This may be labeled “The Editor’s Rant,” but this is much more of reminiscence.
On the day that Candlestick Park is being remembered for all of its quirks as the Atlanta Falcons become the final regular-season opponent of the San Francisco 49ers at the old ballpark out on Candlestick Point, I’m reminded of how this whole, crazy journey began.
The first game I covered as a sportswriter was at Candlestick Park, more than 30 years ago. I still remember it like it was yesterday. It was May 1, 1982. The New York Mets were at The ‘Stick to play an afternoon game with the New York Mets.
The Giants were off to a sluggish start, just 9-11, after having entirely reinvented their starting rotation the previous winter. All five of San Francisco’s starters from 1981 were gone. Doyle Alexander was traded to the Yankees. Tom Griffin had been traded to the Pirates. Vida Blue was dealt to the Royals. Ed Whitson was swapped to the Indians for some light-hitting infielder named Duane Kuiper and Allen Ripley was traded to the Cubs.
I was just a high-school kid at the time, a 15-year-old sophomore with much more hubris than experience. I knew I would be in San Francisco that weekend to attend some sort of high-school journalism conference that is long since forgotten. So, because I didn’t know any better, I wrote a letter on school stationery requesting media credentials for me and a photographer, a fellow attendee at the conference from my school named Dan Lake.
I was warned they probably wouldn’t be granted. There were a lot of “don’t get your hopes up” messages from the adults in my life, parents and teachers alike.
Lo and behold, I got a response. Credentials granted, complete with an apology that there would not be room in the press box because of the large size of the media contingent, but I was given a field pass for before the game and clubhouse access afterward.
As I wandered around the field before the game with my notebook and pen, the sheer size of the place was overwhelming. I had been to big league parks before—Yankee Stadium when we lived out east as a young child and Seattle’s Kingdome for the All-Star Game in 1979—but never from the perspective of being down on the grass looking up.
It was massive.
Then something hit me in the foot. It was a baseball. A second or two later, after I picked it up, the sun was blotted out by the most massive human being I had ever seen.
Frank Howard, then a coach for the Mets, had been hitting grounders to the Mets infielders and I had been hit by an errant throw. He leaned down and asked, politely, for the ball.
Understand that while I am not a tall human being now, at age 15 I could best be described as tiny. I stood a whole 5-foot-1 and might have weighed 110 pounds or so. Frank Howard, as a player, was listed at 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds.
I gave him the ball with a quick apology (admit it, you’d apologize too if confronted by a giant with a fungo bat).
I was pleased. I had passed my first encounter with a big-league baseball person without a) vomiting, b) wetting myself or c) fainting.
All was good.
The game itself was unremarkable—a 6-3 win for the Giants highlighted by three hits by rookie center fielder Chili Davis and a two-run double by Kuiper as a pinch-hitter for Hammaker in the bottom of the fifth. That wound up securing the win as a Giant for Hammaker, who would be an All-Star the following season.
After the game, I followed the tunnels down to the clubhouse. I chatted with a few of the players. One memory that sticks out was the remarkable bumper sticker reliever Greg Minton had posted above his locker. “I can’t be fired. Slaves have to be sold.” It seemed a strange thing for a guy making almost $350,000 a year to have, but I discovered later that he had lost a particularly contentious arbitration hearing with the Giants that winter and had himself a full-blown case of the bitters for awhile.
I had no idea I was on the cusp of encounters with not one, but two, future Hall of Famers. I was introduced to Joe Morgan, who was at the tail end of his career playing second base for the Giants. I liked him, if for no other reason than a) I knew he was a great player and b) he was the closest thing to a person my size to be found.
He led me over to the manager’s office, where Frank Robinson was speaking to the various beat writers. Mr. Morgan opened the door, introduced me to everyone and Mr. Robinson invited me to sit down. (Remember, I was 15 … these people were most definitely “Misters” … complete with the capital “M.”)
When it was over, I think it was sometime around the following Thursday when my feet touched the ground again. I wrote a column for my school paper, “The Hornet Buzz,” about the experience and, if I didn’t know I wanted to be a sportswriter before, I knew it then.
In the intervening 30 years, I have been blessed with the opportunity to get to see Barry Sanders go to work every day for three years. I got to see the sheer freak of nature that was Shaquille O’Neal as an NBA rookie. I’ve been to opening days in Major League Baseball and Game 7s in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
And it all started because a brash teenager wrote a letter and unlocked a dream, a dream that came to life at an old ballyard named Candlestick Park.