It was foggy and windy, of course, on the corner of Harney Way and Jamestown Avenue. The thick, pasty, billowy mass was there the first time I visited — in the late 1980s, as a frostbitten Midwestern columnist who didn’t bring a coat to a June ballgame — and it was there on my final excursion, late Tuesday morning, unless there’s a reason to shop at an urban outlet mall in two years.
On both occasions, the skies were sunny only a few miles away. So that part, the soupy funk, won’t be missed any more than the soggy hot dogs sold in those dank corridors. But as a sucker for nostalgia and a beholder to the passages of time, I was saddened to examine what remains of Candlestick Park, which is basically nothing, unless we’re counting Candlestick RV Park, where a camper with Arkansas plates was rolling out behind what once was Willie Mays’ office and Jerry Rice’s paydirt.
Oh, some relics remain, many bizarre, which should surprise no one who grasps the unique history of this adorable dungeon. Amid the rubble, dirt piles and orange excavators is a protruding contraption that resembles the old escalator to the upper deck — maybe because it is the old escalator, still intact, complete with canopy and satellite dish though no upper deck, climbing as a sort of stairway to heaven where all good Giants and 49ers go to rest. It’s one-part cool, one-part freaky, and if a thought briefly occured that the outlet mall is preserving it as an artifact, common sense takes over and asks: Really? Why?
St. Francis is still there, too, all 27 feet of him, a piece of art awaiting a new home in The City. If the escalator to nowhere is fascinating, this sight is embarrassing and heartless, allowing the statue to be covered in dust after all those decades of freezing in the wind-chill. Below in the hollow, rather amazingly, is a small piece of the Giants’ dugout shell — Humm-baby — and if I were team CEO Larry Baer, I’d claim it and place it somewhere inside the palace up the bay. On second thought, forget it — the Giants never won a World Series at Candlestick and have won three since — and they don’t need another jinx when Barry Bonds keeps showing up unannounced at AT&T Park.
Otherwise, except for a dangling ramp and old directions (GO NORTH TO GET SOUTH … GILMAN TO THIRD STREET) and some stenciled signage in rusted fencing (HOME OF THE 49ERS SINCE 1971), Candlestick looks like any other demolition site. After spending years in massive new stadia, including Jed York’s ode to corporate blahdom in Santa Clara, I find the plot of land to be rather small. That’s where Joe Montana threw his pass to Dwight Clark? That’s where Bill Walsh and a football dynasty were hatched? That’s where Mays ripped home runs and Willie McCovey earned his eventual Cove? That’s where the Beatles played their final full concert? That’s where Robert DeNiro stalked Wesley Snipes in the movie?
And that’s where I almost died?
Like many sportswriters, I was at Candlestick at 5:04 p.m. on Oct. 17, 1989. They sat out-of-town columnists in the upper press box for the World Series, and when the Loma Prieta earthquake began its mass destruction, I remember being on the phone for a live radio interview and shouting, “(Bleep), we’re having a earthquake!” The rumbling lasted several seconds, with at least one colleague, from USA Today, diving under a table. When it stopped, there was nervous applause in the stadium — you know, “Hey, we survived another earthquake!” — and considerable relief in our press box, where, in a ballpark of 62,000 people, we would have been the last 100 people out the gates in an emergency. I walked down the stairs of the upper deck and saw several fans huddled around one of those old Walkman-type TVs. That’s when I first learned the Bay Bridge had collapsed, cars stopping mere feet from the gap.
Why had those fools applauded?
This was the big one. Sixty-three would die.
An hour later, I found myself in the parking lot surrounded by other writers after an orderly evacuation. There were long lines of stranded fans waiting for the few pay phones, so none of us had any way to file reports on our computers in those pre-wifi days. Desperate, I walked toward an area where several local TV trucks were parked. One happened to be leaving, and I asked the driver what he planned to do with the phone and line cord that ran from his truck into the stadium.
He handed me the phone and drove away.
I picked up the receiver. There was a dial tone. Thank you, Jesus.
Night had fallen, so several writers drove their rental cars to a curb, where we fired up headlights and established staggered deadlines. The East Coast guys filed first, then writers from the Central time zone. Working in Denver then, I was the only writer from the Mountain time zone, so phone time was available before my turn. A radio reporter from South America asked to use the phone. I let him with a caveat: I needed the phone back in 15 minutes. He took 20, and when he refused to stop yapping and turned his back to me, well, I was the one who found the damned phone, right? A writer from Philadelphia, a burly fellow, told me to hang up the phone. When I did, and the radio guy grew angry and tried to get in my face, the Philly writer turned into an Eagles left tackle and blocked the guy. I filed my column, and to this day, I have no idea what I wrote by the light of automobiles.
When it was time to return to my Union Square media hotel, police were directing downtown-bound car traffic through the back streets. I remember the darkness, the looting, the horror of it all. It took forever to reach the hotel, the Parc 55, and I looked for the baseball writer from my newspaper. I found him in his room, by candlelight.
“You OK?” I asked.
“I’ve been waiting for this story MY WHOLE (EXPLETIVE) LIFE!” said Norm Clarke, now an acclaimed celebrity columnist in Las Vegas.
I also remember another baseball writer — he works at ESPN now — talking to his editor on the phone. Sure, he’d be glad to cover the earthquake story in the streets of San Francisco. But first, he wanted that raise promised him months earlier.
Tuesday morning, I looked for the parking spot in the rubble. All I saw was the ghost of the South American radio guy who wanted to kill me. And then, a banner trumpeting Paul McCartney’s concert on Aug. 14 of last year, the event that closed Candlestick.
And finally, forevermore, the escalator to nowhere.AT&T ParkBarry BondsBill WalshCandlestick ParkDwight ClarkJed YorkJerry RiceJoe MontanaLarry BaerRobert DeNiroSan Francisco 49ersSan Francisco GiantsWesley SnipesWillie MaysWillie McCovey