"Two minutes later, the earthquake hit."
Playing in a World Series is not something everyone gets to do. Being in the starting lineup in a World Series game is just about the highest peak you can reach on the field of play. It’s not something you’d ever forget.
That statement is even more true for Greg Litton and he’s our guest this week on Spitballin’.
Litton’s intended World Series debut was unforgettable because it was set to come in Game 3 of the 1989 Series between the Giants and A’s, which came to be known as the Earthquake Game.
As you’d expect, Litton remembers every detail of that night and his story is harrowing to say the least. He eventually made his debut in the rescheduled Game 3 and started Game 4. Overall in the series, Litton went 3-6 with a homer, double and three RBIs.
Litton is a great old school baseball guy. Over the course of his career, he played every position, including pitcher, and played the game tough.
He hustled, sacrificed and was the ultimate teammate. In fact, he was so versatile and valuable off the bench, that it probably cost him a shot to be an everyday Big Leaguer.
He’s the kind of guy every winning team has.
This week we’re lucky he’s sharing some ballpark stories with us, so let’s go Spitballin’ with Greg Litton.
Thanks for joining us, Mr. Litton. I like to start these interviews off by asking what baseball was like for you as a kid. When did you get your start playing?
I actually grew up in Panama in the Canal Zone. My father was a high school coach there for over 20 years. He was an All-SEC baseball player at Mississippi State in the early 1950s. After playing ball, his passion was coaching. I was blessed to have a dad who was a really good baseball player and coach, and I grew up in Panama with year-round perfect weather. I had a brother who was three years older, and we played every sport. Baseball was probably my best sport. We moved to Pensacola, Florida when I was 13 in the middle of my eighth-grade year.
You had the tough task of facing Greg Maddux in your MLB debut. Can you tell us how that went?
I got called up and they like to get the rookies off the bench the first night to get their feet wet. The second pitch of my first at bat, Maddux threw that sinker that rides back on the outside corner. I hit a bullet down the right field line about three inches foul. I ended up fouling off several pitches but struck out. I remember walking back to the dugout and I couldn’t even spit because of the cottonmouth. Next time up, he hung a slider and I missed it by a smidge and flew out to deep right center.
My third at bat was great because this is what today’s game is missing. In the eighth inning we were down a run. Maddux was still pitching, and Will Clark was leading off. They put a mini shift on him. Well, we were only down by a run, and today’s players won’t do this, but Will pushed a bunt and basically jogged to first base. He practiced that all the time. Maddux was mad and was yelling at Will to swing the bat. We had an old saying, “Don’t forget about the hitter.” Maddux forgot about the next hitter, who was Kevin Mitchell. Mitch hit one about eight miles. Now we were up by one and Maddux was real pissed off. He gets two quick outs and then I came up. He plunked me square the left side of my knee.
“With the adrenaline of being told I was going to start a World Series game to honestly believing I was going to be dead to then going out and having to warm up, I swear to you, I could not feel my feet on the ground.”
That doesn’t sound like it felt too good.
People think Maddux threw 85-87 but he was really more like 88-90 with that nasty sinker. He could hit 94 when he wanted to. I’m not saying this was a 95 MPH pitch, but he smoked me right in the knee. I knew he did it on purpose, but I didn’t care. I’m old school in the sense that I wasn’t gonna show the pitcher that he hurt me. I don’t care if he broke my wrist with a pitch, I’m gonna run to first base and you’re not gonna get the satisfaction of seeing the trainer come out and spraying that cold spray. I wanted to be out there like, “You got nothing.” This time, I couldn’t even get off the ground because it was my knee. It was locked up and didn’t work. I was so mad.
Did you ever get to talk to Maddux about it?
No, and you know, I didn’t face him for like another two or three years. Will was out of the lineup and we were in Chicago. I went 3-3 with four RBIs and knocked him out of the game. I was like, “Yeah, take that!” Now, he wouldn’t remember that one game, but for me, it was like I got him back and I couldn’t wait for that.
Outfielder Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics slides into third base as infielder Greg Litton of the San Francisco Giants tries to tag him out during the World Series at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, California. Mandatory Credit: Otto Greule/Allsport
After that first game against Maddux, what was the rest of your rookie season like?
