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Anarchy and Baseball, Revisited

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That’s the 1962 Dodgers yearbook.  The year 2012 celebrates the 50th anniversary of Dodger Stadium, that venerable and beloved ballpark on a hillside just north of downtown L.A.  And what a rich history this beautiful venue claims.

 

However, this post is about an anniversary that transcends baseball, and sports. 

It’s been 20 years as of this weekend since the riots in reaction to the Rodney King police beating verdict, and a lot has happened over two decades.

But I’ll never forget the events of April 29, 1992 and beyond…when urban anger boiled over in Los Angeles, essentially shutting down the Dodgers along with most of the city.

Keep in mind that living 100 miles away, I watched from afar. But as a Dodger fan whose favorite baseball team played not far from where the action was taking place, the events that unfolded over the next few days clutched at my heart.

It all started on a Tuesday afternoon, far from the heart of L.A., with the acquittal of four police officers by a Simi Valley jury, and regardless of where you stood on the issue, the repercussions could be seen coming.  Racial tensions in the city had been exacerbated over a series of incidents in the early 1990s. Tired of practicing patience, for many, this was the last straw.

Remembering that this all took place in those last days of the pre-Internet era, the home video taken by a witness to a beating the year before nevertheless became instantly popular nationwide, as cable TV was emerging as the primary source of news around the country. Today, it would have “went viral.”  Back then, it was merely televised and re-televised on major media news outlets.

During the year (actually, almost 14 months) between the time the beating occurred and the time the verdict was announced, I assumed, incorrectly, that some conviction would be forthcoming, and the trial itself was just a matter of going through the motions.  Surely one, if not all, of the cops would be found guilty.

Like you always do when there’s some defining moment in history, I still remember where I was when I heard news of the trial’s outcome–driving home from work, stopped at a stop sign on Pershing Drive. The announcement had been made live in Ventura County around 3:15 p.m. Forty-five minutes later, as I got into my car for my brief commute, I had just left a meeting. I hadn’t even realized the verdict was near, or was coming down that day.

But the talk show host on KFI radio was ranting about something, along with some guests on his show, outraged about how not much had changed over the years. “Is this 1992 in L.A.?” I remember someone saying.  “It’s like 1962 in Mississippi.”  Then he announced, for those who had not yet heard the news, that the four were found not guilty, and there was talk that the city was on the verge of erupting.  Quite frankly, I was shocked at the news, myself.  I raced the last mile home and turned on my TV.

I watched it all on KTLA’s broadcast, while my relatives in L.A. watched from their backyards in the distance—smoke, fires, drivers being attacked if they were in the wrong neighborhood.

I understood the mixed emotions.  My dad was a retired cop.  I called him and we had a long talk about his experience with the riots of the ‘60s, something I barely remember from my childhood and knew relatively little about then. The last time anything on this scale had taken place, I was five years old and didn’t have a clue what was going on outside my own little world.  Back then, the Dodgers were slogging through the dog days of August, a heated pennant race with the Giants in the 1965 season, with L.A. soon to be crowned world champions.

But fast forward 27 years later, and it was a different world.  The Dodgers were playing the Phillies early in the season, on that warm April night at Dodger Stadium, not too far away from the smoldering events south of downtown L.A. which began shortly before nightfall. 36,000+ fans were in Chavez Ravine to see Orel Hershiser face Danny Cox for Philadelphia.  Mike Scioscia was behind the plate catching Hershiser.  Lenny “Nails” Dykstra, who was born and raised in Garden Grove, CA, was in the lineup for the Phillies. Two more hometown players from the city, who grew up in Southcentral L.A.–Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry–were in the lineup for the Dodgers and patrolling the outfield. (Strawberry’s brother, Michael, was an LAPD cop who was shot in the ensuing mayhem, but survived.)

A young rookie who would soon win the first base job pinch-hit late in the game, drilling an RBI single. His name was Eric Karros.  The Dodgers lost, 7-3, their fourth consecutive setback, and fell to 9-13 on the young season.  I don’t remember anything more about that game.  I was riveted with the TV news.

I do know very few people had cell phones in those days–I could count the number of people I knew who had one, on one hand–so it wasn’t easy to just call someone at the game to let them know it would be best to take an alternate route home if they had to use the Harbor Freeway.  And unbeknownst to many who were at the game, the city was going up in flames, outside the confines of Elysian Park. I heard stories about burning palm trees off the 110 freeway, which cuts through downtown just south of Dodger Stadium and through the heart of South L.A.  On the program cover above, it’s marked “Harbor” and, denoted with a pinkish streak, takes a direct route through Strawberry and Davis’ neighborhood, south to San Pedro.

 

Over the next couple of days, mass chaos gave way to devastation.  Looting and arson continued. Governor Wilson ordered 2000 California National Guardsman into the city (a number which was later doubled).  President George H.W. Bush granted Federal assistance to L.A.  Mayor Tom Bradley imposed a curfew.  I listened to the radio all day at work, and watched on TV again as I got home.  I was horrified, but mesmerized.  I listened to many accounts from politicians, emergency personnel, and eyewitnesses; I saw devastation and death.  I cried.  I saw the pain of others–anger and tears.  A mapped area on the news showed fires and destruction perilously close to the home where my aunt and uncle had lived for so many years in Gardena, before retiring two years earlier to a desert home.  “This is Los Angeles”, one newscast led off.  “But it looks and smells like Beirut.”

I saw opportunists, but I also saw righteous rage.  And I saw people pulling together to move forward.

Meanwhile, in the sports world, the Lakers had moved their playoff series from the near heart of the violence, out of state to Las Vegas. The team’s superstar, Magic Johnson, who had just endured his own personal crisis a few months earlier, was deeply touched by what he saw happening around this city in which he had carried the Lakers to five NBA titles.

