Jeff Jardine: Reflections on time spent at Candlestick

08/23/2014 6:09 PM

08/23/2014 11:15 PM

It is a cold, concrete edifice that sits out on a blustery point alongside San Francisco Bay.

Many nights, I froze my backside off there, and I still have a Croix de Candlestick button or two to show for it. Many days, the afternoon winds kicked up so hard that I could swear I saw the Marlboro Man holding onto his hat on the ad next to the scoreboard in left field. In fact, it may have been the most inhospitable setting for professional sports anywhere at any time.

And in truth, I haven’t set foot in the place since a Giants-Reds game in 1998. But when demolition begins a few months from now – one if by wrecking ball, two if by TNT – I can tell you it will hurt a little bit. Saying goodbye to Candlestick Park, for people of my generation, is like saying goodbye to a cantankerous old friend or relative that you probably came to appreciate more toward the end than at the time. It reminds us of so many things in life: joys, heartbreaks and sentiments.

There are many whose personal timelines include the ’Stick, as Modesto’s Kathy Riggs reminded us recently. She was a 13-year-old girl who attended both the official Beatles concert there in 1966 and ex-Beatle Paul McCartney’s concert Aug. 14, the last event before the stadium comes down. Many of us have vivid memories of the place as well, but Candlestick would have been nothing without the people who played there and the fans who remained loyal to their teams and the memories created by the generations.

I was born three years before it opened in time for the Giants’ 1960 season. It is where I saw my first major league baseball game, my first 49ers game, where I later covered the Giants during the only World Series ever delayed by an earthquake and the 49ers through three Super Bowl championship seasons.

More important, it is where my dad took me to my first big-league game and where I took him to his last 49ers game, and spanned all that happened in between. Graduations. Turning pro at that sportswriter thing. Marriage. The birth of my daughter. The deaths of so many people who meant so much, from great-grandparents (big Giants fans) to grandparents and numerous other relatives and friends, and yes, my dad. The rites of passage, of lifetimes.

I suspect most folks have a place or two that factored into their lives and are now just memories: Maybe one like the John Muir school in Modesto or old high school buildings torn down and replaced by new ones that meet earthquake standards but never replicate the character of the originals. They remind us of times in our lives, but more so the people with whom we shared them. And that is why when Candlestick goes, people throughout Northern California will have at least a tinge of emotion, if only in the form of nostalgia.

Candlestick was an eccentric place even before they added the upper deck all the way around when the 49ers moved in during the early 1970s, but just as much so afterward. The major difference was that hot dog wrappers that would blow out of the original stadium would circle it three or four times after it was enclosed and became the world’s only self-cleaning ballpark. Writing late into the night after games, we’d watch the wrappers eventually settle into the northwest corner of the stadium, where workers picked them up.

Pardon me if the following random recollection ramblings are chronologically incorrect:

• Jack Sanford pitched for the Giants against the Dodgers in 1961, the first game I remember my dad taking us to at Candlestick. The opposing pitcher that day? Roger Craig, whom I later came to know, like and respect because he managed the Giants when I covered sports in late 1980s and into the 1990s.
• We watched Karl Wallenda walk a tightrope from the third-base to the first-base sides between games of a doubleheader against the Mets in 1977. He performed a headstand on the wire over the pitchers mound.
• And I must admit it was pretty humbling to be sitting in the baseball press box one Aug. 30, probably in 1990 or so, and seeing “A Giant Happy Birthday Jeff Jardine” emblazoned in lights on the scoreboard in left field. (A credit/blame to a sportswriter friend from a Bay Area paper for tipping off the Giants’ PR staff about it.)
• While in the football press box one day in the late 1980s, I noticed people in the seats just below suddenly jumping to their feet. Montana to Rice? No. A fox – no doubt as frightened as the fans were surprised – ran under their seats, down the stairs and then exited, stage right. I suspect he lived on the hill behind the stadium.
• During a game between the 49ers and Browns in 1988, my dad and brother sat in the upper deck above the north end zone, where many fans went shirtless and lathered on the 40 SPF sunscreen. My nephews sat in the lower deck on the south end by the baseball dugouts, bundled up in parkas, scarves and gloves. The field, encrusted in ice when I arrived that morning, never defrosted the entire day where it remained in the shade.
• The steepness of the upper deck was no country for old men, as a movie title suggests. In August 1979, my brother and I and some friends went to a Giants-Dodgers game. The Giants entered the weekend in first place and left it in second. Caught in traffic on the Bay Bridge coming into the city, we ended up parking in the dirt lot way out near the Bay. As we ran – no, really – to the stadium, we’d hear the repeated crack of the bat and roar of the crowd. By the time we got into the ballpark and found our seats in the upper deck in center field, the Dodgers led 4-0 and Giants’ starter Bob Knepper was walking off the field. I don’t think he’d gotten an out before manager Joe Altobelli yanked him in what became a 5-1 loss.

As we settled into our seats, an elderly gent came up the steps holding his ticket and looking for his seat. He worked his way along the row above us, the wind gusting and giving him problems. We all turned to help steady him, as did the folks in the row above. When he reached at what he thought was his seat, someone was in it. He looked at the ticket more closely this time.

“Aw!” he moaned, adding an expletive or two. Wrong section. Turned right when he should have turned left. So he turned and headed back in the opposite direction, grumbling his apologies. We all steadied him again, fans bonding in the moment of good samaritanship.

• Similarly, during a 49ers game one Sunday, my dad sat in an aisle seat in the upper deck, at about the 25-yard line. It’s probably the steepest section of seating anywhere in the park. He heard people above him yelling “Look out!” and turned just in time to see an elderly fan teetering and starting to fall down the stairs. Dad reached up, caught him and steadied him. The gentleman said his thanks, then grabbed the rail and proceeded down the stairway. A few minutes later, he returned, beer in hand. He stopped to again thank Dad for catching him. Then he lost his balanced again and tumbled down the stairs, suds flying all over the place. His son, trailing with a beer in each hand, dropped the payload and stopped him. Amazingly, the man wasn’t seriously hurt. Just thirsty.
• The stadium defied physics. Covering a Giants-Dodgers game in 1992, I watched Darryl Strawberry scorch a line drive off of Giants pitcher Bill Swift toward second base. Second baseman Robby Thompson instinctively reacted like he had a chance to snare it. Then it took off like one of those pod racers in a “Star Wars” prequel, slicing and rising until it hit the upper deck 460 feet from home plate.
• And when the earthquake struck just before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series, I sat in the media section of the upper deck. Television monitors mounted on poles swayed as the park rumbled and shook. When newer buildings elsewhere in the city buckled and a section of the Bay Bridge fell, retrofitted Candlestick survived.

A few months from now, after the last seat is removed and everything of value has been stripped away for salvage or auction, Candlestick Park will come down. Whether by explosives or seriously big wrecking balls, demolition crews will try to do what Mother Nature could not 25 years ago: destroy the place.

But they can’t destroy the memories, the anecdotes and those moments that spanned generations.

Only time itself can do that.

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