Friday, December 20, 2013

My Top 10 Candlestick Park memories

Monday night is technically the final game at Candlestick Park and I’m in no mood to go for all the pomp and circumstance and Chris Berman flashbacks.

Though I spent 23 enjoyable years covering baseball and football events in that much-maligned 53-year-old stadium, I don’t feel the need to be there for its fond farewell before Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball comes down on it. Yes, there will be a sentimental breeze about the park known for its gusty Stu Miller tip-over wind and final Beatles performance, yet I have no special emotional attachment to the place other than to thank it for not collapsing under my feet in the upper deck during the 6.9 magnitude Loma Prieta Earthquake in 1989.

That said, here are my top 10 Candlestick Park memories, which are more about the fascinating people than about the flawed stadium and its enduring reputation.

10. My first real cold night at Candlestick. It was actually a nice place to visit during the football season, but unpleasant on most nights for baseball games. The time I remember is a night in 1992 when Giants’ manager Roger Craig decided to turn Dave Righetti from a struggling relief pitcher into a starter. Righetti, who was near the end of his career, had been ineffective coming out of the bullpen and was hearing boos. So, when he was converted back into a starter, I decided to venture out into the night prior to a game while Righetti was warming up, expecting to hear more grousing from Giants fans. What I got was my first Candlestick chill. Mind you, I grew up in Maine so when Giants fans and media complained about how cold it got at Candlestick, I was amused. I lived in Maine for 21 years. I know how cold cold is. However, while watching Righetti warm-up around 6:30 p.m., I got real cold. I came to the quick conclusion that Candlestick Park’s rep for being a windy, frigid place to play baseball was warranted. I rushed back to the warmth of the press box and Polish dogs.

9. The crowded, antiquated press boxes. Two favorite memories. One when the great Art Spander was a guest on a radio show during post-game of a Giants’ playoff game. Art likes to talk. The Orange County Register’s Mark Whicker once described him as “AM radio on scan.” But with everyone trying to concentrate as they were writing their stories on deadline, Art took the occasion to be a guest on an out-of-town radio show. He was loud and everyone in the press box was mad at him. He was yelled at to keep quiet and Art literally slinked down and hid under his press box table to finish his phone interview with as little noise and interruption as possible. The other was in the 49ers’ press box during Game Five of the 1986 American League Championship Series. Normally all TV sets in the 49ers’ press box are tuned to the football game, but one was tuned to the baseball playoff game and I, as a Boston Red Sox fan, was glued to it. The Sox trailed 5-2 entering the ninth inning of the decisive game in the series. They were one strike from losing it when Dave Henderson launched a game-tying home run off Angels’ pitcher Donnie Moore. There is a strict rule about “not cheering” in the press box, but I broke it. I leaped and yelled in celebration and the great Ira Miller chided me for it. I think that was the first – and certainly not the last – time that my fellow scribes realized my unconditional love and devotion to the Red Sox.

8. Mark McGwire sneaks me into the weight room. This happened during McGwire’s run at Roger Maris’ home run record in 1998. He came to town with the St. Louis Cardinals and the national and local media was all over him before the game in front of his locker. He was tired of talking about chasing Maris’ single-season 60-home run mark, but he recognized me and Lowell Cohn from his Oakland A’s days and secretly arranged for us to interview him exclusively in the Candlestick Park weight room, which was off limits to reporters. Though McGwire had a reputation for being surly, I found him over the years to be a friendly and engaging and a real down-to-earth guy.

7. Owens! Owens! Owens! There were some incredible plays (Steve Young’s and Lon Simmons’ out-of-breath TD run), records set (Jerry Rice for career TDs) and comeback wins (49ers and Jeff Garcia over New York Giants) I witnessed while I was at Candlestick Park, but I was on the field near the 49ers’ sideline when Terrell Owens caught Young’s game-winning 25-yard TD pass to beat the Green Bay Packers in a 1999 wild card playoff game. I don’t remember Owens catching the ball then crying on Steve Mariucci’s shoulders as much as the sight of Young straight ahead of me at field level nearly tripping over his own feet and falling, which would have ended the game and spared us Joe Starkey’s second most memorable call.

