It has been 20 years since the major earthquake that hit San Francisco shut down the third game of the 1989 World Series and provided me with some harrowing and yet ultimately very rewarding experience.
On Oct. 17, 1989, as the baseball commissioner, I was enjoying some of the last-minute, pre-game ceremonies and standing in a box on the edge of the field when I heard a loud roar. I instinctively looked up, as it sounded to me as if a set of bombers were flying overhead. For an instant I wondered why I had not been told of the event. But there were no bombers and someone shouted to me, “I think we are having an earthquake.”
In my home state of Connecticut, we have little experience with earthquakes so I was totally unprepared. The ground shook for what seemed to me to be several minutes, but in fact was only about 15 seconds. Then there was almost total silence. I looked onto the field and the players from both teams had spilled out of their dugouts and were looking anxiously into the stands to find family and friends. Suddenly, a cameraman nearby turned his camera around, and on his tiny internal screen I could see scenes of fires burning in parts of the city.
Someone blurted out there had been a major quake and someone else had news of significant damage. Confusion reigned briefly; and then from center field came the man who provided direction and leadership. Cmdr. Isiah Nelson of the San Francisco Police Department drove up to my box in a police scout car.
“Commissioner,” he announced, “I am Commander Nelson and I am in charge of the police here. There has been a major earthquake in the area and we have reports of serious damage to roads and bridges. The stadium lighting system is out, and I think we have a real problem. I suggest you cancel this game so we can get folks out of here before it gets dark. I think we have very little time.”
I remember having a great sense of total confidence in this man and I told him the game had just been canceled.
“Fine. Thank you,” Nelson said. “Now I will announce the cancellation with the car speaker and I will ask people to leave quietly and carefully. But you should stay right here. Everyone is watching you. If you are in the open and calm you will help. But please do not leave here and do not go out of sight. I will come back and keep you posted”
Nelson was a born leader and he looked the role. He was a tall, fit and very handsome black man who inspired confidence and who seemed comfortable to be in charge. He took complete control of the situation that night. As darkness fell and the stadium emptied, he reported regularly that things were going as well as he could have hoped.
The fans left in an orderly fashion. There was no panic, and within a few hours a strange and ominous silence came over the ballpark. The television crews were doing interviews and I did several. To this day there is a sort of special bond among all of us who were there into the evening, and I well remember Bob Ley of ESPN, and Al Michaels and Joe Torre of ABC, who were there that night trying to sort out what happened and what was likely to happen with the remaining games of the Series. There were no answers, but lots of talk.
Eventually, we played the third game in that Candlestick Park some 10 days later when both the city and the Bay area had recovered sufficiently. The Oakland As swept the Giants in something of an anticlimax. There were heroes all about, including Dave Stewart of the As.
But only Cmdr. Nelson stood out in my book. Sadly, about a year later he was killed in an accident when his police motorcycle skidded out of control as he headed home after a Giants game. He slammed into a cement barrier he must have forgotten had been put in place when the highway had been damaged by the earthquake. He left a lovely wife and two young children.
I was told he was destined for great things in the police department, and that had he lived he might even have become mayor of his great city.
I think of him often, and on this anniversary of the quake it is the memory of him and all he did that I will cherish. In moments of crisis it is the truly great who stay calm and lead. Bravo, commander. I will not forget.
Vincent, former commissioner of Major League Baseball, lives in Indian River County.