By Wendy Thurm
On a cold, foggy night on Aug. 29, 1966, The Beatles played their last concert at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Eleven songs, lasting a bit more than an hour, and then, the end. The end of the concert and the end of The Beatles. This August, Paul McCartney will perform at Candlestick. It will likely be a cold, foggy night because that's what happens in August in San Francisco. When McCartney is finished, it will be the end of the concert and the end of Candlestick.
The stadium is being torn down, having outlived its usefulness as a multi-sport complex that was home to the San Francisco Giants and San Francisco 49ers for years. Demolition will begin sometime this fall. With any sense of history, the demolition crew will schedule some earth-shattering jack-hammering for Oct. 17, just past 5 p.m. That would mark 25 years to the day after the Lomo Prieta earthquake violently shook the San Francisco Bay Area as the Giants and their cross-bay rivals, the Oakland Athletics, were preparing to start Game 3 of the 1989 World Series.
Candlestick vibrated and rattled and shook and swayed. There was chaos and confusion as 50,000 fans, players, coaches and broadcasters made their way out of the stadium. Then came news that a section of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge had collapsed, and the stunning realization that the World Series had likely saved hundreds if not thousands of lives, because fans were watching the game, and not on the bridge at what typically would have been rush hour.
The game was postponed, of course, and the Series didn't resume until 10 days later. The delay made no difference to the A's. Oakland had taken the first two games at home and blew out the Giants in Game 3 by the score of 13-7. The next day, the A's finished off San Francisco with a 9-6 victory, for their fourth World Series championship since moving to Oakland from Kansas City in 1968.
The earth shook, but Oakland's baseball supremacy in the Bay Area remained rock solid.
The A's may be on the verge of ascending to the top again.
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The Giants had moved west 10 years before the A's. The team starring Willie Mays, Juan Marichal and Willie McCovey came achingly close to winning the 1962 World Series over the New York Yankees, a pain immortalized by Giants fan Charles Schulz in his Peanuts comic strip. Mays and McCovey motored the Giants back in the postseason in 1971 but they lost to the Pittsburgh Pirates in the National League Championship Series. The Giants didn't see the postseason again for 16 years.
Twenty miles to the east, Reggie Jackson, Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers powered the A's to three consecutive World Series titles between 1972 and '74. When the A's and Giants met in the 1989 World Series, Oakland was in the midst of three consecutive trips to the fall classic. Mark McGwire was smashing home runs. Rickey Henderson was stealing bases with abandon. And Dennis Eckersley was perfecting Tony LaRussa's ideal of a late-inning closer. These were the Swinging A's and they played every home game in front of large, boisterous crowds. The sun-drenched Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum was the place to be for Bay Area baseball fans.
The Giants were struggling. The cold, foggy August nights at Candlestick -- which extended from April through September -- kept the crowds at bay. Team owner Bob Lurie was trying desperately to get a new baseball-only ballpark built. At the time, neither the Giants nor the A's held any territorial claim to Santa Clara County, which lies 30 miles south of San Francisco and just to the south and east of Alameda County. Lurie asked A's owner Walter Haas to grant the rights to Santa Clara to the Giants. Haas and the other MLB owners agreed. But Santa Clara voters rejected two ballot measures seeking funds for a publicly-financed ballpark. San Francisco voters did the same.
Three years after the Giants played the A's in the World Series, Lurie planned to sell the team to new owners in St. Petersburg, Fla.
But an investor group led by Safeway CEO Peter Magowan swooped in at the last minute to buy the Giants from Lurie and keep the team in the Bay Area. Their first order of business was signing San Francisco native Barry Bonds to a six year $43.75 million contract, the most expensive free-agent deal at the time. Then they turned their attention to building a new ballpark. Four years later, San Francisco voters approved the Giants' plan to build a privately-financed ballpark in the China Basin neighborhood. That ballpark -- now known as AT&T Park -- opened for business in April, 2000.
After riding high in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the A's experienced their own downturn, on and off the field. Just months before he passed away in September, 1995, Walter Haas agreed to sell the team to Bay Area businessmen Steve Schott and Ken Hoffman. Attendance had plummeted around the league after the 1994 players' strike and Oakland was no exception. The A's posted six consecutive losing seasons. For the first time in a long time, the axis of Bay Area baseball tilted toward San Francisco.
Since 2000, both teams have found on-field success, albeit through starkly different paths. The A's famously adopted innovative strategies for exploiting inefficiencies in roster construction and doing so on a tight budget. When players became expensive in the latter arbitration years as free agency approached, the A's would trade those players for younger, less expensive talent. In the last 15 seasons, the A's payroll climbed slowly from $32 million to $82 million.
