Candlestick Park braces for its final goodbye

Candlestick Park braces for its final goodbye

Candlestick Park braces for its final goodbye

SAN FRANCISCO -- The first goodbye obviously wasn't enough for Giants fans.

Candlestick Park, the Giants' home from 1960-99, likely will stage its last major athletic event on Monday night when the San Francisco 49ers play their final regular-season home game against the Atlanta Falcons. Next season, the 49ers will christen a state-of-the-art stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., spelling Candlestick's end.

Candlestick's demolition date hasn't been scheduled, though it's unlikely to occur before late next year.

The 49ers' departure from Candlestick, where they began playing in 1971, has unleashed a torrent of nostalgia from their fans. The franchise has conducted a season-long celebration of the team's accomplishments at the stadium. It's a long list, given the 49ers' many remarkable performances while engineering five Super Bowl championships.

Judging from the public's reaction on talk shows and Internet sites, Candlestick's imminent closing also has stirred the emotions of Giants fans. They joke about the stadium's notorious climate, which made the place seem perfect for a meteorology major's final exam. They cherish their memories of legends such as Hall of Famers Willie Mays, Willie McCovey and Juan Marichal.

A similar outpouring accompanied the Giants' ultimate countdown of home games at "The Stick" in 1999. But reminiscing seems just as irresistible the second time around. Maybe that's because the combination of people, place and events remains so vivid for baseball audiences.

Candlestick was where the sky disappeared and the earth shook. It was where spectators swooned from the heat and froze in summer. In the first 14 games played there in 1960, according to a 1963 book, "The Giants of San Francisco," five fans sustained fatal heart attacks due to the steep incline from the parking lot to the front gates. Years later, in the face of natural disaster, the park would be credited with saving lives.

"It was a ballpark like no other," said left-hander Shawn Estes, who pitched for the Giants from 1995-2001. "There's no comparison to it in all of baseball."

Blown away
The wind alone made Candlestick a singular place. Many ballplayers would replace "singular" with stronger, saltier adjectives.

"You'd see infielders' caps blow off and get pinned on the center-field fence within three seconds," said first baseman Will Clark, who made five All-Star teams with the Giants from 1986-93. "You'd look at the flagpoles in center field and all of the flags would be blowing at one another. You'd be in the batter's box trying to pick up the baseball in the middle of 50 hot-dog wrappers blowing around in a little mini-tornado right in front of home plate."

Excessive fog occasionally halted play. Sometimes the sun's emergence was equally unwelcome, though.

"First base, second base and right field was a sun field," Clark said. "So when the ball went up, everybody had to put gloves up [to shade their eyes] and glasses down."

Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills, who played 103 games at Candlestick in his long career, pointed out that the combination of sun and wind proved treacherous for infielders. "Usually when a pop fly went up high, nobody actually wanted it, even though it might be in your area," he said.

Candlestick just happened to be built in what might be the coldest part of San Francisco, where above-average temperatures usually don't materialize until mid-September -- "Indian summer." Second baseman Jeff Kent, who won the National League Most Valuable Player Award with the Giants in 2000, recalled commuting from Foster City, a suburb located 12 miles south of San Francisco, to Candlestick.

"The temperature would drop 20 degrees," Kent said.

The Giants of the 1960s rarely complained about Candlestick's conditions.

"It kept you strong," McCovey said.

Often, McCovey recalled, the Giants made three-week road trips to cities where temperatures exceeded 90 degrees and humidity approached 100 percent.

"After those three weeks, we were happy to get back to Candlestick," he said. "It seems like that cold air just picked you right up. I think it helped you just as much as it hurt you."

But adjustments were necessary. Long underwear was a common accessory at Candlestick. Also, McCovey said: "They used to have this hot Vaseline -- we just called it 'Hot Stuff' -- that you put all over your body. Actually, you would burn up if you put too much of it on. So you could put on only a little bit of that stuff. It kept you warm underneath."

Right fielder Bobby Murcer spent only two seasons in San Francisco (1975-76), but that was long enough for him to start a trend with his complaints about Candlestick. Giants players griped freely about their home ballpark until late in the 1985 season, when Roger Craig and Al Rosen, the club's new manager-general manager tandem, issued an edict.

"I'll never forget their speech," said right-hander Mike Krukow, now a Giants broadcaster. "They basically said, 'We're sick and tired of the moaning and groaning about how bad this place is. Unless you guys have figured it out, you guys are complaining the loudest, but everybody else coming in here just wants to get out of here. And that is the greatest home-field advantage if we use it in that regard.' They went on to say, 'If you bitch and moan, you're going to be out of here. We won't tolerate it. This San Francisco Giants team will never complain about this ballpark again. It's not happening. If you want out, let us know. We'll get you out.' It really was a powerful moment in my career to see how a negative can be turned into a positive."

