The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

May 21, 2013

HERTZEL COLUMN- Catastrophes make you stop and think

MORGANTOWN — The scenes have been gruesome, devastation everywhere, words flowing from the mouths of reporters that are as difficult to comprehend as are the images on the eyes.

The Oklahoma City area has been flattened by tornadoes, spinning funnels of death two miles wide reaching into the sky, removing whatever it is that is in its path, be it a stable filled with horses or a schoolhouse filled with children, innocent and frightened, trapped in the debris with heroic teachers laying atop the little ones, putting their own lives at risk for those lives of the children.

This, of course, is in Oklahoma, “Tornado Alley,” as it were. It is another world from our own in West Virginia, except that the reshaping of the world of collegiate sports has somehow placed the Mountaineer baseball team, which has had a tornado of a season of its own this year, in the midst of this disaster.

It was that on their minds when the tornado sirens started screeching, offering warning of the oncoming tornadoes but giving no hint if they would be upon the team itself.

Luckily, the storms slid by a few miles away, but the horrific nature of the destruction sprung them into action. Too often, in this world that is our own, our athletes are spoiled and self-centered, privileged in a world where maybe there are more important things than how hard you can throw a baseball or how fast you can run or how high you can jump.

This baseball team at West Virginia, though, is a special group, for they gathered together not before video of the Kansas pitcher they will face in the Big 12 Tournament, but to get on a team bus and drive into the area of destruction and offer their services for rescue.

That their offer to help was turned down did not detract from the genuine feelings they put forth for grade school kids buried in the rubble of an elementary school that was leveled or to do whatever it was they could at a time when lives as much as buildings were in ruins.

“As we are sitting here watching the devastation and trying to talk to the police in Moore (Okla.), the latest word is don’t come right now,” Coach Randy Mazey said on the radio. “There are so many families trying to come in that everything is blocked. We told them our team is on call if they need us.”

If you haven’t been involved in anything like this, it is difficult to imagine the magnitude.

“There’s so many suffering,” Mazey said. “You guys are not seeing what we are seeing.”

As someone who has seen such destruction and devastation, who has seen such suffering, let me say that it can’t do anything but eat at your heart.

On Oct. 17, 1989, I was among the thousands in Candlestick Park when the San Francisco earthquake hit, when the ground shook at 7.1 on the Richter scale. While it lasted only 15 seconds, it seemed like an eternity tucked under a desk in the stadium’s press area as the San Francisco Marina district, built on landfill, and the Nimitz Freeway were broken apart.

Sixty people died, and for the next couple of days were out among the injured and the homeless, toilets unable to flush, aftershocks leaving you grabbing for something sturdy, broken glass falling out of the windows of skyscrapers throughout the nights.

And if that were not enough for an itinerant sports writer, there was the day he had arrived in Montreal while traveling with the Cincinnati Reds, only to be awakened from a midafternoon nap by a phone call from a hysterical wife, screaming into the phone, “Bob, we just got hit by a tornado. I’ve got to go. The firemen are taking the kids away.”

And she hung up the phone. After getting my head together, I made plans to come home as soon as I could, an airline strike making it impossible to get out for a couple of days, but I did change rooms, room No. 1313 having proved to be hardly a lucky room.

As it was, the children were not injured, the imploding glass shards going over their heads as they played on the floor and them not being near the car that wound up upside down atop another car.

Those two events, however, were far more significant than sporting moments I ever covered, and it is why the reaction to this disaster of the WVU baseball team is hundreds of times more meaningful than any on-field heroics its athletic teams have been involved in.

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.

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