Goodbye, Candlestick

Gary Kamiya | December 24, 2013 | Story

Cities are always dying and being reborn. Usually the process is gradual, imperceptible, like the change in the seasons. A thousand tiny changes take place – a store closes down, a neighbor moves away, a house sells, a new business opens – and one day you notice that the neighborhood you knew is gone forever. You’d like to mourn the loss, but you scarcely have time. Because by the time you realize a cherished part of your old city is dead, you’ve already gotten used to the new one that replaced it. Cities are heartless simulacra of life. They keep moving. And they don’t wait for you or your feelings to catch up.

But every now and then a big part of a city dies suddenly, right in front of everyone’s eyes. And when that happens, you do get a chance to say goodbye – to a part of your city, and a part of yourself. On those rare occasions, you feel the whole city shift, as if it were rearranging its weight to make up for the loss. During my time in San Francisco, that has happened only three times: When Playland at the Beach closed in 1972, when Herb Caen died in 1997, and last night, when Candlestick Park hosted what was almost certainly its last game.

I missed the last day at Playland, but I was able to pay my respects to Herb Caen when the city turned out to stroll down the Embarcadero in his honor – and I was fortunate enough to make it out to the ‘Stick for its last hurrah. It was the last chance to bid farewell to a place that had given me, and countless others, more than 50 years of happy memories. And by some marvelous alchemy, the old concrete bowl on Jamestown Avenue delivered one more unforgettable moment.

We’ll get to the Miracle on the 11-Yard-Line. But first, it’s worth remembering some things about Candlestick that have been overlooked in the eulogies. For me, the physical park itself – in particular, its location – has always had a strange allure. The extreme southeast part of San Francisco, where the ‘Stick is located, is a fascinating place. It’s at the extreme end of the city, geographically but also psychologically. This part of town has always been a dumping ground for things and people the city found undesirable. In the 19th century, noxious businesses like slaughterhouses were moved here. After the 1906 quake, the city fathers tried to relocate Chinatown to Hunter’s Point, a short distance north of the park. And after World War II, that same neighborhood ended up becoming an impoverished and crime-ridden ghetto, one even more isolated from the city after the Bayshore Freeway was built.

For most San Franciscans, Bayview-Hunter’s Point was out of sight, out of mind. But going to Candlestick – if you went off the beaten path – meant venturing into that terra incognita. As a first impoverished, then simply cheap Giants’ fan who would no more pay for parking than abandon the practice of smuggling beer into the park in 2-liter soda bottles, for decades of my life my route to the game took me in erratic patterns through the obscure and surreal streets off Ingalls and Jamestown. The trick was to find a street close enough to walk to the park, while avoiding traffic, Talmudic no-parking restrictions, or returning to your car to discover that it was on blocks with its wheels and tires removed. One obscure, steep block of Hawes Street was my favorite.

Those convoluted excursions through an obscure and impoverished part of town are a big part of what I will miss about Candlestick. The fact that it stood there, at the burned-out butt-end of the city, beneath a peculiar and very steep hill, with a monstrous 630-ton traveling crane in the abandoned World War II shipyard visible in the distance, at the end of a maze of strange streets I could never quite learn, made the city itself bigger, more enigmatic. Somehow I doubt that the shiny, new, luxury-box-boasting, corporate-friendly Santa Clara stadium will afford such decrepit urban mysteries.

Another one of the ‘Stick’s attractions was its patrons. Forget the quiche-and-Chardonnay image erroneously associated with SF sports: Giants fans at the ‘Stick were rough, verbally abusive, hard drinking, and occasionally violent, dominated by blue-collar, Excelsior District, Unite-and-Fight-with-Dan White types whose behavior can only be described as Philadelphia-esque. The Giants’ splendid new ballpark is superior to Candlestick in almost every way, but I confess I miss the old foul-mouthed patrons.

But for most people, Candlestick itself was just a dump, and the only good thing about it was Giants and the 49ers. Its death means the end of a sports shrine, a memory palace. I have my own long list of memories. I first went to a Giants’ game sometime in the early 1960s, an experience that left me with one tiny scrap of memory, the tiny figure of Willie Mays making a basket catch in center field, as distant and poignant as a myth. I saw Jerry Rice soar into the air to break Jim Brown’s all-time touchdown record. But my favorite memory is a more obscure one. I saw Willie McCovey, the most beloved Giant of them all, get the game-winning hit on Willie McCovey Day, at the end of his career And when Stretch came back on the field to doff his cap, the roar from the crowd as pure and joyous an outpouring of public love as I’ve ever seen or heard.

