The event was supposed to be fun and relaxing, a chance for current and former athletes to mingle while raising money for charity. But with spreading wildfires encroaching on the Mayacama Golf Club in Santa Rosa, Calif., where the University of California San Francisco Medical Center had planned to hold its Celebrity Golf Classic on Monday, cheers turned to fears as athletes scrambled to flee the premises the night before.
“It was a crazy, surreal night,” former baseball player Bret Saberhagen told the San Francisco Chronicle on Monday. “I was out on the balcony at Mayacama when the power went out and sat down, and saw the moon come up, it was very nice. And then I saw the moon turn orange and it started getting lighter and lighter. I saw the fire coming over the ridge and I could hear propane and gas tanks popping.”
Saberhagen was one of several former baseball players at the event, along with Barry Bonds, Eric Gagne and Joe Carter. Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen was also there, as was UFC fighter Henry Cejudo, who had one of the more harrowing nights.
After relocating to the Fountaingrove Inn, which would also succumb to the flames, Cujedo escaped with only the pants on his legs.
“I’m just happy to be alive,” Cejudo, who won a gold medal for wrestling at the 2008 Olympics, told Yahoo Sports on Tuesday.
Wearing only a black pair of pants, and no shoes or shirt, Cejudo jumped off his second-story balcony in the early hours of Monday morning after sleeping through fire alarms and other efforts to get guests to leave. By that time, the fire had reached the inn.
“As I jumped off, I landed on a branch that was on fire. Honestly, there was fire everywhere,” Cejudo said. “The fire burned the top of my right foot. I was okay, but I had to put the fire out that was on my right foot. And as I was walking toward the front of the hotel, where the lobby was, it was all going. I saw the hotel on fire, cars on fire, houses around it. It was terrible.”
Cejudo was eventually able to flag down a firetruck, which helped him to safety.
In some cases, however, it was the athletes who played hero, making sure others were able to safely escape the flames. Back at the Mayacama, Bonds used a golf cart to shuttle guests off the property, according to the Chronicle, while Saberhagen helped rescue Jansen and his wife, who did not have their own transportation. To fit the Jansens in his rental care, Saberhagen sacrificed his golf clubs, according to the Chronicle.
The athletes able to flee checked into hotels in what they thought were safer locations, but like the Fountaingrove Inn, others also were affected. That included a Best Western that Gagne, Saberhagen and the Jansens checked into, according to the paper. This time it was Gagne, a three time MLB all-star, who helped guests escape by going door-to-door and knocking to alert everyone to get out. Among those rescued was Saberhagen.
“Eric was yelling, ‘Get up, get up,’ knocking at every door, and when I opened the door, smoke billowed in and I could see areas on fire,” the former MLB all-star told the Chronicle. “There was a telephone pole on fire, the grounds were on fire, ashes were flying all over the place, and what really scared me was that there was a gas station across the street.”
Eventually all the athletes found safety, with some opting to return to San Francisco. Not all of their possessions, however, made it out with them. Saperhagen’s golf clubs pale in comparison to what Cejudo lost in the blaze: his Olympic medal, Olympic ring and Olympic belt, Yahoo Sports reports. But for Cejudo, that was a small price to pay for his life.
“You know, the medal just was an object, just a medal and that’s it,” Cejudo told Yahoo. “What really meant something was the blood, the sweat, the tears that went into getting that medal. I’ll always have the memories of that with me. … I am fortunate to be here talking to you and being alive. That’s the important thing.”
As for the golf tournament, which was to be hosted by NFL Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, that obviously was canceled. Lott’s charitable foundation All Stars Helping Kids tweeted an announcement on Monday.
The wildfires raging across Northern California’s wine-rich counties have killed at least 17 people and continued to spread as of Wednesday morning. More than 2,000 buildings and homes have been destroyed. Most vineyards, however, have escaped major damage, including several of those owned by former athletes. Among those unscathed, according to the Mercury News, are: TwentyFour Wines, owned by former Raiders star Charles Woodson; Red Stitch Wine, co-owned by former San Francisco Giants star Rich Aurilia; Vermeil Wines, owned by former NFL Coach Dick Vermeil; 7 Cellars Wine, owned by John Elway; Casa Piena, owned by former 49ers president Carmen Policy; Mirror Wine, owned by former 49ers and Raiders quarterback Rick Mirer; and several vintners who make wine for Joe Montana’s label.
However, baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, who owns Seaver Vineyards, was among at least 12 wineries that have suffered damage.
“Seaver Vineyards has suffered intense smoke and ash but we have dodged intense fires around us,” a statement on the winery’s Facebook page read. “We remain alert for our friends here on Diamond Mountain, Napa & Sonoma Counties.”