. You also meet a lot of phonies, guys who act nice and talk about charity, but only because their agents told them to. Once in a while — a great while, unfortunately — you meet the real thing.
Dave Stewart was the A’s starting pitcher Saturday night in the World Series. Because of deadlines, I must file this column before the game begins. So by the time you read it, the A’s could be history or still breathing, and Stewart could be a winner or loser.
You know what? It really doesn’t matter. That’s the biggest legacy of the day the earth shook; we all learned what’s really important. For me, Stewart, more than any other athlete, put it all in perspective. And the next time there’s a chance to clap for the guy, I’m gonna do it. I’ll apologize to my colleagues later.
Mitch Albom’s new book, “Live Albom II,” a collection of his columns, is available at area bookstores or through the Detroit Free Press.