6.  The night Jerry Rice vented at me. This moment shows up on NFL Films every once in a while. I was standing right next to Rice at his locker in Candlestick Park in 1998 after he had caught the 1,000th pass of his NFL career in a 31-20 win over the New Orleans Saints. I asked Rice a generic question about reaching the 1,000 reception milestone and he didn’t really answer it. It was his springboard to a chance to bitch and moan for the media. He instantly went off on a rant about “not getting the ball,” angered by the fact that he caught only three passes for 27 yards in a game that the 49ers WON.  What should have been a historic and humble moment for Rice came off as a selfish one.

5. Will Clark hits game-winning home run in the upper tank and shrills. There were some great Candlestick Park moments for the Giants, but this one stands out because I remember the Little League kid-like reaction by Will the Thrill with Mike Krukow in the Giants’ clubhouse afterward. This moment occurred in a key regular season game against the Astros. Candy Maldonado hit the game-tieing home run in the bottom of the ninth then Clark followed with the game-winner deep into the upper deck in right field. In the clubhouse, wide-eyed Will celebrated with Krukow, screaming above the noise “Do you believe it! I am SO pumped!” while literally clutching and shaking Krukow.

4. The Bill Walsh Memorial Service in 2007. The north end zone at Candlestick Park served as the podium for the public memorial for the late and legendary 49ers head coach. It was great seeing 49ers media relations people and staffers from the late 80s returning to Candlestick Park along with 49ers greats from that era to pay tribute to Walsh. It was a solemn occasion inside, but great to catch up with Eddie DeBartolo in a tent in the parking lot afterward outside a stadium where he had once hoped to build a shopping mall.

3. The loudest I ever remember hearing Candlestick Park roar. It was NOT at the playoff game against the Dallas Cowboys that ended with Steve Young doing a post-game victory lap around the field during the 1994-95 season but two years before, the Jimmy Johnson “How ‘bout  them Cowboys!” game. The 49ers had pulled within 24-20 of the Cowboys in the fourth quarter on a TD pass from Young to Rice capping a 93-yard drive with 4:22 left in the game. The ‘Stick was rocking. The 49ers’ crowd came to life like I never experienced. But, it all changed on one play – the very first play following the ensuing kickoff when Alvin Harper turned a 14-yard Troy Aikman pass into a 70-yard gain leading to the clinching touchdown. Pffffffffffffffffffffffft. 

2. The 49ers’ Monday night game against the New York Giants in 1989. Quite possibly the hardest hitting game I have ever witnessed. It ended with a 7-3 49ers win and Ronnie Lott jawing facemask-to-facemask with Giants quarterback Phil Simms leaving the field then Simms, still in uniform, apologizing to Lott in the 49ers’ training room later as Lott was slumped and motionless on the trainer’s table. The image of Lott, the ultimate football warrior, being so emotionally and physically spent after such a brutal game remains with me today.

1. The Earthquake. I was sitting in the upper deck auxiliary press box at 5:04 p.m. before Game 3 of the 1989 World Series when I experienced my first earthquake. It was a doozy. I had a cup of soda on the table in front of me and, though first reports of the quake measured 7.1 on the Richter scale, my soda did not spill. My first reaction to my first earthquake was “That’s it?” Then we started seeing the terrifying images on TV. A section of the Bay Bridge had fallen. The double deck on the Nimitz freeway had pancaked. Fires were breaking out everywhere in the Marina district. I called the office and didn’t hang up as we didn’t want to lose the precious telephone connection in a cell phone-less era. We tried to get information and it was getting dark and the power was out. Some writers were lighting a match to their pre-game notes in an attempt to write their stories by makeshift candlelight at Candlestick. It took me about three hours to drive through and around snarled bumper-to-bumper city street traffic to finally get over the Golden Gate Bridge and go home that night. It wasn’t until I crawled into bed and my concerned wife hugged me that I realized the significance of what had happened.

Candlestick Park saved my life and many others that night by standing up to the worst hit it had ever taken.


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