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The Death of the San Francisco 49ers

Gary Kamiya | August 19, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

The first 49ers game I ever went to was against the Chicago Bears at Kezar Stadium. My dad took me. It was a December afternoon in 1967, and I was 14 years old. Kezar was a faded old bowl plunked down in the middle of the working-class Inner Sunset. Scary-looking brick Polytechnic High School was across from it, along with some houses whose roofs afforded a free view of the gridiron—a veritable West Coast Wrigley Field. Golden Gate Park, filled with still-mysterious creatures called hippies, lay just beyond the foliage of Kezar Drive.

My memory of that day is so old that it resembles an ancient newsreel, flickering and spotty. I vaguely remember that Kezar had narrow wooden bench seating, that the stadium’s paint was peeling off, and that the field seemed a long way away. I can see seagulls circling overhead and hear 60,000 people cheering, a sound the exact pitch of which I’ve never encountered again. My only distinct memory is of the Bears’ Gale Sayers returning a punt for a touchdown, the instant when he cut back against the Niners’ defense an imperishable fragment of violent athletic perfection.

In 1971, the Niners departed decrepit Kezar for sleek, modern Candlestick Park, which they shared with the San Francisco Giants. When Candlestick opened in 1960, Vice President Richard Nixon threw out the first ball and said, “This will be one of the most beautiful baseball parks of all time.” Nixon’s prediction did not prove accurate, but the first time I saw the ’Stick, I would have agreed with him wholeheartedly. I was awed by the steep concrete bowl and the otherworldly escalator that climbed into the sky, the sea of orange seats, and, most of all, the big field, a green universe between chalk lines where epic deeds were going to be performed.

Over the years, I gathered indelible memories of the 49ers at Candlestick Park. Jerry Rice soaring into the air in the north end zone to break Jim Brown’s all-time touchdown record. Joe Montana scanning the field. Steve Young outrunning defensive backs. A young girl sitting next to me crying with happiness when Alex Smith fired the winning bullet to Vernon Davis in the 2012 NFC divisional playoff, after which Davis himself wept. And, during the last 49ers game ever played at the ’Stick, on December 23 of last year, in an ending too implausible to script, NaVorro Bowman returning an interception the length of the field and launching himself deliriously over the goal line to win the game.

The 49ers will produce more lasting memories. But they won’t produce them in San Francisco. This September, the San Francisco 49ers, the team I have been faithfully rooting for since that hazy day in ’67, will start playing their games at their new Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. Candlestick Park will be detonated in early 2015, joining the original Kezar Stadium in the trash can of history. An era that began in 1946, with the 49ers’ very first game at Kezar as part of the now-defunct All-America Football Conference, has come to an end. For the first time since Tony Morabito, who ran a lumber-carrying business in his native city, launched the 49ers in front of a crowd of longshoremen, factory workers, and draymen, San Francisco does not have a professional football team that plays in the city. This feels strange and wrong.

The simple truth is that, unless you’re a well-off resident of Santa Clara, San Mateo, or Santa Cruz County, or you passionately hated Candlestick (a not-so-small minority, even among San Francisco sports diehards), this move is a tough pill to swallow. The new stadium is priced for plutocrats, it is soul-shrivelingly corporate, and, of course, it is 40 exhaust-choked miles from San Francisco. But an equally simple truth is that for most of us fans, none of that necessarily matters. Because none of it is going to derail our love affair with the 49ers.

The dirty little secret about being a fan is that you’ll put up with anything. There’s pretty much nothing the team can do to permanently alienate you. The 49ers can hire Joe Thomas as general manager and Dennis Erickson as coach. They can start Jim Druckenmiller at quarterback. They can go 2–14. They can draft A.J. Jenkins. They can sign washed-up O.J. Simpson and insufferable Deion Sanders. And yes, they can leave town and build a $1.3 billion new stadium an hour away and frisk their loyal fans for thousands of dollars just for the right to spend even more on their season tickets (the dreaded seat license arrangement, more on which later), and we’re still going to watch them every Sunday. Because the 49ers are not their owners, not their front office, and not their stadium. They’re a Platonic concept, an unchanging, constantly changing entity made up of all the teams that have run onto the field over the years. And those of us who have drunk the red-and-gold Kool-Aid are not about to let the financial maneuverings of some suits deprive us of one of our favorite things in life.

