CANDLE IN THE WIND
Former Dodger owner Peter O’Malley, searching the camera of his mind for that definitive Candlestick Park moment, decided that it was the night he and his family huddled in parkas and topcoats while a numbing wind ripped the U.S. flag from the pole in center field and carried it into the flight pattern of nearby San Francisco airport.
Former Dodger infielder Jim Lefebvre flipped the pages of his mental scrapbook and recalled the night that he took a step forward, was about to call for Willie McCovey’s popup, then watched the wind carry it over the right-field fence for a grand slam.
Duane Kuiper, now on the San Francisco Giants’ broadcasting team and a former infielder with the club, picked his first game with the Giants in 1982, when he arrived all innocent, aware of the wind but thinking, “How tough can it really be?”
Kuiper found out as he watched catcher Milt May chase a pop foul behind the plate. May gave up on it as he reached the seats and turned to walk back to his position. The wind blew the ball back and it hit him on top of the head.
“It took every ounce of energy not to laugh,” Kuiper said. “Milt was so bald you could still see the seams across his forehead after the game. The only thing missing was [National League President] Chub Feeney’s signature. I learned right from the start that ‘I got it!’ was not a phrase you used for popups at Candlestick Park. It was, ‘You got it.’ ”
Thirty-nine years of meteorological misery, of madcap and memorable moments, come floating back like all those hot dog wrappers that were tossed about by the cold, merciless wind, as the Giants begin their final series at what is now 3Com Park tonight.
The hated Dodgers, who have been chilled by so many frustrations there, provide the appropriate opponent for the last three games and conclude a season in which broadcaster Lon Simmons’ home run call of “Tell it goodbye,” has been the Candlestick theme.
The Giants, preparing to move into Pac Bell Park near downtown San Francisco next year, have been telling it goodbye with a series of final ceremonies:
* Willie Mays and Orlando Cepeda were part of the all-time San Francisco team honored Sunday. Hall of Famer McCovey will be saluted tonight.
* The first 40,000 fans--the series is expected to draw close to 150,000--Wednesday night will receive the celebrated Croix de Candlestick pin with the inscription “I Came, I Saw, I Survived.”
* San Francisco fans will have one last chance to boo former Dodger manager Tom Lasorda, who has agreed to make one last walk from the clubhouse corner in right field to the visiting dugout behind third base.
Lasorda, who once traded punches with then-San Francisco manager Charlie Fox behind the batting cage at Candlestick, might have taken more heat from the numbed fans than any other opponent.
“I used to tell my players, ‘Come on, walk out with me,’ and they’d say, ‘No way,’ ” Lasorda said. “I’d get to the mound, take my hat off, blow kisses, and that would really set them off. But it was fun as long as it was orderly, and I figured that when they were booing me, they were leaving my players alone.”
For Lasorda, however, the closing of Candlestick comes about 30 years too late. The conditions, he said, were circus-like.
“I tried to tell my players that it was just as cold for them as it was for us, but they didn’t want to hear it,” he said. “They didn’t want to play in it and you couldn’t play in it. The conditions just weren’t conducive to baseball.”
Dodger broadcaster Vin Scully describes Candlestick as “having all the warmth of a graveyard,” and recalled a night when the fog rolled in. Willie Mays came in from center field and told umpire Frank Dascoli that he could no longer see the ball.
“It was rather remarkable, but Dascoli wouldn’t take the word of the great Mays,” Scully said. “The umpire went out to center field and had someone hit fly balls to make sure they couldn’t be seen.
“I recall during the delay that we decided to show fans how a game was actually televised, so I recreated a make-believe game and we demonstrated which cameras would pick up the action as I described it. A guy turning it on in a bar would have thought he’d gone nuts.”
It wasn’t only fog, though, that obscured vision. The wind and dust did it as well.
The late Harvey Kuenn once said, “When the ball is hit to me in left field, I try to catch the middle of the three balls that are coming at me.”
Said Dodger Manager Davey Johnson, who played at Candlestick and accompanied the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds there as manager, “You had to learn to hit and field with your eyes watering. You’d go back on a popup and end up catching it at home plate, and it was especially wicked when center field was open [before the entire outfield was enclosed by stands]. You always checked the schedule and prayed for day games.”
Sunlight didn’t always help, however. In what might have been the quintessential Candlestick moment, relief pitcher Stu Miller was called for a balk in the 1961 All-Star game when he was blown off the mound--a description he argues.
“I wasn’t blown off the mound,” he said. “I simply swayed a little. I don’t know how many times I’ve explained that, but I still meet people who insist they saw me flying through the air. I’m surprised I didn’t end up in the bay or something. At least, it gave me an identity. I’d be Stu Who, otherwise.”
The problem developed soon after the Dodgers and Giants had moved West in 1958. Feeney, then general manager of the Giants, visited Candlestick Point on a sublime morning and was assured by developer Charles Harney that the weather there was always that nice. Feeney never saw it at 1 p.m., when someone throws a switch and the wind kicks up and the cold kicks in.
After the Giants had spent two seasons in Seals Stadium, the former Pacific Coast League park, the $7-million--that’s no typo--Candlestick opened April 12, 1960, the first ballpark built entirely of reinforced concrete with no unobstructed seating.
Vice President Richard Nixon promptly announced, “San Francisco can say this is the finest ballpark in America.” Meanwhile, attorney Melvin Belli, the king of torts, was suing the Giants and everyone involved because the radiant heating system promised for the box seats failed to work.
It soon became apparent that “the finest ballpark in America” had been built in the wrong location, although Jim Murray, the late Times columnist, saw it as an ideal marriage of eccentric city and eccentric playing field.
