Unstuck

08.15.14

San Fran Kisses Its 70,000-Person Toilet Goodbye

Candlestick Park was a disaster of a stadium from Day One. Yet from Willie Mays and quake terror to two Beatle finales, it’s been an apt home for the moments that define its city.

SAN FRANCISCO — This town has long prided itself as “The City That Knows How.” Loaded with justifiable conceit, that catchy tribute gained popular traction following the manner and style—emphasis on style—in which the city rebuilt itself following the Great Earthquake and Fire of 1906.

Then came Candlestick Park.

So much for reputation and cute slogans.

Candlestick Park, born in 1960 and scheduled to be executed presently, was an unpleasant, uncomfortable, cold, remote, windblown penitentiary located as far from San Francisco as this city’s mythical 49-square-mile limit permitted.

The other version: Candlestick Park was where Willie Mays and Joe Montana turned their sports into art, where the Beatles held their final concert (an otherwise forgettable performance that lasted all of 33 minutes), where Paul McCartney performed at its final event just last night, and where more than 70,000 people went to see Pope John Paul II.  So don’t you dare sully with your bitter, heartless bromides the cherished memories of hundreds of thousands of people who—if not downright genuflecting—are mourning its impending doom today.

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Richard Mackson

To paraphrase the worst and most cliched lede in sportswriting history, Candlestick Park wasn’t pretty, but its fans will take it. That partly explains why seats previously inhabited by shivering backsides are now selling for $750 a pair.

It was a sturdy shrine to brilliance and glory. It was a decrepit tenement of shame and ignominy.

“It’s an abortion,” the great St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Curt Flood said to me, unsolicited, nearly 40 years ago—a great quotation that I never forgot and never had the occasion to use until now. (Flood belongs in baseball’s Hall of Fame, but that’s a subject for another time and, no doubt, another website.)

Another former Cardinal, Manager Whitey Herzog, told former Los Angeles Times and San Francisco Examiner sportswriter Dwight Chapin in 1999: “Sitting in the dugout is like sitting in the bottom of a toilet. All that tissue blows in, and no one flushes it.”

Former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo famously dubbed it a “pigsty.”

Candlestick Park was the scene of “The Catch,” which propelled the 49ers to their first Super Bowl victory. Mays collected his 3,000th hit there. Stu Miller was (or wasn’t, depending on how much you buy into legend and lore) blown off its pitching mound during the 1962 All-Star Game. To this day, Charlie Brown of Peanuts fame laments Bobby Richardson’s grab of Willie McCovey’s line drive to end the ’62 World Series, giving the championship to the Yankees.

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From the lovely spring afternoon in the mid-1950s when local contractor Charles Harney hoodwinked Giants owner Horace Stoneham into believing that Candlestick Point was the perfect setting for the ballpark (he conveniently arranged the visit around noon, a few hours before the soon-to-be legendary swirling winds usually began to generate) to McCartney’s three hours of swan songs last night, Candlestick Park has been a source of love and a scourge of god to San Franciscans. (Informed last summer during another San Francisco appearance that Candlestick’s remaining days were few, McCartney remarked, off-handedly, that he might like to play at the stadium’s final event. One thing led to another, as they always do, and last night’s day was set.)

The lights have gone out at Candlestick Park before, remember: Two power failures during a December 2011 Monday Night Football game against the Pittsburgh Steelers created an atrocity that all but cinched the 49ers’ move 45 miles down the road to Santa Clara, where they will begin playing in a matter of days.

In protest of the distance, the stadium builder licenses (SBLs), and the price of tickets, hundreds if not thousands of city-dwelling fans have decided not to renew their season seats. Some of them have been in their families’ hands for decades. Not to worry, team: Games at Levi’s Stadium have been sold out for weeks.

Last night's show was sold out, too. Yet, fittingly, city and stadium officials somehow didn't know how to pull it off, with local news outlets reporting that thousands of fans got stuck getting in and out of the 'Stick. With traffic still backed up for miles two hours after the scheduled 8 p.m. start (the show began 55 minutes late), many furious concert-goers finally abandoned the effort to get in.

The long, tortured beginning of the end, as it happens, was precipitated by the city’s second-most famous temblor: the Loma Prieta earthquake of Oct. 17, 1989.

Yes, I was there.

I won’t miss it, but I’ll still talk about it fondly, interspersed with generous portions of invectives and epithets.

From a piece I wrote for SFGate.com in 1999:

At 5:05 p.m., I was walking up the third-deck steps at Candlestick Park, a hot dog in my left hand and a beer in my right. A man sitting in one of the aisle seats suddenly pointed skyward in back of me, above centerfield, and exclaimed, Look!"

I turned around and saw the US Navy Blue Angels about to buzz the stadium. The vibrations from the fighter jets shook me.

At least, I thought the vibrations were from the jets. The shaking got stronger, and stronger still.

Normally of good balance, I found myself reaching for the handrail, unable to clasp it for the refreshments in my hands.

The shaking was worse now, overwhelming. The top deck above centerfield appeared to undulate. I had to sit down on the steps.

Now Candlestick was rocking... and now, 15 seconds after it started, it was over.

Silence.

Then a deafening cheer, as 50,000 people realized at once we had just experienced a major earthquake. The Loma Prieta Earthquake, 7.1 on the Richter scale, killer of 62 (out of more than 3,000 injured), had just slammed its way into Bay Area history.

The first TV news reports declared, The Bay Bridge has collapsed, there are cars in the water," but at Candlestick, curiously, calm prevailed. The two daily newspapers in San Francisco rushed to put out special editions; the Chronicle proclaimed, Hundreds Dead."

So much for preliminary news reports. The Bay Bridge hadn't totally collapsed; however, a 30-foot section of it did. And there were no cars in the water. Also, fortunately, hundreds hadn't died.

But there was $7 billion in property damage, $1.5 billion in highway repair, $8.3 billion in direct losses.

The double-decked I-880 Cypress structure in Oakland sandwiched, crushing to death several people

Four hundred homes were destroyed and 18,000 more were damaged. Fourteen thousand were left homeless. Ninety-seven businesses were destroyed and 2,500 more were damaged.

The World Series was put on hold for two weeks as damage to Candlestick was assessed.

Ten bridges were closed; the span linking Oakland to the City didn't reopen for more than a month.

We had waited all our lives for a Bay Bridge Series, and suddenly, there was barely a World Series, and no Bay Bridge.

The A’s eventually swept the Giants in four games to win the championship. The Giants, after nearly moving to St. Petersburg, Florida, before the 1993 season, managed to get a new ballpark built, where they have since won two titles.

The final sporting event at the ’Stick (in this wacky, provincial town, you can call Candlestick “the ’Stick,” but don’t you dare call the city “Frisco”) was an exhibition soccer match between the San Jose Earthquakes and Spanish league champion Atletico Madrid in late July.

Demolition will begin in 2015, and developers plan housing and a shopping complex for the site.

I won’t miss it, but I’ll still talk about it fondly, interspersed with generous portions of invectives and epithets. And if I can finagle the editor of this site to fork over $750, I’ll have a couple of stadium seats in my living room from which I’ll watch 49ers games this season.

That’s how we do it now, in The City That Knows How.