Ode to “The Stick”

In Baseball, Blog, Football, Sports by Eric ByrnesLeave a Comment

January 10th, 1982…. 25 miles south of Candlestick Park in San Francisco,  I was sitting on my Dad’s lap in the family room growing increasingly irritated… About 30 family members and friends had been glued to the television for the past 3 hours watching the San Francisco 49ers play in the NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys… San Francisco had the ball on their own 11 yard line trailing 27-21 with just a few minutes remaining… All I wanted was peace and quiet but not surprisingly my family would not shut up… I needed to get away… I needed space… This was not only the biggest moment in 49ers franchise history, this was the biggest moment of my life… I was 5.

I bolted to the only other room with a TV, my parents’ bedroom… I then watched Joe Montana orchestrate a drive that put the 49ers on Dallas’ 6 yard line with 58 seconds to go… I was so nervous I went for cover underneath the sheets on Mom and Dad’s bed… I could not bare to watch… Then it happened, with my face firmly planted into the bed, I heard Vin Scully’s legendary voice… “For the upstart 49ers, they are six yards away from Pontiac”… Chills engulfed my body… “Montana… Looking, looking…”… I couldn’t take it anymore I needed to watch… I threw the covers off my head to see Montana rolling to the right and blanketed three Cowboy defenders including 49er nemesis Ed “Too Tall” Jones… Scully continued… “Throwing to the end zone”… To this 5 year old it looked more like heaving the football in a desperate attempt to toss the ball away… I put my hands back over my face, barely peeking through my middle and index fingers… Then, as if Dwight Clark turned into Clark Kent, Superman flew out of nowhere… Scully uttered the words that will resonate with me for the rest of my life… “Clark caught it!”.

I fired up out of the bed and ripped my shirt off, a move that would have made any European soccer player proud… I then began swinging it over my head as I screamed at the top of my lungs… I sprinted toward the family room to celebrate… Pandemonium had officially taken over Candlestick Park and the Byrnes household wasn’t any different… I began to take a lap around the house throwing out high fives to whoever I ran into… I then saw Dad across the room pounding his chest… “E, E, E… Chest Bump, chest bump, chest bump!”…   I sprinted towards him and tossed a ‘flying bump’ that nearly knocked over the 4th degree Kempo Karate black belt…  Immediately I regained composure and motored back to the bedroom to kick the extra point with a decorative pillow that was shaped like a football… A ritual I had begun for each Ray Wershing kick… Just like the 49ers kicker, I would not look at the goal posts (my parents headboard) as I lined up to strike the pillow that sat up nicely and did not require a holder… My kick was good, so was Wershing’s… The 49ers were headed to Super Bowl XVI in Pontiac, Michigan.

In many ways that was my introduction to life… I can vaguely remember certain things B.C (Before Catch) but essentially every significant happening P.C (Post Catch) is a vivid memory in my life… The 49ers went on to beat the Bengals a couple weeks later, a dynasty was born and so was a life long 49ers fan… The next season, at 6 years old,  I made my Candlestick Park debut… At that point in my life I had been to Great America, Knotts Berry Farm and the grand daddy of them all, Disneyland… Combine all three amusement parks and those experiences still didn’t come close to the moment I walked through the swinging metal doors in lower section 22…  The image of the fresh cut grass and painted red 49er end zones trumped meeting goofy or any stupid tea cup ride… As a matter of fact, if Mickey Mouse were there, I would have told him to kiss my ass.

Throughout the 80’s we had 2 season tickets to 49er games… More often than not it was my Dad and I that headed to Candlestick on Sundays… We would take the Ford diesel F-250 truck and stop by Roberts Market on the way to load up on fresh cut meats, cokes and red wine… When we got to “The Stick” the operation was simple,  pull down the tail gate, fire up the charcoal BBQ, load up the meat, pop our bottles and start chucking the football.

When we went inside it wasn’t exactly how you would envision a father and son watching a game together… We would both put on our head phones and listen to Joe Starky and Wayne Walker call the action on the radio… There was always plenty of time to reflect on the game during commercial breaks, half time and the ride home…  After a 49er win, we would stop at Estrada’s Restaurant in Daly City for their famous steaming tostada, a celebratory margarita for the old man and a Shirley Temple for the kid… Throughout the years, Candlestick Park essentially became the centerpiece for significant events that in many ways defined a large part of my childhood.

I was there October 10th, 1987… NLCS game 4 against the dreaded St. Louis Cardinals who the Giants and their fans absolutely despised… Mike Krukow went CG and Jeffery Leanord went bridge to put the Giants ahead in the 5th…  The “Hackman” then circled the bases with one flap down adding more fuel to the already intense rivalry.

I was there October 30th, 1988… Steve Young had the one of the most incredible runs by a quarterback in NFL history… Once everybody was on their feet during the run, Dad grabbed me and hoisted me on his shoulders just in time to see Young stumble into the end zone and score the game winning touchdown against the Minnesota Vikings.

I was there October 9th, 1989… Will Clark ended an epic battle with Mitch Williams by smoking a line drive single up the middle, clinching the Giants first trip to the World Series since 1962… I understand why this would not make sense to most people but I  would not have traded my view from the nose bleeds in section 62 for front row seats behind home plate.

