by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SAN FRANCISCO — The last time I wrote a column from this seat, there was fire in my hands. An earthquake had struck, Candlestick Park was dark, most of the frightened crowd had already rushed the exits. Alone, with no lights and one working telephone, I took a cardboard lunch box, lit it with a match, and, holding its flame above me so I could see, I tapped out the keys to send a story to my newspaper.

That was a tale of tragedy. And this, 10 days later, is a tale of recovery. It sure looked like baseball here Friday night, sounded like baseball, smelled like baseball. And that sure seemed like the Oakland Athletics, smacking a record five home runs and racing around the bases as if collecting them in a scavenger hunt. The World Series crown, for this bruising bunch, who now lead three games to none, is simply a matter of time. But then, that was really the theme Friday night, wasn’t it?

A matter of time. The dead had been found. The wreckage had been examined. The crying had not stopped but it had abated, turned to sighs of resignation, and the Bay Area had said “Back to life. Whatever it takes.” And so 62,038 of them gathered back in the place where Oct. 17, in a moment of madness, many of their worst fears were realized. Earthquake. Killer. Baseball.

A matter of time.

“I wouldn’t miss this,” a woman named Elaine told me outside the stadium before the game. “I love baseball. And this is the World Series. I think we’re ready to get back to things.”

She was interrupted by a passerby, who held up a duffel bag, pointed and began to empty its contents into a large red barrel. Soup. Canned fruit. Toilet paper. Elaine smiled and said thank you. She is a fan. She is also one of dozens of volunteers collecting food and money for the earthquake victims.

Here at the baseball game. A song, a show

So it went all Friday night. Was there ever quite a sports night like this? It was batting practice and pregame interviews on network television. And it was the entire stadium rising for a half-minute of silence for the fallen victims of the disaster.

It was Dave Henderson, Carney Lansford, Tony Phillips and Jose Canseco whacking home runs over the fence, chopping the Giants’ pitchers to shreds. And it was the sellout crowd singing an impromptu rendition of “San Francisco,” the 1936 movie song that celebrated the comeback of their city after the 1906 earthquake.

It was Rickey Henderson stealing bases and Canseco rediscovering his swing with a towering three-run homer to left field. Star-making material. And yet, they were overshadowed by the ceremonial first pitch, which was thrown, not by celebrities this time, but by a dozen ordinary people, a fireman, a bridge worker, a Red Cross volunteer, a cop — people who probably wouldn’t have had a ticket to this game 10 days ago, but who leapt into the breach that night when the earthquake struck, risking their lives to save others.

“It’s your show,” the A’s and Giants catchers seemed to say, squatting down to accept their throws. The balls came flying in, amusingly weak, some bouncing. The crowd roared as one. So much for theory

“Everywhere I went this week people were saying, let’s play these games,” said first baseman Mark McGwire after the Athletics’ 13-7 victory. “Even the police I knew working on the wreckage of Highway 880 said, ‘Hey, we need something positive. Let’s start these games back up.’ “

And Friday night, after a proper delay, they did. Without a hitch. The ground was still, the walls did not shake — except maybe when Canseco, Henderson, Phillips and Lansford threatened to knock them down with home runs. Weren’t the pitchers supposed to be ahead of the hitters after a 10-day layoff? Isn’t that the theory?

So much for theory. The Athletics didn’t even take batting practice! Offense? They had eight runs in the first five innings. It was an RBI clinic. So hard were the Athletics hitting those baseballs that the best position for the Giants’ outfielders would have been sitting atop the fence.

“This is a time you to find out what you’re about,” Dave Stewart, the winning pitcher, had said earlier, both of the earthquake and of the Series. Here is what the Athletics are about: They are about nine innings away from a World Series championship.

So be it. Because even as Giants fans filed out of Candlestick, they knew something that perhaps was forgotten before the earth shook Oct. 17. This is indeed just a game. People were not here because baseball was more important than anything, but because life, and the resumption of it, was.

A matter of time. The words “1989 World Series” and “earthquake” are linked from now until forever. And yet, that is not necessarily bad. When those dozen ordinary people took the mound and threw pitches Friday night, they were saying, “Look. We are you and you are us. The famous and the obscure, when the walls come down, we are all the same. Let’s play ball. Together.”

The athletes smiled, gathered up the pitched balls, and returned them to the unknown heroes. In many ways, it was one of baseball’s finest moments.

It is in that fine light that I am writing this story. No tragedy. No screaming. No fire in my hands. A perfect night for recovery. And a perfect glow for perspective. The score of this game will in short time be forgotten. But the image, fans and players, finding common ground in a taste for survival, will last a long, long time. CUTLINE SHAKY STYLE

Spectators sport post-quake attire before the third game of the World Series Friday in San Francisco. Clyde Lomax of Pacifica, Calif., at right, sports a T-shirt that says, “I rock-n-rolled in Candlestick Park.”


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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