Remembering the Rodney King Riots
Twenty years ago Monday the Phillies ran into a riot in Los Angeles.
Remembering the Rodney King Riots
The big bus rolled through a rightfield gate unto Dodger Stadium's pristine playing field. It moved slowly along the foul line before coming to a stop in front of the visitors dugout. Phillies players, gazing warily around the empty stadium as if expecting to encounter rampaging mobs, emerged from the dugout darkness and got on the bus. John Kruk carried a bat in case there was trouble on the short ride back to the Sheraton Hotel. Dave Hollins gripped one in each hand.
The bus, which after most games carried the manager, coaches, broadcasters and maybe half the roster was filled that night of April 29, 1992. Players who usually cabbed it back opted for the bus, even Lenny Dykstra, a notorious lone wolf. On this night, there were no cabs. It was nearly 11 p.m. when the bus, with police cars on each side, exited the stadium.
It had been an odd day since shortly after the Phillies arrived at the clubhouse that afternoon. A news bulletin flashed across the room's one tiny TV monitor. A Simi Valley jury had acquitted the four Los Angeles policemen accused of beating Rodney King. The tension that had been building in L.A. during the trial exploded at its unexpected conclusion. As soon as the first fires in Watts and South-Central L.A. had appeared, the entire apparatus of the TV news industry in the nation's second largest city was devotyed to coverage of the burgeoning riots. It was riveting television.
During the game, which the Phillies would win, 7-3, players wandered back into the clubhouse to provide their teammates with dugout updates on the chaos that was unfolding just a few miles from where they played. As the fires spread and reports of motorists being dragged out of cars by mobs grew more frequent, curiosity turned to unease. The public-address announcer kept the crowd of more than 40,000 appraised of road closings and police avisories. By the ninth inning there only a few thousand fans remaining.
Up in the press box, the nervousness was no less palpable. How would we get back to the hotel? Was it safe to drive there? Were the riots close? It was my first visit to Los Angeles as the Inquirer's new Phillies beat writer. I'd rented a car, which was parked in the Dodger Stadium lot. My Inquirer colleague Tim Dwyer was along for the West Coast trip. After the game the half-dozen Philadelphia reporters hustled downstairs and gathered a few quotes, some about the game but more on the players' reactions to the surreal scene unfolding in flames beyond Chavez Ravine. The unseen wall that typically separated athletes and sportswriters disappeared that night. The typical rhythms of baseball had been disrupted. We all had one thing in common. We were, if not all frightened, certainly concerned.
Manager Jim Fregosi had asked traveling secretary Eddie Ferenz to bring the bus right on the field and up to the dugout. Graciously, he informed the writers that he would hold the bus for us. There was no way I was going to drive back to the hotel. I left the car in the lot and, after filing a story, got on the bus. We'd all finished our rewrites in record time, gathered our stuff and descended to field level. The ride back to the hotel was uneventful but filled with nervous laughter and speculation. Would the second game in the planned three-game series take place tomorrow? Would the riots spread to our hotel? Would we all be prisoners in our rooms?
Back at the Sheraton, the writers all convened in the hotel bar, something that generally happened even on nights when there were no riots. Very quickly, however, the bartender got a phone call. There were reports that the riots were moving this way. He got orders to shut down for the night. Before the man departed, Dwyer asked him for a few lime slices. He and I then went back to his room where I learned I had a lot to learn as a reporter on the road. Dwyer, who once had been stationed in the Inquirer's L.A. bureau, had brought along Tangueray and tonic, which coincidentally was my drink of choice too. He got some ice and, topping the drinks off with the lime slices, fixed us each a massive gin-and-tonic. It took the edge off the tense night.
The next morning we quickly got word thatThursday night's game had been canceled. Dwyer was assigned to report on the riots while I concerned myself with the Phillies. When Friday's game was canceled too, the Phillies decided to depart early for San Francisco where their next series was due to take place that weekend. Everyone, players, coaches, broadcasters, writers, gathered in the hotel lobby for an afternoon update and meeting. By then, most of the other guests had checked out and we had the place virtually to ourselves. Fregosi said the team would be flying to San Francisco on a charter even though there were concerns that, as had happened during the Watts riots in the late '60s, rioters might be shooting at planes as they departed nearby LAX. The manager said the writers again were free to fly on the charter with them and most did. I had one problem -- the rental car now sitting all alone in the vast parking lot of a now closed stadium. I figured that if I could get to it, I could drive to San Francisco. Hell, the two cities were in the same state, right? How far could it be? I asked Fregosi, a San Francisco native, how long a drive it was from L.A. "Just a couple of hours," he said.
I took a cab to Dodger Stadium, found the car and, seven hours later, neared the outskirts of San Francisco, cursing Fregosi for the first of many occasions over the next few years. The radio said there were riots in San Francisco too, not far from our hotel, and that Saturday's game already had been canceled.
The next day I called the mother of a boyhood friend. She lived in California now and I hadn't seen her son in decades. She told me he had died.