They had called Matt Williams up the first few in the season, but he wasn’t fully ready yet, so they sent him down. I originally got called up because Chris Speier got hurt. They gave me a start in Cincinnati, and I went like 2-3 off Tom Browning with a couple of RBIs. The rest of the first half, me and Ernie Riles platooned at third base and we both were doing great. We were both hitting over .300, but in the two months Matt Williams was in the minors, he had hit like 22 home runs, so they called him back up and me and Ernie went to the bench. Matt was just raking and was some player. Dude was almost a Hall of Famer.
Speaking of the Cubs, you faced off against them in the 1989 NLCS. What was that experience like as a rookie to be in the postseason?
Back then only four teams made the playoffs in baseball, so it was much harder to qualify, but it was easier to get to the World Series because you only had to beat one team. As a rookie getting to play in Wrigley Field in the playoffs was absolutely awesome. I hear people sometimes say they got to the playoffs early in their careers and they wished they could have enjoyed it more because they never got back. That ain’t me. I enjoyed every second. It was an absolute blast. Will Clark hit about .600 that series and Mark Grace hit about .450. We won it in San Francisco too and went on to the World Series against the A’s.
What were you thinking going into that World Series as a rookie?
The A’s had righties Mike Moore and Dave Stewart, so I wasn’t going to start. We opened in Oakland so there was a DH, so there wasn’t going to be double switching or pinch hitting. If you didn’t start, you watched. They pretty much beat the crap out of us the first two games. We went back to San Francisco and they had Bob Welch pitching, so I wasn’t in the lineup again. About a half hour before the game Roger Craig walks by me and tells me to get loose. Welch was going to be a gametime decision, but Craig told me to count on a left-handed pitcher tonight. Craig said that if that happened, I would be starting. I was like, “Oh crap, I better get ready!” Two minutes later, the earthquake hit.
What was your experience at that point? Where were you and what was going through your head?
I was in the locker room underneath the stadium. I thought I was dead. I thought the stadium was coming down and I was going to be dead. Once it started slowing down, I started to realize I’d be OK and then the lights came on for just a few minutes for some reason, before going back out for good. Eventually, we went out to play ball. The stadium seemed fine and we didn’t realize what happened outside the stadium. I remember running sprints, and I was never very fast, but honest to God, I could not feel my feet touching the ground. With the adrenaline of being told I was going to start a World Series game to honestly believing I was going to be dead to then going out and having to warm up, I swear to you, I could not feel my feet on the ground. Of course, then we got word that everything was cancelled.
1990 Topps card
It wasn’t just cancelled for that night; you guys were off for like two weeks. What was it like coming back after the layoff and all the tragedy that had transpired?
When we finally did play Game 3, they came back with Dave Stewart and Mike Moore was going to pitch Game 4, so it looked bleak for me with playing time. But halfway through Game 3, we were getting hammered and I came in for Robby Thompson. I went 2-2 with a single, double and RBI, so I started the next night. In Game 4, I only went 1-4 with a two-run home run, but I can tell you that I am still ticked off that I only went 3-6 in that World Series. I wasn’t a great player, but I swear to you that every pitch thrown to me was in slow motion. I don’t mean that I was just seeing the ball good, I am telling you, the ball looked like it was coming at me in slow motion. The fact that I missed three of them ticks me off.
Wow yeah, when you’re in the zone like that on such a big stage, I can understand that. What do you think of your legacy in being a part of that 1989 World Series?
They did a 30 for 30 on it and my buddies still give me crap about it. I was actually one of the few guys on the team who had a good World Series, so I was thinking I would be in it. Wouldn’t you know, they showed every other home run hit in that World Series except for mine! They showed highlights from every game except Game 4, where all they showed was Brett Butler grounding out to end the game. I was like, “Those son of a guns!” To this day, I’ll be golfing with my buddies and I’ll hear, “Hey Joe, did you see that 30 for 30 where they showed Greg’s home run? Oh, that’s right, they didn’t show it!”
After the World Series I was doing some interviews and they were asking how bad it felt to lose. I still remember telling them that it stinks, but I don’t think I know how it feels for someone to lose a normal World Series. When they dug up all the freeways, they thought they were going to find hundreds or thousands of people in the cars underneath them. I think there was only about 40 deaths on the freeways because Oakland was playing San Francisco in the World Series. Everyone in the Bay Area had already gotten to where they were going to watch the game by 5:07 PM. That should be rush hour. The freeways should have been packed. If we hadn’t gotten there, there could have been hundreds more people who died. It was hard to be selfish and feel bad that we lost the World Series.
