Disasters don’t always look like disasters right away. Floods, tornadoes, earthquakes… they roll through, and the people who survive them are sometimes so exhilarated just to have come out the other side alive that it can take a beat or two for them to realize how much damage has been done.

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On October 17th, 1989, an earthquake hit the San Francisco Bay area shortly before the scheduled start of Game 3 of the World Series between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s at Candlestick Park. The quake knocked the ABC broadcast off the air temporarily, and when communication was restored—with just sound, at first—announcer Al Michaels sounded confused, but almost giddy as he tried to explain what had just happened. According to the players and fans at the game that day, Michaels’ reaction was common to Candlestick. At first, the conversations around the park went like, “Well, that was weird. Ha ha! When do you think they’ll start the game?”

“The Day The Series Stopped” looks back at the creeping realization that not only was the World Series going to be postponed for a while, but that the cities of San Francisco and Oakland were going to have things other than baseball to worry about. There’s a startling piece of ESPN file footage in this 30 For 30, with Bob Ley and Chris Berman standing outside Candlestick after the quake, co-anchoring a breaking news report for the network. On the air, live, Ley gets his first look at the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, which had one of its upper-deck sections half-fallen down to the lower. He’s audibly taken aback. Gradually, it dawned on everyone in the national media that this was no longer a sports story.

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“The Day The Series Stopped” was directed by Ryan Fleck, who with his filmmaking partner Anna Boden is responsible for the excellent indie dramas Half Nelson and Sugar (and the admirable but less excellent It’s Kind Of A Funny Story). What viewers think of “The Day The Series Stopped” will likely have a lot to do with what they think of Fleck’s stylistic pretensions—which are, shall we say, not unnoticeable. I really loved the look of Sugar, a baseball story that uses color and editing to evoke the heat of summer and one athlete’s loneliness. “The Day The Series Stopped,” though, is distractingly unrestrained. From the opening montages that equate Oakland with a gritty rap video and San Francisco with a hippie haze, this 30 For 30 is illustrative to a fault, with archival footage and music cues that underline points which are already in bold.

The episode is structurally unsound as well. The cleverest storytelling decision in “The Day The Series Stopped” is the way it hits perpetual rewind, taking the audience back over and over to the moment when the quake hit and restarting the story from another perspective—from a stadium employee who was climbing up a light-tower at the time to a motorist who was driving along the lower tier of the Cypress Freeway when the upper tier collapsed. (Fleck’s stylistic overkill is more effective in these sections too, as he fragments and distorts the image to recreate the feeling of everything buckling.) But overall, there’s too much looseness to the way “The Day The Series Stopped” is put together. Some of Fleck’s biggest interview subjects—like Berman, Ley, Dennis Eckersley, and the Oakland rapper Too $hort—get less than a minute of screen time each, adding to the impression that just Fleck took a lot of old clips and new soundbites and chopped them into hash. The documentary ends up being essentially a string of anecdotes and reminiscences, without much of a through-line.

That said, those anecdotes and sound bites are frequently fascinating—especially when they try to describe that, “Wait, what just happened?” feeling. “The Day The Series Stopped” gets into the science of the quake, and the devastation it wrought, but it’s at its most effective when it shows Will Clark admitting that he can’t help feeling a little cheated that his one World Series appearance became an afterthought, or when Rickey Henderson describes how he was in the bathroom when the quake hit and was sure the shaking was due to Candlestick fans getting rowdy. Cell phones weren’t in wide use back then, so it took awhile for the scope of the tragedy to register, and even for people to realize that Candlestick itself had suffered serious structural damage.

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There’s a matter-of-factness to the interviews in “The Day The Series Stopped” that almost compensates for Fleck’s excesses. There are no tearjerker stories or spontaneous on-camera breakdowns; if anything, the athletes and quake-survivors sound as upbeat as Michaels did in the seconds immediately following the disaster. That’s because they’re all remembering that moment that it happened, when they could take a breath, realize that they were okay, and then think, “So what now?”

Stray observations:

  • Two things about the 1989 World Series that seem odd today: The games took place in mid-October, not the end of October (at least until the quake postponed the last two); and the Series was broadcast by ABC, which hasn’t had anything to do with major league baseball since 1995.
  • Something else strange: There’s a lot of talk early in the episode about the powerhouse A’s and their “Bash Brothers,” Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire (versus the Giants’ “Pacific Sock Exchange” of Will Clark and Kevin Mitchell). Completely unmentioned? The steroid scandals that damaged the Bashers’ rep.
  • There’s a lot of praise in “The Day The Series Stopped” for Commander Isiah Nelson of the SFPD, who took charge of the situation at Candlestick and helped avoid any kind of panic or rioting. Cmdr. Nelson died six months later in a motorcycle crash, while driving from Candlestick on a portion of the interstate that was closed for post-quake repairs. The Giants had a pre-game moment of silence to commemorate his death.
  • For more on the earthquake and how it affected the World Series, this Fox Sports JABO interview with Fay Vincent is terrific.
  • We’re not planning to cover this season of 30 For 30 on a weekly basis, but feel free to talk about earlier episodes in the comments. For instance, there’s a lot to say about last week’s “Playing For The Mob,” which works as sort of an extended footnote to Goodfellas, telling the story of how mobster Henry Hill coerced a handful of Boston College basketball players into point-shaving. “Playing For The Mob” plays too much on the Goodfellas connection, but it features some powerful interviews with the players, who talk honestly about how unnatural it was to play a game while purposefully not trying their best. The whole situation was unfortunate: Nobody got rich, everyone felt like crap, and eventually the law caught up with the criminals and players alike.

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