For me, the move is mostly moot because, like a vast majority of fans, I usually watch the 49ers on TV. I’m as committed a fan as they come: I’ve only missed a handful of games in 35 years, the words “Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson” induce PTSD-like symptoms, and I’m still brooding about that phantom pass interference call on Eric Wright. But I’ve only been to about a dozen 49ers games in my life. The tickets were always too expensive (ah, I did not then know the meaning of the word), and I’m happy enough screaming at the set at home. So on a practical level, it doesn’t really make that much difference to me whether the 49ers play at Candlestick Point or at the bottom of the bay in Santa Clara. Ninety-nine percent of the time, I’m not going to be at either place.

And then there’s the other reason not to hold a grudge about being jilted: The new stadium is way, way, way better than the old one—and that’s accounting for the traffic jams and concession glitches that bedeviled the park at its grand opening last month. (The 49ers say that the problems will be addressed.) I went on a media tour of Levi’s Stadium this summer, then followed that up by joining a goodbye tour of Candlestick, so the comparison is fresh in my mind. And I can attest that Levi’s is to Candlestick as a shiny new maroon Bentley convertible with a chauffeur, a 42-inch HD TV, a Rogue RA:1K stereo, and a wet bar stocked with Château d’Yquem is to a yellow 1962 Volkswagen bug with a rusty body, torn vinyl, three empty Bud cans under the front seat, an engine that gets vapor lock after an hour on the freeway, and a worthless yet bust-inviting roach in the ashtray.

The most dramatic and obvious difference between the two stadiums is in the concourses. Candlestick’s public walkways were one step up from the Black Hole of Calcutta. Negotiating that narrow concrete passageway with a tray full of beers as a wall-to-wall phalanx of drunken yahoos bore down on you would have taxed even the lateral-movement abilities of Gale Sayers himself. Levi’s concourses, on the other hand, are like the fashion ethos of the 1970s blue jean: They’re wide. They stretch on and on. They allow even the most unsteady fan to wobble to his or her seat without colliding with half of the population of Los Gatos on the way.

Then there are the bathrooms. Candlestick appears to have been designed by one of those Werner Erhard–like behavior-modifying sadists for whom going to the bathroom indicates weakness of will. When the secret history of the ’Stick is written, its longest chapter will be about the legions of fans who missed epic moments while waiting to relieve themselves. Levi’s, on the other hand, will have 28 percent more plumbing fixtures than Candlestick and 250 more toilets. The only people complaining about this are catheter salesmen.

The contrast between the locker rooms is even starker. The old 49ers’ clubhouses at the ’Stick were ridiculously cramped, with Montana and Rice squeezed into a little space at the top of some absurdly placed stairs. The locker room below had only eight showers. The dingy, smelly tunnel that led out to the field was so low that current 49ers guard Alex Boone, who is 6 foot 8, had to duck his head when running down it. At Levi’s, the 49ers’ locker room is like a temple for oversize gladiators, with genuine walnut finishes on the 10-foot-tall lockers, high ceilings, and big TVs lining the walls. Even the visitors’ locker room (which, per hallowed, this-is-our-house custom, is much less opulent and spacious than the home locker room) is far nicer than the 49ers’ lockers at the ’Stick.

Then there are the bells and whistles. Candlestick, not to put too fine a point on it, didn’t have any. Its one attempt at being state-of-the-art, a radiant heating system, failed to work, prompting a famous lawsuit by flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, who wore a parka into the courtroom to demonstrate how cold his box was. Levi’s, as you might guess, is wired up the wazoo. The two 200-by-48-foot scoreboards at Levi’s are the largest of their kind in any outdoor NFL stadium, and almost 10 and a half times (!) bigger than the scoreboard at Candlestick. As befits its location in the heart of Silicon Valley, the stadium has 40 times more broadband capability than any other ball field in the country. You can push a button on your Samsung Galaxy S5 and a gigantic genie will appear, bearing in his brawny arms a perfumed houri whose veiled charms are redolent of the dusky east. OK, that app is still in beta, but you can order a beer at a concession stand with your phone and pick it up without waiting, or have your food delivered to your seat. If you order at the stands, the wait shouldn’t be too bad: There’s one cash register for every 185 fans, two-thirds more than the ratio at the ’Stick. And the food will be better, too, with dishes like Rajasthani lamb curry and Niman Ranch pulled pork sandwiches with apple-jalapeño coleslaw and homemade barbecue sauce, which can be washed down with 40 different beers.