Balking in the breeze
Stu Miller's balk in the 1961 All-Star Game cemented Candlestick's reputation as an oversize air conditioner.

The game began in warmth that was unusually brutal for San Francisco. A game recap in "The Giants of San Francisco," stated that 95 fans were treated for heat prostration.

Conditions changed drastically by the middle innings. In came the wind, and one of its manifestations amused Wills, who played the entire game for the NL squad.

"I saw the same hot-dog wrapper hover over the infield for three or four innings with the wind taking it in different directions, about 100 feet off the ground," he said.

Miller, a Giants right-hander, relieved Sandy Koufax in the ninth inning with one out, Roger Maris on first base, Al Kaline on second and the NL clinging to a 3-2 lead. Miller said in "SF Giants: An Oral History," that it was the windiest day he ever experienced at Candlestick. As Miller went into the stretch position to pitch to Rocky Colavito, a gust of wind upset his balance. He threw the pitch anyway, but was called for a balk after doing so.

The incident has been remembered as Miller being "blown off the mound," though that didn't actually happen. As a fellow pitcher, Estes completely understood what happened to Miller. "I specifically remember pitching a few times when I would get to the top of my leg kick and the wind would gust, and I would be blown forward," Estes said.

World Series heartbreak
In 1962, the Giants came frustratingly close to winning their first World Series since moving from New York four years earlier. They forced a Game 7 against the mighty Yankees but lost, 1-0. With Matty Alou on third base, Mays on second and two outs in the ninth inning, McCovey scorched a line drive off Ralph Terry directly at second baseman Bobby Richardson, whose catch ended the game and the Series.

Asked if that was about as hard as he could hit a ball, McCovey replied, "I wouldn't say that." He added politely, "Well, I guess you could say that. I could have hit it in a different direction, that's for sure."

Of course, weather was a factor in the outcome. Three days of rain preceded Game 6 in San Francisco. Candlestick's outfield grass remained damp during Game 7. That slowed down the ball when Mays drilled a two-out, opposite-field double to right in the ninth. Without the moisture, Mays' drive likely would have rattled around in the corner, enabling Alou to score the tying run. Instead, Maris cut off the ball and quickly relayed it toward the infield, forcing Alou to hold at third.

The Giants would wait 48 years before finally winning a World Series.

Can't keep good men down
Ceaseless as the wind was, it couldn't blow away the Giants' elite.

McCovey proved resilient after his gallant final out against the Yankees. He tied Hank Aaron for the 1963 NL lead in homers with 44. In 1965, McCovey began a six-year span in which he hit at least 31 homers a season. His annual averages during this period included a .291 batting average, a 983 on-base plus slugging percentage, 38 homers and 106 RBIs. That was while pitching began to dominate the game.

"Pitchers were glad that Mac was starting to pull the ball because he was the most feared hitter I saw in baseball," said Hall of Fame right-hander Gaylord Perry, who spent his first 10 seasons (1962-71) with the Giants. "It was a thing of wonder that he didn't really hurt somebody because he hit the ball so hard. I think if the wind had been blowing straight out, he would have gone more up the middle and would have hurt somebody."

Mays lost a countless number of home runs by pulling pitches into Candlestick's crosswind. "I can remember so many balls that went into left-center field that turned out to be dying quails. These were balls that would have gone out of any other ballpark," said outfielder Ken Henderson, a member of the Giants from 1965-72. "Because of the wind, they were held up and caught. Which made his statistics even more incredible, I think."

A baseball genius, Mays became adept at stroking pitches to right-center field. During the 12 full seasons he played at Candlestick, he hit more homers there (202) than on the road (194).

Candlestick favored pitchers, so it figured that Marichal thrived there. After throwing a one-hitter in his Major League debut on July 19, 1960 against the Phillies at Candlestick, he proceeded to compile a 122-58 record there. That's an otherworldly winning percentage of .678. Marichal particularly excelled at home against the archrival Dodgers, compiling a 21-4 mark.

Great moments abound
Much of the Giants' history revolves around home runs, including several that occurred at Candlestick.

On Sept. 30, 1962, Mays broke an eighth-inning tie with a massive drive that defeated Houston, 2-1, and forced a best-of-three playoff against the Dodgers for the NL pennant.