That’s a really great point and scary to think about the alternative. Just a few more questions for you as we move on. You mentioned Will Clark a few times and I always love hearing stories about him. You were his teammate for four seasons at his peak. The floor is yours to tell us some Will Clark stories.
Will was one of the fiercest competitors I ever played with or against. He had a reputation for being a bad teammate, but he was just cocky and confident. He didn’t have a filter between his brain and his mouth, so he tended to say a lot of stuff that wasn’t the smartest.
Will got a lot of crap, but it was deserved because he had a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But I tell everybody in the world, if I needed a base hit to save my life and I couldn’t be up there to hit, I’d send Will to the plate. I was a very good hitter with the game on the line. I loved those situations, but if I couldn’t be the one up there to get a hit with my life on my line, I’d take Will Clark over anyone that I played with or against.
Watching him as a fan, I thought he was the most intense and focused player in all of baseball. Was that what you saw as his teammate too?
I never saw him give away an at bat. Sometimes if you’re 2-3 with a couple doubles and some RBIs and maybe you’re up in the seventh inning with a big lead, you might take a couple of crappy swings and ground out and be mad at yourself. But that son of a gun Will Clark had the ability to just be so focused and intense. He never gave away an at bat; it didn’t matter the score or situation. Every single at bat was the last out of the World Series. He was also the most unselfish superstar I ever played with. He was going to do whatever it took to win that game. He’d run through a wall, run over the biggest catcher at home plate and if we needed a home run, he was probably going to hit it. When you crossed those lines, he was the best teammate I ever had.
That’s awesome to hear and just how I pictured him. For a while there, I thought he was the best player in baseball.
You never know with his body and stuff, but I felt like he needed only about four more good years to become a Hall of Famer. But you know, he never worked out. He didn’t believe in it. I used to tell Will that if he had one muscle, it would get lonely. There’s no telling how long his body would have lasted. I think he had a good first year in Texas, but I don’t think he ever was the same after he left San Francisco. I was with him in Spring Training in Texas. It was a new team with Jose Canseco, Pudge Rodriguez, Kevin Brown, Juan Gonzalez. All these stars, and I was just stunned. In the old days, Will would have walked right into that locker room and told Canseco to go get him a cup of coffee and mean it. He would have believed that he was the shit. But Will came in and was trying to be funny and fit in and to me that was out of character.
In each of your full seasons you played at least five different positions. You essentially played every position on the field, which I always think is an incredible feat to be able to do at the Major League level. Looking back, what do you think now of the ability you had to do that?
I am not a braggard, but the one regret I have is that I never got the chance to play every day and I think I could have been a good everyday player for years. Second base was my main position. I didn’t have enough power to play third or first every day but I was a solid second baseman with a little power and strong arm, I could have done that every day. I just regret that I never had the chance to prove it or disprove it. But being versatile came easy to me because I had good hands and a really strong and accurate throwing arm.
A lot of things I did were unorthodox. We had Bob Lillis as a fielding coach in San Francisco; we called him Flea. I told him that I did some things unorthodox, but to let me go. But I promised that if it was hit to me and I caught it, I would get the out because I had that strong accurate arm. I relied on that because I was never very fast, but I played the hitters right and got a good jump on the ball wherever I played.
Does that also include your one-game stint on the mound for the Giants too?
I was the closer on my college team and the emergency pitcher all through the minors. It would be like the 13th or 14th inning, and they’d say that if it went another inning, the game would be mine from there, but the pitcher would always end up giving up a run. When I got my chance for the Giants, I hit like 92 on the gun and the only person that got a hit off me was a Hall of Famer, Jeff Bagwell, and I jammed him. Then the umpire started squeezing me and I walked in a run. I was trying hard not to give that run up. Maybe a little too hard. It was fun. I was always their emergency pitcher and would throw bullpens. A lot of times you’d get to extra innings and pitching is running low and I was the emergency guy. It never happened, but I would have loved to come into a close game. Because if I got a win, those pitchers never would have heard the end of that!