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Candlestick Park is a 'pigsty' worthy of love, not ridicule

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The man whose team called it home while winning five Super Bowls labeled it a "pigsty." A Hall of Fame baseball manager called it "a toilet with the lid up." A Giants player said the only difference between it and nearby maximum security prison San Quentin is, "here they let you go home at night." And San Francisco's late, great beloved columnist, for whom an Embarcadero waterfront is named, called it "the ninth blunder of the world."

With all due respect to Eddie DeBartolo, Whitey Herzog, Bob Knepper, Herb Caen and so many others who are currently saying good riddance to it, I say: I come not to bury Candlestick Park, but to praise it.

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Jerry Rice said goodbye to Candlestick as a 49er in 2000. (Getty Images)

On Monday night, the San Francisco 49ers will play the Atlanta Falcons at Candlestick Park, the final game scheduled at the stadium that opened in 1960. When the final gun sounds, 54 years of wind-whipped memories will close. Those memories, and that history, mean more than the damp cold when the fog swept through July nights at Giants baseball games. Those memories, and that history, carry more resonance than the inconvenience of flooded parking lots for 49ers playoff games.

We've all been to funerals. And we know that when we mourn the deceased, we don't focus on his or her problems, issues, dysfunctions. Instead, we celebrate the life. Because in the end, that's all we've got.

Candlestick Park, for generations of a deeply proud Bay Area, was our sporting life. It was all we had.

Why I Will Miss Candlestick Park, Chapter 1: It's not entirely a bad-looking joint. Architecturally, it gets a bad rap. When Candlestick was enclosed in 1971 to accommodate the 49ers' move from Kezar Stadium, it joined multi-purpose venues like Three Rivers in Pittsburgh, the Vet in Philadelphia, old Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Shea Stadium in New York, Riverfront in Cincinnati. Those were the times. It was the '70s, an era that wasn't overtly aesthetically pleasing. It wasn't Candlestick's fault. How many great American architectural achievements claim birth in the 1970s? Candlestick's only sin was outlasting all those others until now, when it can be mocked and scorned for its unattractive elements. There was a time, remember, it was cool. There was a time you didn't stream music on your phone; you played vinyl on your Hi-Fi. Candlestick is one of our last missives from that time.

I can't defend the baseball weather on summer nights. Day games for baseball were great; Northern California at its bright, blue, temperate best. But night time for Giants games was a tough sell. The wind, some called it "The Hawk," happened to jet right over the tip of the stadium, amplified by Bayview Hill just to Candlestick's west. You wore parkas in July. You really did. It has to be the only stadium in the history of America where the weather for football – in the Bay Area's Indian Summers of September, October and November – was better than the weather for baseball. But that's not enough to tar my memory.

Why I Will Miss Candlestick Park, Chapter 2: The games matter. The Catch, the '89 Quake, eight NFC championships. The players matter, too. I am open to arguments here, but I think you'll lose when I say that no other stadium in American sports history can claim arguably two of the three greatest all-around players in baseball history, the greatest quarterback in NFL history and possibly the greatest football player, period. Yes, I will put Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Joe Montana and Jerry Rice up against any one stadium's quartet. The Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick, but Mays/Bonds/Montana/Rice? That's our Fab Four. That they all called Candlestick home matters, deeply. A house is just a building. It's the family inside that makes it a home.

Yes, getting in and out of Candlestick Park by car was terribly difficult, particularly after 68,000 took in a 49ers game. Public transportation was inefficient, at best, despite any childhood warm fuzzies over Muni's "Ballpark Express" from Van Ness and California to the 'Stick. There's no arguing that point. But other things matter more.

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Barry Bonds called Candlestick home for seven seasons with the Giants. (Getty Images)

Why I Will Miss Candlestick Park, Chapter 3: When a stadium isn't fashionable, it tends to draw only the truest. Candlestick, particularly for a 16-year playoff-free stretch of Giants baseball from 1971-87 and for years of losing football on artificial turf until 1979, weeded out the fair weather crowd. If you went to the 'Stick, you loved your team. Nothing more. You felt camaraderie, a camaraderie that may never be true again. It already isn't true at sparkling AT&T Park, even with two World Series flags and a miracle of geography; and it won't be true at Levi's Stadium, the 49ers' technology-friendly new home, 45 miles south of the City by the Bay. The trendy crowd doesn't do camaraderie.

Yes, Candlestick grew more inefficient by the year. It committed the modern sin of poor Wi-Fi. Its luxury boxes displeased the league, and the owners. But that's not why fans love a ballpark.

Why I Will Miss Candlestick Park, Final Chapter: It had a funky magic all its own, mostly because it wasn't the prettiest girl at the ball. It touched you in ways both surprising and profound. There is a route to the park on Jamestown Street where you crest a hill, and Candlestick comes into view on your left, the concrete rim of the stadium, the rusted red light stanchions soaring to the sky. The Bay, on a Sunday NFL morning, sun-dappled, spreads behind it. The place looks romantic from there. It does. You could paint it. And unlike modern yards with open sightlines upon entry, Candlestick was like a movie theater. You had to pull open a door to gaze at the playing field, and when you did, your eyes would look from a dark walkway, gaze past red-orange seats, and see a burst of green. If you were a kid, it blew your mind, stole your breath. It was Narnia behind the wardrobe.

Time marches on. Stadiums age and are demolished. Seals Stadium in San Francisco is no more; it's a mall now. Kezar Stadium is a high school track. New temples are built; it's how the Earth turns. Joni Mitchell sang that "something's lost, but something's gained, in living every day."

There will be something lost when Candlestick Park comes down. Lost, and gone forever.


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