Another striking difference between Levi’s and Candlestick is the extent of the private spaces. Candlestick was built long before teams had hit upon the idea of turning over the most desirable seats in the stadium to corporate clients who would pay big bucks to sit in glassed-in luxury suites and private warrens. The new stadium’s corporate clubs are vast and opulent, and there are also 9,000 club seats and 176 luxury suites (the ’Stick had 94). The crowning privatized glory is the rooftop, whose panoramic views of the South Bay and access to a beautiful green roof, luxuriant with vegetation, are sure to dazzle the VIPs and other paying guests who are allowed entry. As our gaggle of media serfs walked for the fi rst and probably last time through one of the corporate clubs, past a custom wine refrigerator fi lled with high-end cabs and pinots, it struck me that this space was so mega-expensive that it made the $325 seats nearby seem downright democratic. The opera feels egalitarian by comparison. If you’re a techno-libertarian who ascribes to a corporationsare- people philosophy, you may find this encouraging. If you’re not, then all that gleaming corporate space may strike you as a tad creepy. But it’s a big part of how a modern, $1.3 billion stadium gets paid for.

It's also, of course, paid for by the rank and file-the fans. And this is where the 49ers story gets uncomfortably frosty and, for anyone acquainted with the current Bay Area real estate market, only too familiar. NFL tickets have always been commodities, like houses, but they were more insulated from market forces: Even if demand made it possible for the 49ers to raise ticket prices every year, they could only raise them so much without the clientele screaming about gouging. But by vacating its old fixer-upper near the Alice Griffith housing projects and building a new McMansion across from the Santa Clara Golf & Tennis Club, 49ers management has in effect placed its longest-attending and most loyal fans in an economic time machine, hurtling them from 1990 prices to 2014 prices. It’s capitalist hog heaven: Just hit a reset button and instantly replace your customer base with one that pays 10 times more!

Last year at Candlestick, one season ticket on the 40-yard line cost about $1,100 ($110 a game for 10 games). While this wasn’t cheap, an ordinary person could still afford it. But in the brave new world of stadium financing, where season ticket holders have to pay a one-time “personal seat license” fee in addition to buying the tickets, affordable premium seats are as obsolete as the leather helmet. Now, just the right to buy one club section ticket costs $20,000 to $30,000—even, in two filet mignon sections on the 50-yard line, $80,000. And those premium tickets cost $325 to $375 each, or $3,250 to $3,750 a season. Cheaper seat licenses cost $2,000 to $12,000, and cheaper tickets $85 to $200.

The 49ers have sold out their first season and raised about $500 million by selling what they call “stadium builder licenses.” (The revenue goes to the Santa Clara Stadium Authority, the public agency that has borrowed $621 million to build the stadium.) This is business as usual in the NFL, where 15 stadiums have been partially financed this way, with two more underway.

The 49ers seat licenses are much pricier than some (in Minneapolis, the most expensive licenses will sell for $9,500), but cheaper than others (in Dallas, they cost up to $150,000). But that doesn’t make the people who were priced out feel any better.

“It’s a total betrayal of their fans,” says Joe Shasky, a longtime 49ers season ticket holder who did not re-up at Levi’s. Shasky is a fifth-generation San Franciscan whose grandfather ushered at Kezar as a requirement for playing football at Balboa High. Later he bought season tickets at Candlestick. Shasky recalls going to games with his dad and grandfather, parking on Third Street and walking to the stadium, throwing a football all the way. He got his own season tickets in 1999, paying about $100 a ticket for seats on the 40-yard line.

Shasky got his season tickets just in time for the 49ers to go 4–12. They briefly bounced back, but bottomed out from 2003 to 2010, a bleak era epitomized by hapless coach Mike Singletary mooning the team as a motivational technique. “I sat through garbage for 10 years, watching Cody Pickett trying to throw to Brandon Lloyd,” Shasky says. “I paid market value. I was a loyal fan. And now you have the audacity to charge me $20,000 for an equivalent seat and $325 a ticket? I’m 32 years old. I could barely afford the old season tickets. We’re trying to buy a fixer-upper house. And I’m going to take 20 grand and spend it on football tickets? How do I tell that to my wife?”

“It’s really sad,” he goes on. “Me and all my buddies used to have huge tailgate parties and go to the games, 50 to 150 people. Only 7 or 8 of them have bought season tickets at Santa Clara, and that’s because their parents helped them.” Shasky suggests that the 49ers should have instituted a loyalty program, which would have rewarded their longtime fans with discounted prices. “You’ve been a season ticket holder for 20 years, and some guy who’s never been to a game is going to come in at the same level? The 49ers have it backwards.”

