OAKLAND — A YEAR AGO, if the Boston Red Sox were in the position they are in today, I'd have started this column with something clever and glib like, "The Red Sox are in Oakland today and only an earthquake can prevent the A's from sweeping this American League Championship Series in four games."
Not now. There will be no earthquake jokes in this space. I will try to steer clear of any and all references to natural disaster. It can really happen. There are times when truth is more incredible than fiction.
Next week will mark the first anniversary of the 1989 San Francisco earthquake, and yesterday I returned to the Bay Area for the first time since last October.
San Francisco yesterday was warm and almost windless. Balmy October climate here is known as Earthquake Weather. This is no joke. No more.
I have thought of this place often since flying home three days after the 1989 earthquake. I have wondered if the glass got swept up and windows were replaced and traffic finally cleared. I have wondered how long it took these brave and gentle people to get on with their lives.
Yesterday, the Bay Area looked almost the way it looked before the quake. There were no "I survived the 1989 Earthquake" T-shirts in the San Francisco airport. Cruising past Candlestick Park on Route 101 north, there were no detours. In downtown San Francisco, the giant plates of glass were back in their frames on the walls of the I. Magnin building.
Crossing the Bay Bridge was a little chilling. The last time I crossed the bridge was en route to Candlestick three hours before the quake. The bridge was out for a long time after the earth moved, and it's hard to forget that ghastly home video footage of a car driving off the horizon where a section of bridge caved in.
There are still painful reminders of the collapse of the Cypress Structure. Heading south on Route 880, there is a sign that reads, "Freeway Stops, 500 feet." Not everything is back to normal. Many lives were lost, and the road to Berkeley will never be the same.
It's said that humans are incapable of remembering real pain or fear. Marathoners don't remember what it felt like the last 5 miles. Women don't remember how awful childbirth really was.
Maybe this is true sometimes, but speaking for myself, I can remember exactly what it felt like when the upper deck at Candlestick started swaying. I have felt that way only one other time, and that was in flight over Arizona when the cabin lost pressure and the little oxygen masks came down from the overhead rack. The seconds are especially long when you think they might be your last ones. You scan your mental checklist and wonder how you got into this position of powerlessness.
The San Francisco earthquake of 1989 is something people still like to talk about. I am a New Englander, and there aren't many people in my neighborhood who've experienced a major earthquake. The relatives back in Michigan wanted to talk about it during the Christmas holidays and so did my kids' teachers and our fellow parishioners. It's cocktail conversation, coffee table chat before dinner. "Pass the wine and cheese, and oh yes, what was the earthquake like?"
It was not fun. It was scary and unforgettable.
In a strange way, postseason baseball in the Bay Area forever will be linked with the Quake of '89. It served as our informal introduction to new commissioner Fay Vincent. It was in a medievalesque, candlelight news conference at the St. Francis Hotel that Vincent first postponed the World Series. He was a pillar of perspective, referring to the Fall Classic as "our little event."
I will remember how the A's remained dignified in the wake of the disaster. Dave Stewart spent days at the collapsed Cypress Structure, offering help and inspiration. Bob Welch saw his Marina property damaged, but knew others had it much worse.
Last October, after a week of local healing, the A's went back to the task of dismantling the Giants. They were fully mindful that their championship was somewhat tainted and overshadowed by the larger forces. There was no champagne for the winners. They knew it was inappropriate to celebrate in the midst of widespread suffering and hardship.
The 1990 A's are no less dominant than they were in 1988 when they swept the Red Sox, or last year when they went 8-1 in postseason play en route to a World Series victory. The Dodgers stopped the A's in '88 and last year's Oakland championship was dwarfed by the magnitude and the fury of the Great Quake.
This morning I am here to tell you that the Bay Area looks almost as good as new and the A's look better than ever and woe is the team that gets in the way.
Woe are the Red Sox.