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Faithful fans ready for new chapter in 49ers history


Like thousands of other San Francisco 49ers faithful, Petaluma businessman Dan Libarle feels like a kid on Christmas, anxiously awaiting the team’s first game Sunday at its $1.3 billion present to Bay Area sports fans.

“I’m really excited, looking forward to seeing what it’s all about,” said Libarle, whose tenure rooting for the Red and Gold dates back to the late 1940s at Kezar Stadium in Golden Gate Park.

There, on plain wooden benches, he watched Minnesota Vikings lineman Jim Marshall’s infamous 66-yard wrong-way run into the Niners end zone for a safety on Oct. 25, 1964. Eighteen years later, Libarle was at Candlestick Park for Dwight Clark’s historic six-yard touchdown catch from Joe Montana on Jan. 10, 1982, that propelled San Francisco to the first of five Super Bowl triumphs, the last being in 1995.

(Much lesser-known football note: The Vikings won that 1964 game, 27-22, on Carl Eller’s return of a fumble caused by Marshall’s quarterback sack.)

Fast-forwarding to Sunday’s football premiere at the stadium sponsored by Levi Strauss & Co. and incorporating the techno-wizardry of Silicon Valley, Libarle said he wants to see “what it takes to get in and out of it,” a decidedly low-tech issue that plagued the stadium’s first athletic event, a Major League Soccer game two weekends ago.

Libarle and his wife, Carol, plan to leave Petaluma at 9 a.m., “just to make sure,” he said, of reaching their seats on the 40-yard line well before the 1 p.m. kickoff against the Denver Broncos.

Fred and Yolanda Vasquez of Windsor plan to leave home by 6:30 a.m., turning their game day into a 12-hour experience since they will wait around for the post-game traffic clot to break up before tackling the 107-mile return trip.

“I think they’ve got some things to work out,” Fred Vasquez said, recalling the chaos of getting out of the golf course parking area adjacent to Levi’s Stadium after the Aug. 2 San Jose Earthquakes soccer match.

The showcase 68,500-seat stadium, already a Bay Area tourist attraction, stands near the south end of San Francisco Bay in Santa Clara, 38 miles beyond Candlestick Park, the 49ers home for 42 years.

Vazquez, who hasn’t missed a Niners home game in 10 years, said he has timed the route — via 580 and 880 through the East Bay — and found it takes only 15 minutes more than the getting through The City en route to the Stick.

There’s a “lot of angst,” Libarle said, attached to the football team’s departure from San Francisco, but it’s also a new chapter in Niners history. Fans were apprehensive about the relocation from Kezar to Candlestick in 1971, moving into a stadium built 11 years earlier for baseball.

“People didn’t know what to expect,” said Libarle, whose family has held season tickets since 1947. “Once they got in there it was fine. It was a great venue.”

But there is a financial sting.

The 49ers have sold more than 60,000 season tickets, each with a one-time-only fee, or personal seat license, ranging from $2,000 to $80,000, plus a ticket price of $85 to $375 per game for 10 games.

“A lot of the old-timers are not going down there because of the cost,” said Libarle, who cut back from 10 season tickets at Candlestick to two in Santa Clara.

Ticket holders own the seat license and can sell it when the choose, but whether it is an investment that appreciates remains to be seen, he said.

Chris Andrian, a Santa Rosa attorney and season ticket holder since 1978, said he doesn’t fault 49ers CEO Jed York for shifting to Santa Clara after San Francisco “didn’t step up” with financial support for a new facility.

“It wasn’t a dumb move to put the stadium where the money is,” Andrian said, referring to Santa Clara, the county with the highest median household income in California.

Andrian, who attended his first Niners games as a 6-year-old, when he lived within walking distance of Kezar Stadium, takes his longtime association with the team personally. “It’s been with me longer than anything in my life,” he said.

Ordinarily, Andrian said he gives away his tickets to preseason games, considered meaningless by many fans. But he’s heading for Levi’s Stadium Sunday to reconnoiter the new place, from the parking lot to the restrooms and the food stands, figuring he may try a $10 hamburger.

“I’m not expecting anything to be cheap,” Andrian said, but he gives the place high marks. “From everything I’ve seen it looks good — first class.”

One thing he’s especially curious about is the width of Levi’s seats, having experienced an uncomfortable squeeze at the Seattle Seahawks’ $430 million CenturyLink Field, opened in 2002. “It’s a lovely place to look at,” Andrian said, but the seats, which number 67,000, were so narrow “I felt I was packed in like a sardine.”

Candlestick Park, which opened with then-Vice President Richard Nixon throwing out the first pitch in April 1960 and closed Thursday with a Paul McCartney concert, earned its infamy as a baseball park with crowd-numbing winds swirling on summer nights.

Candlestick was “a great football stadium,” with games played on mostly fair Sunday afternoons in the fall, when San Francisco’s weather is mostly glorious, Andrian said.

Moving to Santa Clara “is just another time to adjust to change,” he said.

Walt Kehr, a Petaluma general contractor and 27-year season ticket holder, sold his tickets to the Broncos game — for less than face value, he said — because he doesn’t care for preseason games. But based on a tour of Levi’s Stadium, he said the place is “awesome.”

“The seats are much closer to the field,” he said. “It’s more open, kind of like AT&T Park for the Giants.”

The concourses are wider (63 feet compared to 19 feet at Candlestick, the team says), the concessions more varied (180-plus menu items) and the Wi-Fi system (supported by 70 miles of cable) enabling folks to order food from their seats, seems pretty cool, Kehr said.

Will he use Wi-Fi? “Possibly,” he said.

Come home opening day of the regular season on Sept. 14, Kehr will be at Levi’s with his three sons-in-law, and he may be risking some intra-family gender conflict. His three daughters used to fill those seats, and aren’t entirely happy being displaced by their spouses.

“In the old days, they used to count on that,” Kehr admitted, but offered an immediate rejoinder. “You’re gonna pay that kind of money for seats you’ve gotta take true fans.”

Kehr said he bought two of his seats from Candlestick for $599, to be delivered following demolition of the old ball yard. He’ll mount them in his outdoor kitchen, equipped with a TV, and “still feel like I’m watching the games at the Stick,” he said.

The bottom-most line for all 49ers faithful, however, is beating their division-rival Seahawks to get back to the Super Bowl. The 2013 season ended with a thud in Seattle, where the Seahawks won the National Football Conference Championship game, 23-17, on a game-turning, end-zone tip of a pass that made cornerback Richard Sherman a hero and sent the Seahawks to their first-ever Super Bowl victory.

“I think they’re going to do great,” Vasquez said, assuming the Niners can avoid key injuries.

Andrian ranks San Francisco and Seattle as the two best teams in the league “just like last year.” But Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson, is “only going to get better,” he said, and “as much as it galls me to say it, they were the better team.”

Libarle said the key to the 49ers’ immediate future is whether quarterback Colin Kaepernick emerges as another version of Joe Montana or Steve Young, the team’s pair of Super Bowl-winning signal-callers.

“I think he’s going to get better this year,” Libarle said.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.