Apr 28

Spending the night of the L.A. riots at Dodger Stadium

Twenty years ago, I was in between. I had left my full-time sportswriter job at the Daily News in March and was headed to graduate school in Georgetown in the summer, but for the time being, I was mostly killing time with a little occasional freelance work and a lot of sitting around. I had a destination and was adrift all at once.

Not surprisingly, I spent a lot of time at Dodger Stadium that spring. The 1992 Dodgers were dismal, losing 99 games (the most by the franchise in 84 years), but they started the season 9-9 before dropping three consecutive one-run games, two in extra innings, from April 26-28. The outfield of Eric Davis, Brett Butler and Darryl Strawberry all hit the ball decently in April, and rookie Eric Karros – a surprise starter at first base – was also off to a solid start. The starting pitching, perhaps surprisingly, was the shakiest part of the roster in April.

On the afternoon of April 29, I was in front of the family room TV in my parents’ Woodland Hills house, watching the verdict announcement in the trial of the four police officers charged in the Rodney King beating case. As it was being read, in formal, almost bland, tones, I remember most of all not being sure I was understanding it correctly.

Soon, I would really realize how little grasp I had of what was happening.

My friends and I had plans to see the Dodgers play the Phillies that night, a Wednesday. I don’t believe it occurred to me not to go, other than to perhaps stay home and watch more reaction to the acquittal of the officers. We knew there was anger, we knew there were protests, but we didn’t know how they were going to unfold. Our drive to Dodger Stadium was without incident. When Reginald Denny was being dragged out of his truck, at approximately 6:45 p.m, we were inside the ballpark and insulated from most news of the outside world.

The game wasn’t memorable. Orel Hershiser fell behind 5-0 in the fourth; the Dodgers made four errors and lost, 7-3. It would have been completely forgettable if not for one thing: the warning from the public address announcer not to take any of the southbound freeways away from Dodger Stadium. That certainly got our attention.

By the time we reached home – heading directly west – we fully understood what the deal was.  So would the Dodgers, who canceled their remaining home games that week, forcing them to play doubleheaders on July 3, July 6, July 7 and July 8. That night, I drove back to the Daily News office, an outsider there now as well as just about anywhere else. But in this pre-Internet era, I wanted to see the news coming in. Feeble as it was, that was the only way I knew how to feel connected.

During a recent conference call promoting the documentary Harvard Park, I asked Davis and Strawberry their recollections of the day. Both were in the Dodger starting lineup as the events of April 29 unfolded.

Davis:

It started out as a normal day. With any news of that magnitude, we were watching and paying close attention to the verdict. Unfortunately we had started to play when the verdict came down. And some things started to transpire that we weren’t aware of. And at the end of the game, the sheriffs came into the clubhouse (and told us) that the city was in an uproar and they kind of routed us home, as far as what freeways to take.

Going south out of South Central, the city was in a blaze. There was a lot of anger, there was a lot of hatred that was going on in the city at that particular time because of what had transpired. We actually went home and turned on the news and saw the city being in a blaze.

At that time, Darryl and myself had a store on 84th and Broadway, called All-Star Custom Interiors. The next day we got a call that the games were cancelled. And we were like, ‘Wow, this is really serious, they are canceling games.’ So, we went down to see the store and everything around it had been burned and vandalized — except our store. So it was like we had mixed emotions, because of the total chaos that was going on in the city but the upmost respect for what Darryl and myself had meant to that particular area as opposed to other areas that our store was not vandalized.

And then the time that we brought Rodney King down (to Dodger Stadium) … I had known Rodney’s attorney, and our thought was that it was a healing process and that here’s a man who was getting abused for getting beat. And when he came to Dodger Stadium, it was more of a comfort zone – from what Darryl and myself – to say, let’s try to move forward. But the response we got from some of the people at Dodger Stadium was like this guy was Charles Manson or somebody. It kind of hurt then, because of the fact that he was still being treated as an aggressor, or that he did some wrong outside of getting beat.

So I had mixed emotions about that.

It was a very tough time in South Central at that particular time. I had never been a part of a racial riot to that magnitude. I mean, I was a kid when I watched riots hit, but to actually be in the middle of that and have something to do with it, it was a very tough time – I’m just glad we got through it.

Strawberry:

Well said, E. That’s so true, because it was a very difficult time. You’re talking about two guys that grew up patrolling up these streets of South Central Los Angeles, and never saw so much hatred towards color. Just the frustration of people and the acting out over something hurt a lot of people.

I remember my brother Michael, he was (with the) LAPD at the time too, and he got his car got shot up during the riot as they rolled by. With a AK-47, he got shot up. He had a helmet on but bullets didn’t even hit him in the head, he could have been dead over the fact that the LAPD had got off this case here after being on (video) shown around America of the beating of Rodney King like he was a dog. It was just an unfortunate time for all of us to have to see that because that’s not what America’s supposed to be about.

America is supposed to be about a place of love and peace, happiness and joy and sometimes it turns out to be the opposite of that because of the color of your skin, and it shouldn’t be that way. We felt like we should have been past that, so that time of our life was very difficult to experience and looking back on it and seeing the guy.

The morning of April 30, 1992, we – those of us who slept – woke to a city on fire. The morning of April 30, 2012, we will wake to the day of new ownership of the Dodgers. The events are more coincidental than connected – even with an African-American as one of the new co-owners. Even if it’s just a coincidence, though, it seemed worth pointing out. It is strange what the calendar brings – acknowledgment of how much has changed, and misgivings over how much has not.

Update: My Variety colleague Andrew Barker, who says April 29, 1992 was the first major-league game he ever attended, points out that Strawberry (and then Davis) batted in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and a chance to tie the score, but made out.