Ron Agostini: A fond farewell to Candlestick Park

ragostini@modbee.comDecember 21, 2013 

I was 9 when I walked into Candlestick Park for the first time. It was July 15, 1960, a night game against the Los Angeles Dodgers and, sure enough, I wore a sweater, coat and cap and still froze.

We sat in the upper deck down the left-field line, a good seat for two reasons: 1. It offered a wonderful view of the surrounding bay, and 2. It presented an ideal vantage point for the weirdness about to take place.

“Sad” Sam Jones, the San Francisco Giants’ starting pitcher, was hammered that night and the Giants eventually lost 5-3. But that wasn’t the weird part. I watched in abject horror during the early innings as fog rolled in over the stadium like a tidal wave. Home plate seemed like 10 miles away.

Minutes later, Willie McCovey lofted a fly ball to left that Dodger outfielders Wally Moon and Duke Snider couldn’t have tracked if they had Doppler radar. It fell for a triple but it also prompted the umpires to stop the game for 24 minutes.

My first game at Candlestick was delayed...by fog!

That was Candlestick, and in many ways it was a raging failure from the start. Half the seats were supposed to be heated but that never happened because the radiant-heating piping was installed too deep into the cement. Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first ball in 1960 and proclaimed Candlestick “the finest (ballpark) in America.”

I doubt if he ever returned.

Still, I’ll carry indelible memories of Candlestick through the rest of my days. Sentimental thoughts, too, but for reasons beyond sports.

To see it now, a musty and crumbling shell of a place, is to know its days are done. Sewage ran through the lower-deck concourse at a 49er game last month. You leaped over the tiny stream, ducked under the yellow tape and continued on your way. Fans parked on hillsides and mudflats. People died – eight alone during the 1962 season – as they trudged up nearby Cardiac Hill. Attending a game there bordered closer to negotiating an obstacle course.

But get this: On its most famous and infamous day, Candlestick passed the test. On Oct. 17, 1989, only minutes before the start of Game 3 of the World Series, the Loma Prieta earthquake lashed Northern California with a 7.1. Richter Scale jolt. Freeway structures collapsed and killed helpless motorists below. A portion of the Bay Bridge dropped like a tired accordian. Fires turned San Francisco neighborhoods into war zones.

But Candlestick, with a packed house inside, shook but never fell. I’m forever grateful because my parents, the same people who gave yours truly his first taste of Candlestick 29 years before on that foggy night, again sat in the upper deck that evening. They reported a 30-second up-and-down sensation not unlike riding a snarling bronc, but they survived.

Candlestick protected its clientele on the day of its biggest test. All other factors pale in importance. There, it always started with the elements.

The 1962 World Series was decided by, of course, the weather. Heavy rain stopped the series cold and even banished the Yankees and the Giants to Modesto’s Del Webb Field for a memorable practice session. Then, in the bottom of the ninth of Game 7, Willie Mays drilled one down the right-field line that – in normal conditions – would have plated Matty Alou for the tying run.

The wet grass slowed the ball, however, allowing Roger Maris to cut it off before it reached the fence. Then Willie McCovey nearly knocked down second baseman Bobby Richardson with a stinging line drive that ended it 1-0. Mother Nature often betrayed the home team at Candlestick.

Later, after the games of my youth were transformed into the games of my career, I marveled as I checked out Candlestick from the sidelines late in a 49er game. The wind swirled in all directions at once. I wondered how Jim Davenport, Robby Thompson or Will Clark ever caught a popup or how Joe Montana managed a tight spiral to Dwight Clark or Jerry Rice. Or how any kicker or punter did his job without losing his sanity.

Before the park was enclosed for the 49ers in the early 1970s, Candlestick could be gorgeous on the right day. I remember spring-like afternoons and walkoff home runs by Willie Mays and Felipe Alou. My personal favorites were an upper-deck walkoff masterpiece by Clark in 1987 and Brian Johnson’s epic game winner in the 12th against the Dodgers in ‘97.

For all its imperfections, Candlestick definitely outkicked its coverage thrill-wise. The place witnessed everything: Two All-Star Games, two World Series, three National League Championship Series and, yes, the home teams that brought home five Super Bowl titles. Pope John Paul even was there in 1987, 10 years after acrobat Karl Wallenda tightroped across the Stick and even paused above the infield for a headstand. “The Catch” in January of 1982 is a part of NFL lore.

The 49ers and the Atlanta Falcons will meet in the 36th Monday Night Football game at Candlestick. It will be the venue’s final regular-season NFL game, and it will draw the curtain on the country’s quirkiest but most unforgettable sports stage. It was true to itself from start to finish, from the swirling hotdog wrappers to the icy wind to the Gulden’s mustard on the condiment stand.

A proper goodbye to Candlestick actually was voiced 47 years ago by Paul McCartney as he and the Beatles closed their final official concert.

McCartney delivered Candlestick’s perfect epitaph with his final words: “Sorry about the weather.”

Bee staff writer Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or (209) 578-2302. Follow him on Twitter @ModBeeSports.

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