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A Ballpark Express Back To My Candlestick Youth

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I'm a bit late to the Candlestick nostalgia party, but my in-laws were in town the past week and I came down with a bitchin' cold. I'm a big 49er fan when they prove worthy of my time, but I've never been big enough to go to a football game at the Stick. My personal memories of the yard are all baseball-related.

It was probably in 1975 or 1976, but I can't tell you exactly when I first stepped through one of the punch-outs in the side of the Stick's concrete bowl to see green grass -- oops, not back then! -- and bands of orange seats revealed. By second grade, which was 1976/1977, I was the kid who never took off his Giants hat; I remember the stern Ms. Burkhardt, my second grade teacher at Dudley Stone Elementary, scolding me for wearing it in class. (Dudley Stone was on Haight St., and my parents always joked there should be a student band called "The Deadly Stoners.")

I remember going to a game on my birthday in 1977, and Marc Hill hit a home run, though my friends and I spent most of the time running around the upper-deck concourse. Marc Hill! I also loved Johnny Rabb, and somewhere I have a ball autographed by Dennis Littlejohn, perhaps the only autograph he was ever asked for. Backup catchers are cool.

For a brief moment in the late '70s the Giants were kind of good, led by Vida Blue (with "Vida" stitched onto the back of his jersey) and a grumpy Reggie Smith and Jack Clark. The one game I vividly remember from this era was this one; I was in the far upper deck, straightaway center field, with my parents. A pinch-hit grand slam seemed positively mythic to me, something I only read about in the Scholastic books we ordered in school.

I remember the terrifying demilitarized zone between the left-field bleacher wall and the chain link fence. When a home run ball would clear the chain link, a tasmanian-devil scrum of kids would jump the bleacher wall and fight for the ball, some because they really wanted a ball, some because they really wanted to fight, and I went to school with too many of the latter kind to think I could join the fray and emerge with both a ball and a clean bill of health.

By the time I got to middle school, the Giants had returned to their nefarious ways, and my parents trusted me enough to go without adult supervision. My friend Paul and I would hop the Muni Ballpark Express at Van Ness and Market, buy cheap seats, then move down to the first deck behind the plate after a few innings to join the other 8,500 attendees. Back then no one checked tickets.

I never got a Croix de Candlestick because for night games the return Ballpark Expresses left early, I think. Or we had to be home by midnight. Or sitting in Candlestick at midnight on a freezing July night sucked, even if you were a rabid 13-year-old Giant fan. Perhaps all of the above. 

I wasn't at the Stick for the 1989 playoffs or World Series. I wasn't even in town. I was away at college, and I remember sprinting to my apartment to catch the first pitch of Game Three, sure that the shift from Oakland back to San Francisco would help turn the Series the Giants' way. I was a few minutes late. I flipped on the tiny set and was confused. It must still be the national anthem, I thought, everyone is standing. But there are cop cars on the field. Some kind of color-guard ceremony, I guess.

Then I realized the audio wasn't working; I chalked that up to my crappy TV. Only when the video cut away to show the aerial view of the Bay Bridge section down, and a growing fire in the Marina, did I realize something had gone wrong. When the Series resumed many days later, I was only slightly shamed by the whuppin' the A's put upon the Giants. It counted, but it didn't really matter. I was far more mortified, narcissist that I was, at not being home for a major earthquake. I felt like I'd lost street cred.

Eight years later, my local pride was restored. I wasn't around to ride out the big one at the Stick or anywhere else in my hometown, for that matter, but I was there to feel the old stadium shake when Brian Johnson did this:

I was in the upper deck down the first base line, and for a moment I thought whatever structural damage the Loma Prieta quake had insinuated, 56,000 people jumping up and down would bring to fruition. We were done for, oh joy! (Why Giant fans of a certain age still have love for Dusty Baker: Watch his reaction in that video.)

A couple weeks later, the echoes faded quickly. At my first-ever playoff game, Devon White took Wilson Alvarez deep down the left field line with the bases loaded in the sixth, and the trajectory was clear to me, sitting in the right-field football seats, as soon as the ball left White's bat. The season was effectively over.

My most ecstatic moment at the Stick wasn't at a Giants game. In 1987, my high school played for the championship among the city's public schools. (The league is the AAA, the Academic Athletic Association.) There were probably 150 people in the stands, and our clever students lowered empty seats in the center field bleachers to spell out our school name.

We won, our first title in 12 years, and the school's baseball program has become a local powerhouse the past two decades. More deeply etched than any of my memories as a fan is the moment I delivered a pitch, tumbled down the front of the mound, and turned to watch my teammate sprint over the grass -- by then, yes, grass -- slow down, raise his glove and put away the final out, a deep drive to center field, under the bleachers, in front of the chain link fence.

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