For decades, Candlestick Park has felt as ancient as Jurassic Park.
Now, with the San Francisco 49ers set to say goodbye to their slouching home, and move next season to a shiny new stadium half an hour down the peninsula, the memories are bubbling back.
“It was a dump, but it was our dump,” said Dwight Clark, a star receiver for the 49ers from 1979 to ’87. “We had a lot of history there and a lot of success. It’s sad to see it go, but that’s progress.”
It was Clark who made “The Catch,” the most famous play in club history, reeling in a six-yard, last-minute touchdown pass from Joe Montana to beat Dallas in the 1981 playoffs and earn a trip to the Super Bowl.
When the 49ers play host to Atlanta on Monday — their last game at Candlestick, barring an unlikely playoff game there — Clark will give an interview to ESPN on the spot in the back of the end zone where he made the fateful grab.
Montana won’t be there. He will be at the New Orleans Bowl on Saturday to see his son, Nick, play quarterback for Tulane, and afterward his family will be spending three days together for Christmas.
But former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo will be making the trip from Tampa, Fla.
“I wasn’t going to go, but come on, I spent 25 years of my life, watched my players with their blood, sweat and tears laid out on Candlestick Park,” DeBartolo said. “And in my own stupid way, I did the same thing. That stadium meant a lot to the franchise. We won five Super Bowls playing out of that stadium. Bill Walsh, George Seifert, our Hall of Fame players.”
The 49ers aren’t the only team relocating to new digs. The Minnesota Vikings are leaving the Metrodome after a Dec. 29 finale against Detroit. The Vikings will spend two years in the University of Minnesota’s outdoor stadium while a new stadium is constructed on the old Metrodome site.
In terms of notable achievements and memorable games, Candlestick trumps the Metrodome. The 49ers have lots of nostalgia about their aging home but aren’t overflowing with affection for the place, which is cold, weather-beaten, windy and the NFL‘s most outdated venue. Even the home locker room — typically luxurious in most new stadiums — is as well-appointed in San Francisco as a $20-a-night motel.
“Those corridors under the stadium, and even where the suites are, it reminds me of a basement of a house built in the 1920s in Chicago or something,” Clark said. “It’s just so cold and damp. You’d walk out of the locker room into that corridor there and you’d be like, ‘God, I hope it’s warmer outside than it is in this hallway.’ It was freezing.
“Then you’d walk out there and it would be a little warmer, but the field would be damp, and the moisture would come through the soles of your shoes.”
For Montana, the big issue with Candlestick was the whipping wind, particularly problematic when the 49ers shared the stadium with the San Francisco Giants, and part of the field was consumed by a crushed-brick infield.
“We always expected the wind, and wherever it’s windy you can’t worry about the wind,” Montana said. “But the real concern early on with the wind was when they had that dirt, because sometimes that dirt would blow right into your eyes as you were getting ready to start a play.”
Joe and Jennifer Montana were at Candlestick for the 1989 World Series, when the 6.9 Loma Prieta earthquake caused massive damage to the Bay Area.
“We were in our seats and we felt the earthquake, and the lights went out,” Montana said. “My wife is going, ‘We have to go, let’s get out of here.’ And I’m going, ‘No, we have to stay, we have to watch the game.’”
They hesitated, and wound up stuck in the parking lot for hours.
“She told me, ‘I told you we should have gotten out of here when it first happened,’” Montana said. “I still get grief about it.”
DeBartolo, who was unsuccessful in his attempts for a new stadium in the late 1990s, called the city-owned Candlestick “a pig sty” that “got worse as the years went by.”
“I was always scared to death” about the safety and sturdiness of the stadium, he said. “Come 1989, when we had the earthquake, I thought the damned thing was going to fall in. It scared me even after that, but they did some work on it. But it was a ballpark that had seen better days.”
The Lennar Corp. has plans for a major redevelopment project for Candlestick Point, with new homes and retail stores.
Asked if he’d like to see the spot of the Catch memorialized, Clark said: “I think it would be cool no matter what they build there if they did put some kind of a plaque or something to show that this is where the 49ers made the play that started their run of success.
“Somebody more poetic than I am could come up with something, not necessarily recognizing — certainly not recognizing me — but recognizing the 49ers’ accomplishment that started with that play on that day at that spot.”
DeBartolo would like to see that too. He would also like to have his hand on the proverbial explosive plunger if and when the place is blown sky high.
“I think there ought to be five or six of us to pull the plug,” he said. “I’d elect, obviously, [late coach] Bill Walsh, God rest his soul. I’d elect Joe, Ronnie [Lott], Roger Craig, Jerry [Rice], some of the defensive guys.…”
It would be fun to blow it up, DeBartolo said.
When that howling wind slices through you, and the cold has seeped up from your shoes, nostalgia has its limits.
Courtesy of Los Angeles Times