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Candlestick’s Time Has Come

Former San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice catches a ball on the field at Candlestick Park before the 49ers' NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Former San Francisco 49er Jerry Rice catches a ball on the field at Candlestick Park before the 49ers' NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in San Francisco, Monday, Dec. 23, 2013. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

San Francisco — Mike Gay has made the half-hour commute from his city home in San Francisco to Candlestick Park almost daily for 35 years.

Candlestick’s long-time stadium chief is working hard to ensure a special send off Monday night while making sure not to get too sentimental as the aging stadium’s time comes to a ceremonious close when the 49ers host the Atlanta Falcons.

Nostalgia? Not yet.

Gay has been too busy during The Stick’s farewell season to reflect on his decades-long front-row seat for some of the most unforgettable moments in sports. Before Monday night’s game, Hall of Famer Steve Young threw passes to Hall of Famer Jerry Rice as the crowd roared. Hall of Fame baseball players Willie Mays and Willie McCovey waved to cheering fans.

“It hasn’t really sunk in, not just for me, my crew,” Gay said while reminiscing as he led a tour through Candlestick last week. “I’ll know Monday night. I’ve probably tried to block it out, I guess, but you hear it every day.”

Gay, a stationary engineer who previously worked at a hospital, knows full well how fortunate he has been to have one heck of a behind-the-scenes view of history.

From the daily stresses to the major ones, like racing to react in the immediate aftermath of the 1989 World Series earthquake, and a Monday Night Football power outage two Decembers ago, Gay has seen it all. Every game weekend, Gay leads a four-hour Friday night walkthrough to check everything from parking lots, the setup of the suites to how bathrooms are functioning.

When asked what he will miss most now, Gay said matter-of-factly, “That’s a good question.”

“I’ll probably miss the preparation of getting ready for a football game,” he added.

It was difficult to see the Giants leave for their waterfront AT&T Park in 2000, though Gay didn’t miss the tiring 24-hour conversions from baseball to football.

“I missed the team,” he said.

He still recalls the major earthquake that hit before Game 3 of the 1989 Bay Bridge World Series, when “our only concern was trying to get everybody out of the stadium” without any way to communicate to all the fans and employees inside Candlestick given the brand-new sound system wasn’t yet tied into the generators.

“It held up, it served its purpose,” former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. said of the facility.

Gay learned in a hurry to dress for the unpredictable weather, such as those infamous Candlestick swirling winds off the bay that could make for bitter cold days even in the middle of summer. He wears long sleeves to work every day, no matter the season.

“I have one jacket here; you kind of get used to it,” he said. “We do have some nice weather. When this place heats up, it gets warm, but when it gets cold it’s like a refrigerator.”

This year, Gay has had to be on the lookout for missing chairs or seat backs as fans try to make out of The Stick with a final souvenir.

This is the first year Gay’s crew didn’t order seat parts, looking ahead. He will likely leave with a memento of his own.

When it comes to attending the implosion, date still to be determined, he’s not sure he needs to see that. Especially considering the countless hours he has committed to keeping Candlestick functioning.

“I might want to be here, then again I might not,” Gay said. “I’ve seen other stadiums get imploded. Here I’ve been trying to maintain it and keep it looking good and these guys are talking about, ‘We can bring this thing down in 100 seconds.’ Whoa.”

Gay has his share of Candlestick fun facts, too.

It was one of the country’s first multipurpose stadiums, a rarity now — although the Oakland Athletics and Raiders share the rundown Oakland Coliseum across San Francisco Bay.

“We had the world’s largest escalators at one time,” Gay said. “When they were installed in 1969-70, we were about the only stadium that had escalators at the time. These light towers (some 240 feet high) here are the largest in the nation, because they don’t make them anymore. It’s kind of unique. It’s very costly to maintain those light towers. Those are the things that stick out.”

At age 61, Gay is not retiring, but he’s not headed to new $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, either. Employed by San Francisco Recreation and Parks, Gay and some of his crew might soon begin working at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park.

Gay takes the criticism of Candlestick in stride — and he has appreciated hearing all of the special stories this year.

“I’ve heard so much of it,” he said. “It’s getting good comments rather than negative comments. That’s good for the place.”

He will dearly miss it despite the constant challenges.

“Oh, yeah,” Gay said. “It’s like my second home.”

Everybody knows it is time to move forward.

“Candlestick’s time’s come,” DeBartolo said. “I do see Bill Walsh field, I don’t know what their plans are but that field down there should be named that. At least I would name it that.”