Not surprisingly, a reported 30 percent of Candlestick season ticket holders have chosen not to renew. Others have brought in partners, will go to fewer games, or have bought the cheap seats. Still, a lot of 49ers fans are ponying up. They’re not necessarily happy about it, but they’re writing the check. Robbie McDonough and Frank Connell are 49ers fans as prototypical as Joe Shasky—they’re just older and have more money. McDonough is a 59-year-old native San Franciscan who owns a painting and waterproofing business. He’s the son of a cop; his Sicilian and Irish grandparents were also born in San Francisco. “I go back to Kezar Stadium,” McDonough says. “My father was a season ticket holder there. We used to spend 25 cents for a half gallon of milk and cut off the back to get the Junior 49ers ticket [which entitled youngsters to get into the cheap seats]. Then at halftime, we’d jump over into the good seats.”

Connell, a 60-year-old plastering contractor, grew up near City College in Ingleside. “I was not a season ticket holder at the ’Stick. But I attended a lot of games there, close to a hundred,” Connell says. “We were city boys, we knew how to sneak in. They used to park the buses too close to the walls, and we’d climb up the buses and jump over the fence. It was like a 15-foot drop. Or we’d bring wooden ladders in, or grab electrical cords and pull ourselves up. It was strength in numbers—you had 40 guys at the same time jumping over the wall. The cops and security guys couldn’t catch us all.”

Eventually, Connell went legit and started buying tickets. When the Levi’s seats became available, he and his lifelong friend McDonough bought two season tickets, paying $5,000 for each license plus $125 for each individual ticket. Connell has fond memories of his decades going to the ’Stick, but has no problems with the 49ers’ move. “You don’t know a place is a dump when you grow up in it,” he says. “It was a terrible place, but we had so much fun there that we didn’t care.” Even as a San Francisco native, he applauds the move to Santa Clara: It was simply time. “The only thing that’s negative is the ticket prices. But somebody has to pay for this great new stadium.” McDonough is more ambivalent. Like other longtime season ticket holders I spoke to who purchased Levi’s seats, his loyalty to the team and his understandable reluctance to second-guess his investment collide with his irritation at being shaken down. The seat license fees, he says, are “outrageous.” But this is the NFL’s current price of admission. “If you want to be entertained, you gotta pay it,” says McDonough, trying to take the long view. “It’s about the future. I have grandchildren, I want them to be able to go. But I’m gonna say this. When I learned about the seat license fees, maybe under my breath I said, ‘Assholes.’”

How will all of these deliberations manifest themselves on Game Day? If enough of the McDonoughs and Connells of the world swallow their annoyance and keep buying season tickets even when the team inevitably hits a down cycle, the crowds at Levi’s will still retain a link with the great tradition of fandom that runs back to Kezar. If they don’t, well, have you ever been to a Super Bowl? Corporations may be people, but they make really lousy fans.

Of course, none of this anger, resentment, and soul-searching would have been necessary if the 49ers hadn’t decamped for Santa Clara in the first place. And that fact still burns us San Francisco faithful. The question “Who lost the Niners?” will probably never be definitively answered. For what it’s worth, most of the fans I talked to blamed city hall more than 49ers ownership for letting the team get away. McDonough’s point of view was typical. “[Former mayor] Gavin Newsom didn’t get it done. After five world titles, you’re not going to get a new stadium for this team?”

Several people with close knowledge of the team’s last-decade negotiations with the city also blame Newsom, saying that the then mayor took his eye off the ball and did not make keeping the 49ers a priority. These critics argue that a deal could have been worked out, but that the administration failed to take the necessary steps to address the concerns of the York family—the ownership group led first by John York and his wife, Denise DeBartolo York, and now by their son, 34-year-old Jed.

Mike Antonini, a 12-year member of the San Francisco Planning Commission who was heavily involved in the fight to keep the 49ers in town, blames both sides. “The city was a little bit inflexible—they stayed with the Candlestick site and then the Hunters Point site when there were other sites available. It’s San Francisco’s team, and it was incumbent on the city to go that extra mile to keep the team here, to say, ‘What can we do to make this work?’” On the other hand, Antonini says, the Yorks didn’t make it clear that they didn’t want Candlestick or Hunters Point until it was too late. “Around 2006 or 2007, there should have been a frank conversation. The 49ers should have said, ‘We don’t like what you’re offering,’ and the city could have come up with another site. That moment didn’t happen.”

However, it’s also worth remembering that San Francisco voters approved $100 million bond measures for a new stadium not once but twice—and both times the 49ers said thanks but no thanks. In the end they opted for a sweetheart deal in Santa Clara, including a $114 million investment approved by voters and total public indebtedness of $621 million. The team may also have sensed that its San Francisco fan base wasn’t up for much of a fight. “The fans didn’t mount an organized campaign,” Antonini says. “They didn’t have big demonstrations. There wasn’t a big upsurge in support of keeping the 49ers here.” Some of this passivity can probably be attributed to the fact that at the time when the idea of the move was floated, the 49ers were mired in mediocrity. And some of it can probably be attributed to Candlestick. The 49ers faithful may have wanted their team to stay in town, but they weren’t going to hit the streets for a crumbling concrete bowl in the middle of nowhere.