The Giants, on the other hand, built veteran teams around Barry Bonds, as the slugger chased home run record after home run record. Bonds left the game after the 2007 season and the Giants re-focused from an offense-first team to one grounded on stellar young pitching. With overflowing crowds at AT&T Park nearly every game, the money rolled in. Since 2000, the Giants' payroll has jumped from $53 million to $150 million.
Both approaches have worked, to an extent. The A's made the postseason four consecutive years from 2000 through 2003. They posted the best record in the league in 2002 at 103-59 and tied an American League record by winning 20 consecutive games. But the A's couldn't make it past the first round in any of those seasons. The Giants joined their cross-bay rivals in the postseason in 2000, 2002 and 2003. In 2002, they were eight outs away from their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco, but that chance slipped away against the Anaheim Angels.
After both teams muddled through the mid-2000s, the Giants finally broke through, winning the World Series in 2010 and again 2012. After years of oh-so-close-heartaches and constant reminders of the A's four World Series Championships, the Giants reached the peak of Bay Area baseball.
With championships come fans, with fans come money, and with money comes power, which the Giants have used to keep the A's from getting the new ballpark they desperately need. For years, the A's have been trying to build their own privately-financed ballpark in San Jose. But San Jose sits in Santa Clara County, the territory the A's generously granted to the Giants when the roles were reversed in the early 1990s. San Jose is the epicenter of Silicon Valley, which means money and power, and the Giants have held fast to their turf.
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The Giants and A's are in the midst of their annual four-game interleague series. A month ago, it looked like the series might be a preview of an eventual October showdown. The Giants had the best record in baseball at 42-21. The A's had the best record in the American League at 39-24. But their fortunes have diverged wildly since then. San Francisco have won just eight games and lost 21. Their 9 1/2-game lead in the National League West is gone. They're in a dead heat with the Los Angeles Dodgers. The A's have won 20 and lost 10 and lead the American League West by four games over the Los Angeles Angels. At 59-34, they have the best record in baseball.
The A's handily won the first two games of the series in Oakland. The Giants' play was so sloppy that at times it looked like the two teams weren't even playing the same sport. But A's manager Bob Melvin isn't counting the Giants out. Before Wednesday night's contest at AT&T Park, Melvin said: "They have a good team. When you go through a period like they have, it's noticeable, but they'll be back. That's what makes baseball such a great game. It can change so quickly." The Giants proved him right by winning Wednesday night's game behind a strong start from Matt Cain and a more energized offense.
Melvin also acknowledged that, even with the Giants in a month-long slump, the A's players get a little extra out of playing the Giants. "They know there's more to it than just an interleague series. Both teams have had success on the field in the last couple of years. These games matter."
Giants skipper Bruce Bochy agreed: "It's different when two good teams in the same area play each other. These guys have a lot of pride and they're not happy with the way things have gone for the first two games. But they enjoy it. The atmosphere is fun, no question."
But behind the scenes, the differences between the teams is stark. The wealthy, big-market Giants are looking at how to fill holes at second base, the bullpen and the bench without taking on too much in additional salary for next year. General manager Brian Sabean said this week that next year's budget is "somewhat spoken for" given the players who will be free agents at the end of this season, including Pablo Sandoval, Michael Morse and Ryan Vogelsong. And Sabean was frank that the Giants are open to trading any and all prospects to improve the team. "There are no untouchables in the organization," Sabean said, a concession that the Giants don't have any high value prospects in the minors. The Giants have been dogged by a weak farm system for years.
The A's do have high-value prospects in their system, although two fewer than they had a few weeks ago after they traded highly-prized shortstop Addison Russell and outfielder Billy McKinney, along with pitcher Dan Straily, to the Chicago Cubs on July 4 for pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel. The A's were in a position of strength, but wanted to get stronger -- and could. Samardzija's salary next year, which will likely reach $10 million in his last year of arbitration, won't be a problem for the low-budget A's given their payroll flexibility. While Brian Sabean is wringing his hands on what to do with the Giants, A's general manager Billy Beane is reveling in the A's front-runner status.
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Candlestick Park will be torn apart this fall but the games played on the field will echo through the Bay Area for a long time to come. It was on that field that the Oakland A's last celebrated as World Series champions. And it was on that field that the San Francisco Giants suffered so many heartbreaking defeats. As one era in Bay Area sports ends and a new one begins, the A's may very well find themselves on top of the heap again.
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Wendy Thurm is a contributing writer at FanGraphs and Bay Area Sports Guy. She has also written for ESPN.com, SBNation, The Score, and the Wall Street Journal. You can follow her on Twitter@hangingsliders.