“Candlestick Park is kind of perfect for San Francisco--foggy, wind wracked, an outcast from baseball society,” Murray wrote. “Only a place that calls an earthquake a fire could call Candlestick a ballpark.”
If it wasn’t the wind, it was the cold. Often, it was both.
Bobby Murcer would warm his bats in the Giants’ clubhouse whirlpool before games. Pittsburgh Pirate coach George Sisler, in the era before body suits, would wrap himself in newspapers under his uniform. Former Dodger utility man Jay Johnstone said he would find any excuse to go to the distant clubhouse in mid-game for coffee and to stretch.
Said Joe Garagiola, offered a cup of coffee while broadcasting a game there on a particularly cold night, “Forget the coffee, get me a priest.”
Players continue to marvel at how well those giants among the Giants--Mays, McCovey, Cepeda and others--did in conditions that prompted many visiting players to suddenly come down with upset stomachs. As Mays himself said, “When Pittsburgh came in, Roberto Clemente would play one game and sit two.”
Mays hit 660 home runs, No. 3 all-time, but Cepeda said, “He would have hit 800 if he hadn’t played here. The wind blew so many back, and it was often so cold that it was difficult to grip the bat, let alone swing it.”
A hard game became harder in Candlestick. Under Dusty Baker, the Giants developed a certain immunity, turning the conditions to their advantage, but what Candlestick gave, it also took away. As Davey Johnson noted, “As good a job as Dusty has done, those conditions have to wear on you after a while.”
Baker said, “I wanted to bring a championship to Candlestick, but we’ll just have to do it in the new park. I’m hoping that, economically, we’re going to be in a better position to acquire the personnel we need. There’s going to be a lot of excitement, but we’re going to have to do a crash course on the playing conditions at Pac Bell. We won’t have the same advantage to start with that we had in Candlestick.
“I’m proud to have the opportunity to be part of history, to close one park and open another, but it probably won’t hit me until I take the pictures off the wall of my office. I’ve never had to do that, from one season to another.”
Toughness and durability weren’t the issues at Candlestick. Economics was. The Giants couldn’t have survived much longer, said Peter Magowan, managing general partner.
Former owner Bob Lurie had stepped in to prevent a move to Toronto, and Magowan and partners stepped in to prevent a move to Florida, but without the new park, the team would have been sold, Magowan said.
“The buyer would have been from outside the area, and the Bay Area would have been left without National League baseball,” he added.
Private financing has accomplished what Bay Area voters kept rejecting. The Giants will be left with payments of $20 million a year for 20 years, but Magowan is confident that improved revenue from increased attendance, advertising, concessions and luxury suites will compensate for that. He also is confident that the China Basin ballpark, providing Bay vistas and improved weather, will be the magnet that Candlestick wasn’t.
“There was nothing special about Candlestick except the wind,” he said. “The only thing that gave it any character was the weather. If we could find a way to be competitive at Candlestick, we sure should be able to do it in a new park.”
The Dodgers, who also will play the first game in Pac Bell, will shed no tears when they play the last at Candlestick on Thursday.
A home run there by Joe Morgan on the last day of the 1982 season deprived them of a division title. Another there by Will Clark in the penultimate game of the 1991 season contributed to the loss of a division title. A homer there by Brian Johnson in the 12th inning of a mid-September game in 1997 completed a two-game sweep and contributed to the loss of a division title.
Also etched in Dodger memory are Juan Marichal’s 1965 bat attack on John Roseboro and Giant manager Alvin Dark’s decision in 1962 to turn the Candlestick base paths into a swamp in an attempt to slow base-stealing Maury Wills. Dark’s decision prompted the distribution of 10,000 duck calls when the Giants next visited Dodger Stadium.
The Dodger-Giant rivalry has always been special, of course, and the elements at Candlestick seemed to sharpen the edge of Dodger haters.
“If you wore Los Angeles across the chest, it was like a target, almost like it must have been when the teams were in New York,” said Reggie Smith, the former Dodger player and coach who literally became a target one night at Candlestick when he went into the stands after an abusive fan who had thrown a batting helmet at him.
Smith later played for the Giants and said of the support he received, “It was as if all had been forgiven and forgotten.”
The only tough part of that adjustment, he added, was getting used to the smell of marijuana wafting out of Candlestick’s left-field bleachers and the swirling dust and debris.
Everyone, of course, has their memories:
* Maybe it was McCovey’s line drive that Bobby Richardson caught for the final out in Game 7 of the rain-delayed 1962 World Series, giving the New York Yankees the title.
* Maybe it was the 1963 game many consider the greatest pitching duel ever, a scoreless battle for 15 innings between two future Hall of Famers--Marichal, 25, and Warren Spahn, 42--that Marichal won, 1-0, on a home run by Mays in the 16th.
* Maybe it was the no-hitters in consecutive games by Gaylord Perry of the Giants and Ray Washburn of the St. Louis Cardinals on Sept. 17-18, 1968.
* Maybe it was the frightening earthquake minutes before the start of Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.
Fred Claire, the former Dodger general manager, remembers most the extremes, from bitter Friday nights to beautiful Saturday afternoons; the frustrating difficulty the Dodgers had winning big games there; the respect he developed for Matt Williams and Will Clark and other Giants who never bemoaned the conditions.
“There’s a feel to it like no other,” he said of Candlestick Park.
Maybe it’s the chill that still permeates his bones.
Maybe, said Kuiper, the broadcaster and former player, it’s “like the house you grew up in that gets old and tired, but when the moving van comes, you shed a tear. Of course, anybody who has been there and seen it, who has sat through a game there, has got to know that the city is ready for a new park--and probably has been since Candlestick opened.”
Times staff writer Jason Reid contributed to this story.