SANTA CLARA, Calif. – Many different personalities have been mentioned as crucial factors in today’s 49ers playoff game. One of those personalities is being generally forgotten and ignored.
That’s hard to believe. Because this particular personality is quite a spectacle. A corroded, nasty, leaky, reeking spectacle.
Candlestick Park will play as significant a role for the 49ers against the Green Bay Packers as any other element of the matchup. But somehow, the ‘Stick has receded into the “key difference” background amid all the discussion over quarterbacks and kickers and torn triceps muscles. Go figure.
Keep score. At some point today, the stadium will figure into the outcome. It’ll either be the crowd noise, or a patch of wet grass, or a sudden whipsaw breeze off the bay, or something else unforeseen. Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers’ coach, is rooting hard for all of the above. Asked to name his favorite thing about Candlestick, he answered quickly.
“The mystique,” Harbaugh said.
And how to describe that mystique? Let’s see. If Candlestick Park were a human being, it would be one of those old guys hanging out on the docks, bumming a cigarette and smelling of stale beer while getting ready to scream unintelligible obscenities at anyone who asks for directions – and reminding the passer-by that Joe Montana once roamed these docks and left behind some juju that will destroy souls.
Thankfully, Candlestick is entering its long-overdue euthanasia phase. The 49ers will transfer business to their new Santa Clara stadium for the 2014 season. But that prospect brings up a somewhat melancholy thought: Should they lose, today could be the final playoff game at Candlestick. There are no guarantees the 49ers, even if they qualify for the 2013 postseason, will have a home game.
In other words, we should all soak up every inch of today’s sights and sounds and smells. If today’s contest were being played in Green Bay at Lambeau Field, there would be much gushing about the tradition and lore of the magnificent edifice, acknowledging the huge edge it might give the Packers.
Phooey. Candlestick has just as much lore – and provides just as much of an edge. People find this fact hard to believe, but Lambeau is only three years older than Candlestick, which opened in 1960. True, the 49ers did not move there from Kezar Stadium until 1971, when the ‘Stick was renovated from an incredibly awful baseball park into a really bad multipurpose structure. Yet the 49ers still have played host to 26 postseason games there, most of any stadium in NFL history.
The home team also has largely dominated those games. The 49ers have won eight of their last 11 playoff contests at Candlestick and own an overall 19-7 postseason record there for a .730 winning percentage.
Steve Mariucci, who coached seven playoff games at the ‘Stick – including one of the most memorable victories in 49ers history – was talking Friday about the old heap of junk. His emotions, even over his cell phone, teetered dangerously close to fondness.
“There’s something about that old feel of Candlestick that gets you in the mood for football,” Mariucci said. “It’s quite a place.”
For example, Mariucci was talking about the Candlestick playing field’s quirks (“We all know it can be very damp, especially during night games, especially outside the numbers.”) when he suddenly paused. You could almost sense him smiling.
“You know,” Mariucci said, “because Candlestick is a baseball stadium that was turned into a football stadium, the acoustics are not quite as conducive to be as noisy as some of the football-only stadiums. But for the way that thing is built, man, it still gets pretty darned loud. That’s just because of the fans. Boy, it gets wound up in there.”
The 49ers are counting on that today. During the regular season, Candlestick can be rather … uh, ennui-intensive. On a typical sunny Sunday afternoon, fans often tailgate to the very last moment and are late entering the stadium. Then they hang around in the beer lines, or sit and wait for something to happen before getting excited. For playoff games, the script flips. Everybody is in their seats half an hour before kickoff. Decibels blow up.
“I really feel like our fans especially understand it’s playoff time,” Harbaugh said. “There’s kind of a locking-of-the-gates feel.”