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California Dreaming: The Old Days at Candlestick Park

During the 1987 National League Championship Series, the winds blew what appeared to be a sure foul ball fair, making for a big inning for the hometown team.
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My neighbors back in California always knew when I was heading up the Peninsula to cover another ballgame at Candlestick Park. They'd see me with that blue parka slung over my shoulder, something I'd actually bought to ski at Tahoe or Squaw Valley, and they'd shout out, "You going back for more punishment?"

For that's what evenings at the old ballpark in San Francisco were. Part punishment, part comedy, part wonder.

Before moving into AT&T ballpark in 2000, the Giants played at Candlestick. They had moved there after leaving New York, along with the Dodgers, for the West Coast before the 1958 season. Unlike the Dodgers' idyllic home at Chavez Ravine, the elements were almost always in play at the Giants' venue.

One night at Candlestick the flags beyond the center-field fence weren't blowing in or out but straight up. After the game, we asked Brett Butler, the team's centerfielder, how did he cope under such conditions, with wind currents that could take the ball as if it was on string in any direction?

"Prayer," he answered.

During the 1987 National League Championship Series, the winds blew what appeared to be a sure foul ball fair, making for a big inning for the hometown team. Rookie fielders soon learned that anything could be in play by the bay.

"I hate this place," Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda once said.

Indeed, he prepped for an evening at Candlestick as if he was running the Iditarod. He wore so many layers that he looked like the Michelin Man, nursing a hot-water bottle to boot.
If a game at Candlestick went to extra innings, the remaining fans were issued orange buttons reading "Croix De Candlestick." Nothing is more treasured in sports circles in the Bay Area. It's the talisman of a real fan -- one that goes the distance.

As a cub reporter for The San Francisco Examiner, I covered games at Candlestick and across the bay at the Oakland Coliseum. In the mid- to late 1980s, the two teams couldn't have been more different. The A's in Oakland were a would-be dynasty with Rickey Henderson, Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire in the lineup. (Only decades later did we learn this was the start of the Steroids Era.) Back at Candlestick, the Giants were fun-loving followers of manager Roger Craig's "Hmmm Baby" approach. A philosophy that was best defined by Will Clark, who once said, "It was about beating the other team yesterday, today and trying real hard to do it again tomorrow."

But even at Candlestick, the place of great quotes and wild weather, I soon learned the proper way to cover the sport. One evening, early in my first season at the 'Stick, one of the old-timers hazarded a glance at scorebook.

I'll admit it. I was much more impressionable back then. Besides being dumb-struck by the weather, I was amazed by the great plays that took place on the emerald diamond far below the pressbox. I dutifully penciled in a star for each one, and on this night, with the wind and fog really howling, I'd gotten carried away.

"Well, if it isn't the Milky Way," the old-timer scoffed as he looked at my game account. That brought chuckles from the scribes around me.

Years later, I still star great defensive plays when I keep score. But I'm much more judicious. Excellence is never easily won or given away. That's what covering ball at Candlestick taught me.

A founder of Baseball Weekly, Tim Wendel is the author of eight books, including High Heat: The Secret History of the Fastball and the Improbable Search for the Fastest Pitcher of All Time (Da Capo).