The Dodgers had been scheduled to play the Montreal Expos in that same homestand, but those games were all cancelled and later rescheduled as doubleheaders in July.

For now, sports was off the map.  The entertainment industry stopped.  Fiesta Broadway was cancelled. LAX was shut down; Amtrak service and RTD bus service were suspended.  Unless you were involved in rioting or trying to control it, it seemed as if life was at a standstill in the City of Angels.  Workplaces in many neighborhoods were shut down.  But in some outlying suburban areas, life went on, albeit with caution.

How long would it continue?  Well, by the time the weekend arrived, order had been restored, for the most part.  I woke up Saturday morning to my neighbor knocking on my door.  “What are you doing today?  Any plans?  Grab a broom and dustpan, we’re going to L.A.”  KFI had put out a call for volunteers. The reports they gave from locations around the areas hardest hit by the riots were that people of all ethnic backgrounds were busy working together, cleaning up, organizing assistance to residents—with no tensions, just the goal of cleaning up in the aftermath.  They gave the address of an AME church in Southcentral as the central organizing point. My neighbor, Jay, his girlfriend and I pooled our money together for a tank of gas, ready to hit Interstate 5 north. I grabbed my Los Angeles Thomas guide, figured out how to get there, and we were on our way.

When we arrived in Southcentral L.A., it was just as it appeared on TV–like it had been a war zone. The feeling was surreal. With the National Guard occupying the neighborhoods, there was peace, but it had not come without a price.

We asked where help was needed most. We saw people of all backgrounds, working together–many wearing Dodgers or Lakers gear–cleaning broken glass, debris, wreckage of storefronts–it appeared to be endless.  What I saw brought me a sense of humility.  It seemed the very least I could do to just be there and try to help in some way, because watching TV at home, I had simply felt helpless.

People were driving up and down Western Ave. with hand-held camcorders, preserving history on videotape.  Later, on the way out of the city to head home, we cruised the length of Koreatown and saw scenes like that everywhere. Tanks were positioned, order was being maintained, and yet there was a kind of an eerie feeling–calm, but still on edge.

The long week had come to an end. On Monday, Cinco de Mayo, Los Angeles dug out from the wreckage and returned to work, the nation’s second-largest city trying to pick up the pieces of five horrifying days.  Lives were lost, lives were forever changed, and in some cases, new life arrived.  In my hometown, on that very day, my nephew was born. 

The Dodgers came back, but they never were the same.  It had been my hope that they would regroup from their sluggish start and lead their city to unity, coming together in support. The results were quite the opposite of what I envisioned, as they endured their worst season since moving to Los Angeles, losing 99 games—yet, only four years removed from a world championship.  A team that had finished just one mere game behind the Braves in their division the season before, fell to a staggering 35 games back by the end of 1992.

Did sports really matter?  I concluded yes, as a unifying force.  We had seen sports teams rally to help bring healing to cities that had endured disasters before.  Less than three years earlier, the “Bay Bridge World Series” helped Bay Area residents move forward from the Loma Prieta earthquake.  So, why not now?

But in this case, it was just not to be.

In contrast, though, a 35-game deficit—while embarrassing for a franchise of the Dodgers’ stature—paled compared to the loss of life and livelihood in many L.A. neighborhoods.

Still, as far as the game on the field went, the silver lining that season was the emergence of Karros, the former UCLA Bruin, who would eventually write his own chapter in Dodgers history.  He was one of the few bright spots on this team that had tripped up and never recovered.  Later on that summer, Kevin Gross’ no-hitter against the Giants at Dodger Stadium—on August 18–was the Dodgers’ highlight game of 1992. Not much else about that season was memorable.  It was almost as if the Dodgers reflected a mirror image of Los Angeles–broken and trying to restore itself.

Over those next few years in the city of L.A., leaders began to strategize and consider, where to go from here? And slowly, things got done. Wounds began to heal. Rebuilding began.  Many who lived in Southcentral then, comparing it to Southcentral now, will tell you that much progress has been made.

But race wasn’t through being an issue in L.A. or with the LAPD; three years later the world’s eyes were riveted by the O.J. Simpson murder trial.

In the meantime, in those ensuing years, the Dodgers would struggle to find themselves. Yet, despite friction between the black and Korean communities in L.A., it was at Dodger Stadium that a Korean pitcher would emerge two years later as another groundbreaker for the team. The following season, it was a Japanese pitcher.  And in the post-Valenzuela era, yet another Mexican pitcher.  The Dodgers once again were reflecting a mirror image of Los Angeles; between 1992 and 1995, they were starting to look a lot like the city they represented.

From 1992 to 1996, the organization would produce five consecutive NL Rookies of the Year, but it got them nothing more than a couple of playoff appearances and quick exits.

Then Newscorp. bought the team, abruptly dumped their biggest star, and the Dodgers were left to start from scratch.

Twenty years after the riots took place, the Washington Nationals —formerly the Expos, whose series with the Dodgers was cancelled back then—were playing in Dodger Stadium. To put things into perspective, phenom Bryce Harper wasn’t even born yet on April 29, 1992.

And Magic, who was the Lakers’ greatest player as a city’s anger was unleashed in 1992, is now part owner of the Dodgers.

 

Things have an interesting way of evolving.  History shapes the present.  Perhaps the Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles will emerge stronger, with what certainly appears to be a brighter future than the bleakness that existed for both, back in April of 1992. 

 

Celebrating her golden anniversary, the shining ballpark on the hill is certainly poised to return to the glory of earlier times.