October 17, 1989. Game three of the World Series between the A’s and Giants at Candlestick Park. Pregame activities were wrapping up when at 5:04 Pacific time, a 6.9 earthquake (later named the “Loma Prieta” quake), the most destructive in that area since the famous quake of 1906, rolled through the park and San Francisco proper.
This is the backdrop for the newest ESPN “30 for 30” documentary, titled “The Day the Series Stopped,” airing Tuesday at 10 p.m. Nimbly directed by native Californian Ryan Fleck (“Sugar“, “Half Nelson“), viewers are given a thorough overview of how/why the events transpired, and the lives that were impacted both on and off the field.
This was to be the first series featuring teams in the same market since 1956 (Yankees / Dodgers). It was the first World Series game to take place in Candlestick since 1962. The A’s were in the second year of a three-year streak of Series appearances, and had stars like Rickey Henderson, Dave Stewart, Jose Canseco and Dave Stewart. San Francisco had Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell and 17-game winner Rick Reuschel. Inter-league play was still nearly a decade away, but this was indeed a rivalry.
Footage from the original ABC broadcast of the game shows Al Michaels and Tim McCarver reacting with bemusement and a few chuckles as the quake ebbs. With their video signal lost, Michaels says, “the greatest open in the history of television.” Fleck then begins to show us the slow, steady realization that this quake has far-reaching impact.
Fleck paints a broad picture of the scope, featuring interviews with diverse members of the ballpark and surrounding community. Benjy Young was a stagehand untangling windsocks 225 feet above ground on one of the towering lightstands when the quake hit. Here, and throughout the first 20 minutes of the film, Fleck utilizes some nice video techniques to simulate the rolling quake. You feel like you are with Young up on that lightstand.
David Schwartz, an employee at the U.S. Geological Survey, wondered to himself “are they going to continue the game.” But it quickly became apparent they couldn’t. Cell phones were a novelty back then, so it took a little while for the news of the devastation to reach the players and fans in the stands. Chunks of concrete had broken off from the top deck of the stadium. The lights were out. Commissioner Fay Vincent got on a TV mic and asked everyone to leave in an orderly fashion.
Fleck deftly uses incidental music to augment the emotions of the moment, and he knows when to go silent. The collapse of the top deck of Interstate 880 in Oakland was starkly presented. We meet Tim Petersen, a firefighter who just happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time, and whose car was crushed by the freeway collapse. We get to know Dr. James Betts of Children’s Hospital in Oakland, and just how far he went to try and save a young boy’s life.
We get an engineering lesson on Candlestick Park, with some helpful graphics on its construction and tremor-tolerance. The park had been built in 1958, and a 1983 study pointed out some structural issues that were addressed only in the Spring of 1989.
We also get to hear from the players, with Will Clark being grateful for having the chance to play in the Series and rebuild the city he calls home. Mike Gallego talks about the worrisome trip home from the park on the night of the quake, wondering if his young children were OK in their apartment. Fleck presents Dave Stewart last, and with good reason. Stewart grew up in the area, and the camera catches him in deep reflection on what the community means to him, and how the Series took a backseat to getting the Bay Area back on its feet.
The film strikes the right tone and balance between the baseball universe that was interrupted and the communities that were impacted. Its history. Its sports. Its an hour of informative, engaging television. I highly recommend it.