Before last night’s game, I went onto the field, where a host of former 49er and Giants greats were wandering around, talking to old friends, being interviewed and just basking in the glow of the occasion. Jerry Rice was there, loose and smiling and exuberantly dancing his way through interviews, stylish as always in a sharp suit with purple shirt, tie and killer matching purple Nikes. I asked him if any memories in particular stood out from his years at Candlestick. “There are too many,” he said. “It’s impossible to choose just one.” He did recall breaking the TD record. A few minutes later, Steve Young appeared on the field and took a football. Jerry ran down the sideline towards that same end zone, a slow-motion version of that familiar effortless, gracefully robotic stride, and Steve lobbed him a 30-yard strike, and then did it again. As the two old teammates and Hall of Famers embraced, applause rained down from the crowd like a benediction.

Besides football, I had my own reason to applaud #80. My late aunt Wendy was a huge Jerry Rice fan. When she was dying, a mutual friend asked Jerry if he would call her. He did not know her, but he did. She was no longer able to speak, but he talked to her for a few minutes and told her to stay strong. For me, that memory is a permanent touchdown.

Larry Baer, the Giants’ exec who was instrumental in getting AT&T Park built, was taking pictures on the field with his teenage sons. I asked him what his thoughts were on the ‘Stick’s last night. “Who can forget Willie Mays patrolling center field, or Juan Marichal’s high leg kick?” he asked. “I came here with my dad and I remember him literally huddled down against the cold. But that was OK. The ballpark is a beautiful place when you’re a little kid. The memories are as good as any ballpark in America.”

I asked Keena Turner, the linebacker who helped anchor the defense of the great 49ers teams of the 1980s and 1990s, what he was feeling. “It’s mixed, bittersweet,” the kindly-looking Turner told me. “What you have to hold onto is that the memories don’t go away. The place may be gone, but they can’t take those memories away.”

And then the game started – and produced its own indelible memory.

The 49ers needed to beat the Falcons to advance to the playoffs. If they lost, they would face an away elimination game against a very tough Arizona Cardinals team. At 4-10, the Falcons were supposed to be a pushover. But they didn’t get the memo. They played their best game of the year. The 49ers almost put them away twice in the 4th quarter, but they kept coming back, veteran quarterback Matt Ryan – one of the best in the league—slicing up the 49ers secondary. With a little more than two minutes left, the Falcons had cut the 49er lead to three. Everyone knew they were going to try an onside kick. The 49ers had their “hands” unit on the field. Navarro Bowman, their all-universe linebacker, was guarding the sideline in the second tier. The kick squirted towards him, took a bad hop—and went right through him. A Falcon recovered the ball at the 49er 30.

A few plays later, the Falcons had moved the ball to near the 10 yard line – near the same north end zone where Dwight Clark made The Catch, the iconic, dynasty-launching moment that had been celebrated at halftime. A tying field goal was a gimme, and a winning touchdown seemed unstoppable. The mellow, valedictory vibe had vanished. If the 49ers lost, and missed the playoffs, Bowman would be a goat of cosmic proportions, the Billy Buckner of eternal football infamy. They would have to raze Candlestick just to exorcise the demons.

And then one of the most dramatic and improbable plays in NFL history happened. Ryan dropped back to pass. The 49ers, figuring it was better to die suddenly than continue to be carved into tiny pieces, finally called an all-out, jailbreak blitz. Ryan made the hot throw to Harry Douglas, but cornerback Tramaine Brock – who had himself been burned earlier on a long TD pass – made a brilliant play, smashing into Douglas just as the ball arrived. Brock got his hand and arm on the ball, violently dislodging it from Douglas’s grip. The ball popped gently into the air.

Bowman, who had been blitzing, had seen the pass. He reversed course and ran towards the play, later explaining that “a lot of plays are made when you run to the ball.” He caught the ball, turned and started running as hard as he could towards the other end zone, accompanied by a convoy of blockers, with one Falcon in pursuit. I was sitting halfway up the stands on the 50 yard line. The run seemed to take hours, and every yard the crowd went more and more insane. Bowman started to run out of gas around the 10, but he got there—sealing the victory, putting his team in the playoffs, and bidding a Wagnerian, orgasmic, fire-all-of-your-guns-at-once-and-explode-into-space farewell to Candlestick with an exultant leap into the end zone.

It had to end this way. From The Catch in one end zone to The Leap in the other, 32 years later – it was as if the Ghosts of Candlestick Past had made one last visit, transformed Scrooge, and given San Francisco a Christmas present it would never forget.

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