Mays prompted a five-minute standing ovation during a game on May 4, 1966, against the Dodgers, when he hit his 512th career homer to break Mel Ott's National League record.

A particular favorite of beloved broadcaster Lon Simmons was Mike Ivie's pinch-hit grand slam against the Dodgers on May 28, 1978. It erased a 3-1 deficit and led the Giants to a 6-5 triumph.

A more-storied homer against the Dodgers was Joe Morgan's three-run, eighth-inning line drive over the right-field fence on Oct. 3, 1982. It propelled the Giants to a 5-3 win and knocked Los Angeles out of the NL West race on the season's final day.

Yet that was topped by Brian Johnson's leadoff homer in the 12th inning on Sept. 18, 1997. Johnson victimized Dodgers left-hander Mark Guthrie to give the Giants a 6-5 victory and forge a tie between the teams atop the NL West standings. The Giants rode that momentum to the division title.

Then there were the triumphs of the spirit.

Bob Brenly was having a horrible day on Sept. 14, 1986, against Atlanta. Playing third base, he committed four errors in the fourth inning that generated a 4-0 Giants deficit. Undaunted, Brenly drove in four runs, including the game-winner on a tiebreaking, two-out, ninth-inning homer in a 7-6 win.

Dave Dravecky's comeback will forever be remembered. In 1988, a cancerous tumor was discovered in the deltoid muscle in his upper left arm -- his throwing arm. The tumor was removed, along with half of the deltoid. But Dravecky kept striving to compete. On Aug. 10, 1989, he fulfilled his quest by pitching eight innings in a 4-3 victory over Cincinnati.

An unlikely refuge
On Oct. 17, 1989, most of northern California was focused on Candlestick, where the Giants and their neighbors, the Oakland A's, were scheduled to play Game 3 of the World Series. Pregame ceremonies were about to begin when, at 5:04 p.m., an earthquake measuring 6.9 on the Richter scale shook the entire Bay Area for about 15 seconds.

At Candlestick, the light towers swayed and the field undulated. Krukow compared the latter sensation to "a 600-pound gopher going 40 miles an hour under my feet."

Clark watched the San Andreas Fault slip before his eyes. "I had just gotten through running a sprint to center field," he said. "I was walking back towards the right-field line. And I could see it coming. You could actually see the wave coming through the stands."

Fans briefly celebrated once the shaking stopped. "A big roar went up from the stands," Krukow said. "The attitude was basically, 'All right, now we're gonna rock the A's.' People were psyched. They were into the whole deal."

Nobody knew yet that a significant portion of the Nimitz Freeway in Oakland and part of the Bay Bridge had collapsed, or that fires would erupt in San Francisco's Marina District. The game was postponed, and the Series, which Oakland ultimately swept, didn't resume until 10 days later on Oct. 27.

Through it all, Candlestick proved heroic. Except for a few relatively small concrete hunks that shook loose, the edifice remained intact. Tens of thousands of people remained unharmed.

"That could have been catastrophic had one of the sections collapsed," Krukow said.

The last goodbye
What came to be known as the Loma Prieta earthquake couldn't destroy Candlestick, but in a year or so, explosives or a wrecking ball will. Emotions will be mixed, though the Giants have clearly found a better home in AT&T Park, generally considered one of MLB's best ballparks, and the 49ers are eagerly anticipating their switch to Levi's Stadium.

One might imagine that if anybody should bid a tender farewell to Candlestick, it's Johnson, an Oakland native. Not only did he author one of the most memorable moments in the ballpark's history, but he also excelled there while playing for Skyline High School, pitching a no-hitter and homering in the same game. But Johnson took a realistic view, comparing Candlestick's closing to seeing that the home he grew up in was rebuilt by subsequent tenants. As he related, he consoled his saddened sister by pointing out that they had their photographs and memories.

"I kind of feel the same way about Candlestick," Johnson said. "I enjoyed it. I went there as a kid. But it's time to go. We've moved on and the new home for the Giants is pretty special."

For some, Candlestick will forever remain more than just real estate.

"It's a very special place and near and dear to my heart," Dravecky said.

McCovey played more games (1,086) and hit more homers (236) at Candlestick than any other ballplayer. "That's one thing I'm kind of proud of," he said. Predictably, he embraces the stadium and all it represents.

"I'm very sentimental about the place," McCovey said. "I'm going to be sad to see it go. I have fond memories of it."

Asked to cite a favorite memory, McCovey paused before replying, "It's hard to pick just one."

Despite Candlestick's flaws, a lot of other people probably feel the same way.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.