I was there October 28th, 1989… 11 days after the Loma Prieta earthquake, the A’s won game 4 of the Bay Bridge World Series and swept the Giants… The view from section 62 that day wasn’t nearly as romantic:)

I was there as a regular in the left field bleachers during the summer of 1993… The Giants won 103 games yet still lost the division by one freaking game… The Wildcard and divisional realignment were implemented the next year… That could have been the best Giants team ever assembled… Its a shame we never got to find out.

I was there for the BB twirl in 1997…  Fresh off an appearance in the College World Series and a summer spent in the Cape Cod baseball league, I couldn’t have asked for a better homecoming than a Giants/Dodgers series at “The Stick” with the NL West title on the line… To make sure we were able to get bleacher tickets my boys and I arrived to Candlestick at 10 am for a 7 pm game… There are very few rivalries in sports that could match the electricity of a Giants/Dodgers matchup when both teams are relevent come late September… There was also something about Candlestick that seemed to make both the players and fans even more ‘on edge’… I will never forget Barry Bonds hitting a ball so hard I can still remember hearing the echo through the metal seats below me… I imagine most people in the park  followed the ball hit well over the right field fence but for whatever reason I never took my eyes off of Bonds… He stood at home plate to admire his work for a moment and then pulled off something I had never seen done on a baseball field, a pirouette! Shocked and going nuts celebrating with my fellow ‘bleacher bums’ I actually slipped and and fell back into the row of people behind me… Thankfully the fans caught me, then proceeded to body pass me half way up the section as if we were at some sort of rock concert… #OnlyAtTheStick

I was there January 5th, 2003… The 49ers fell behind 38-14 to the New York Football Giants… 49er quarterback Jeff Garcia then led a miraculous comeback with the 49ers eventually winning 39-38… I was playing for the Oakland A’s at the time and told 49er/A’s team photographer Michael Zagaris I would do anything to get onto the field for the game… “Z” man came up big… He got me a press pass and registered me as his assistant which basically granted me access well beyond a normal credentialed media member… I acted as “Z” man’s shadow and carried his camera bag around the entire game… Occasionally pretending as if I was snapping a couple shots myself… Ill never forget being inside the locker room and tunnel with the players right before the game… The entire 49er squad banging the walls and chanting as they walked toward the field… “We ready, we ready, we ready for Y’ALL”… I just about dropped “Z” man’s camera bag and charged the field with the team… After the game, as the stadium was going berzerk,  I found myself standing on the sideline next to my boyhood idol Ronnie Lott who was getting ready to do the post game on TV… He looked at me with a huge smile on his face, slowly gazed around the entire stadium then uttered  one word… “Unbelievable!”… Nothing more needed to be said, for the first time in my life I was speechless.

I was there October 6th, 2013… My final time at Candlestick park… It was the Sunday night game against the Texans but for me it might as well have been a Wednesday daytime matinee against the Houston Astros in 1985, the year the Giants lost a franchise record 100 games… I wasn’t there for the game, I was there for ‘The Stick” and I was there to give my 3 young children the same experience my Dad gave me 30 years earlier… I explained to my kids that the 49ers were going to get a new home next year and we are going to say goodbye to the old stadium that they are going to tear down… I purposely bought tickets in section 62, the exact same seats I sat in, 2nd row from the top on the aisle, when Will Clark busted the Cubs ass and sent the Giants to the 89’ Series… I wasn’t exactly sure how my kids, just 2,3 and 4, were going to react but they stuffed their faces with cotton candy and loved every minute of it… My girls kept dancing in the aisle and my boy would stand up on top of his chair, put both hands in the air and scream “NOBODY” (a little trick Daddy taught him) … After the game my 4 year old kept looking back at the stadium as we walked back to the car… Then when we drove out of the parking lot she began to cry… “Whats wrong Peanut?”… “Daddy, I don’t want them to blow up the Candlestick!”… “Me neither Peanut, me neither.” She wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes…

December 23, 2013… The final game at Candlestick Park… I was not there… I was at my home in Lake Tahoe watching the game in the living room with 30 of my family members who had come up for the Christmas holiday… As you could imagine the crowd was loud and I was growing increasingly irritated because my family would not shut up! I needed to get away, I needed my space… The game that seemed to be locked up took a turn for the worst…  Atlanta scored late in the fourth quarter to make it a 3 point game… The Falcons then recovered an onside kick and were on the doorstep of punching it into the end zone and putting the 49ers playoff hopes in serious jeopardy… More importantly, the sendoff to the stadium that has given so many fans so many great memories was about to be closed out with one big kick in the nuts… Then it happened… A deflected Matt Ryan pass ended up in the hands of 49ers linebacker Navarro Bowman… I sprung up off of the couch the same way I sprung up out of my parents bed when I was 5 years old… I ripped off my jacket as Bowman crossed the 50, by the time he got into the end zone my shirt was off and I was waving it above my head screaming at the top of my lungs… I then began a lap around the house throwing out high fives to my wife, kids, Mom, sister, aunts, uncles and cousins… Unfortunately, Dad wasn’t  there this time for the chest bump, he passed away 2 years ago… Before I had time to get all nostalgic, I spotted my 2 year old boy across the room…  Just like his Daddy and just like his ‘Great Pa,’ his shirt was off as he was pounding his chest and screaming… “Daddy, Daddy, Daddy… Chest bump, chest bump, chest bump!”  Farewell Candlestick, I appreciate the generations of memories…