Stadiums are unique places in the topography of a city. They are repositories of memory in two senses: They evoke bygone athletic feats, but they also offer an elegiac look at a city’s vanished history. The fact that there was once a 60,000-seat football stadium at the edge of the Haight-Ashbury, or that for two seasons back in the late 1950s the Giants played in a tiny bandbox at 15th and Bryant, evokes a city that will never return. The same holds true for Candlestick. The park is in a very strange and unloved part of San Francisco, tucked away behind little-known, spectacular Bayview Hill, south of the gaunt, polluted beach at Double Rock, near windswept Candlestick Point just north of the city line. Crime-ridden housing projects are nearby, and through a tunnel you come upon a lost, surreal neighborhood called Little Hollywood. The largest Yelamu Indian site in San Francisco was near here, on a little beach just south of the parking lot. Because I was a cheapskate—although not as proactive a cheapskate as wall-scaling reprobates like Connell and McDonough—I got to know this burned-out butt-end of the city well. I never paid for parking at Candlestick: I would drive through the Bayview and park on one of the obscure residential streets to the north of the ’Stick. A steep stretch of Hawes was my favorite. Not being sure whether your car would be up on blocks when you returned was part of the adventure. (It helped that my rides were inevitably variants of the above-mentioned 1962 VW bug.)

This whole barren, depressed, intermittently sublime area is soon going to be transformed. The first apartments in a massive new housing development at Hunters Point are almost complete. Over the next two decades, up to 10,500 residences, commercial buildings, and job-training centers are to be built, along with parks, trails, and open spaces. When the project is complete, the forlorn, woebegone old hood will be gone. So will the 49ers. That’s a shame. The team would have been a vital piece of connective tissue linking the old San Francisco with the new one.

When I told former San Francisco director of economic development David Prowler that I would miss wandering around in the Twilight Zone–like urban environs of Candlestick, he said drily, “I don’t think that’s a big issue for most people.” Of course, he was right. But in a larger sense there is something sad—and telling—about the 49ers’ move from the edge of the slums to corporate campus land. The team that started playing in a neighborhood stadium near the Haight, when pro football was less popular than the college game and kids could get in by cutting out the back of a milk carton, is now a gleaming, money-minting machine sitting on an abstract parcel of land in an industrial park wedged between a golf course and an amusement park. There’s nothing strange about this: after all, it is America’s Game.

And to be fair, the environs of the industrial-park no-man’s-land have their own weird appeal. Before I went on the media tour I drove around Levi’s, trying to find some place that had escaped the prevailing zombified- shopping-mall-and-numbered-Oracle-campuses aesthetic. There wasn’t a lot of unclaimed territory, but I clambered up a foxtail-covered bank behind a light rail station and found myself on a raised jogging trail overlooking the sluggish Guadalupe River, which drains into the southernmost point on San Francisco Bay about a mile to the north. Big bare golden hills rose up to the east. Mission Santa Clara, originally built by the Spanish in 1777, is a few miles to the south. There is a there here, after all.

But it’s nothing like the sense of place that Candlestick had. The old dump had soul, and a big part of it was created by the kinds of fans who are now being mercilessly winnowed out. Contrary to their wine-and-brie image, the Candlestick crowd had a mean streak that ranked them right up there with those miscreants in Philly, Buffalo, and Oakland. You could feel their rough-edged passion in the great, chaotic, oddly Burning Man–like tailgate scene that went down in the vast parking lot at every home game, plumes of smoke rising up from countless barbecues, dudes in wifebeaters waving bottles of Patrón, girls with big hair swigging wine coolers, white-haired couples sitting in their lawn chairs listening to KNBR, desultory footballs soaring through the air—a disheveled, amiable, and admirably diverse universe of Bay Areans brought together by love of a sports team.

Levi’s Stadium doesn’t have any history yet, or any of that ineffable but real quality known as mojo. It’s a tabula rasa. No one knows what the new, more affluent fans will be like, whether the suite tower will really amplify the crowd noise, or how the team will play in its swanky new digs. But when the 49ers open their home season against the Bears on September 14, Levi’s Stadium will begin its own saga. All that fans can hope for is that half a century from now, it will have collected as many indelible memories as the great gray bowl on Jamestown, which will soon be an empty field, visited only by ghosts—24, 16, 80, 8, 44—that come into view for a moment, then vanish into the fog.

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco magazine.

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