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Former Dodgers officials recall the night in 1992 when riots erupted in Los Angeles

Midtown showing plumes of smoke from the numerous building fires in the city on April 30, 1992.
Smoke rises from Midtown building fires during the 1992 L.A. riots.
(Ken Lubas / Los Angeles Times)

The Dodgers were having a bad game in an already bad season, but it was a typically nice spring evening to catch a baseball game in Chavez Ravine.

More than 36,000 fans packed into Dodger Stadium to watch the home team take on the Philadelphia Phillies.

Hours earlier and miles away in a Simi Valley courtroom, a jury had already rendered its verdict: not guilty for the four LAPD officers caught beating a prone Rodney King on videotape.

But for those entering the stadium for the 7 p.m. game, it was like stepping into a kind of bubble. There were no smartphones or Twitter in 1992. There was no device to tell them in the fast scrawl of social media that Los Angeles was quickly devolving into chaos.

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Still, there were signs: a public address announcement and a message on the video boards telling fans that disturbances had started across the city and that authorities were recommending alternate routes to the 110 Freeway.

Bill Foltz, the team’s director of finance at the time, kept his eyes glued to the television in the press box. He saw helicopter footage of a truck driver, Reginald Denny, being pulled from his vehicle and beaten at the corner of Florence and Normandie avenues.

From his perch above the upper deck, he saw orange flames and smoke rise above the city.

“We could see the glow running all along. We could see as far south as the 10 Freeway,” said Foltz, who is now chief financial officer of the Anaheim Ducks. “Even at night we could see the smoke. It was surreal.”

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But inside, the bliss of a lazy spring game against the Phillies prevailed, at least for while, even if the Dodgers seemed plainly headed toward a season of losing. By the fifth inning they were down by five runs. Orel Hershiser, the team’s Cy Young Award-winning pitcher, had been chased from the game.

After the 7-3 loss, Hershiser said: “It was a bad game and a bad night for L.A. I have nothing else to say.”

The King video, taken by George Holliday, showed officers delivering repeated baton blows and kicks on March 3, 1991, as King rolled on the ground. A year later, on April 29, at 3:15 p.m., a jury acquitted Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and Officers Laurence M. Powell, Theodore J. Briseno and Timothy E. Wind.

At Dodger Stadium, players would take batting practice. Some watched the TV news. But once the game began, people in the stadium were initially shielded from the scope of what was unfolding in many L.A. streets.

“You’re not getting much of anything as a fan inside of the stadium that was telling you what was happening in the outside world,” Foltz recalled. “Unless you had your transistor radio and were listening to [Vin Scully], you may not know what’s going on in the city.”

Kansas City Royals coach Dale Sveum was a journeyman infielder who played for that 1992 Phillies team. He played first base that night and said in an interview with ESPN that after the disturbances were announced on the scoreboard, the stadium began to clear out.

“By the time the game was in the seventh, eighth inning there was hardly anybody in the stands at all,” he said. “Then, of course, when the game got over, all hell was breaking loose all over the city.”

When the game ended, the Phillies boarded a bus that came onto the field and pulled right up to the dugout. It was escorted by the LAPD, and one officer told Sveum to bring a bat, he recalled. The parking lot behind the stadium would become a staging area for local authorities and the National Guard.

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In a 2012 blog post, former sportswriter Jon Weisman asked two Dodgers who are inextricably connected to those neighborhoods where the riots took place about that night. Eric Davis and Darryl Strawberry were childhood friends in South L.A. Strawberry attended Crenshaw High School and his older brother Michael was a police officer. Davis and Strawberry owned a store, All-Star Custom Interiors, at 84th and Broadway.

“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,” Davis recalled.

The Dodgers’ chief financial officer at the time, Bob Graziano, was in a window seat on a flight back from Chicago that afternoon. He knew the verdict was coming, but airlines didn’t have Wi-Fi or in-flight streams of CNN. As his plane banked into LAX, he saw more than a half-dozen fires burning across the city.

“They must have announced the verdict,” he recalled thinking.

The next day he joined Foltz, who had driven in from Redondo Beach, at the office. The commute on the 110 Freeway had been eerily easy.

Mayor Tom Bradley and the LAPD asked the Dodgers to cancel the next day’s game and three more. The team considered shifting the games to Albuquerque and even tried to play in San Diego.

“Sports oftentimes brings people together,” said Graziano, who later served as team president. “It was so bad that we really had to end up canceling the games.”

For Strawberry, who was struggling with a herniated disk, the destruction of the city was even more personal. The day after the verdict, Davis and Strawberry headed to their store. The looters had spared All-Star Custom Interiors, in which they had each invested $50,000 several years before.

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Early in the morning on May 1, Michael Strawberry, Darryl’s brother and a former Dodgers minor leaguer, was grazed in the head by a bullet when his patrol car was ambushed. Strawberry’s mother told The Times that the shooting left her son with severe headaches and metal fragments in his head.

The Dodgers’ attendance dropped precipitously that year. Graziano said that the team’s performance probably was a larger factor in that than the riots. In 1991, the team won 93 games. In 1992, they would go on to lose 99 games.

The Los Angeles Police Academy sits behind the stadium and often used the Dodgers parking lots for training exercises. Both Foltz and Graziano recall a change in what they saw from the authorities. Before, you would see officers learning how to drive or approach vehicles, they recalled.

“What you saw after that,” Graziano said, “was larger groups of police officers who were training for larger disturbances.”

benjamin.oreskes@latimes.com

Twitter: @boreskes

ALSO

‘It looks bad. It’s dangerous.’ Vacant lots dotting South L.A. a painful reminder of L.A. riots

‘Look what happens when we don’t talk to each other’: Korean American filmmakers’ L.A. riots stories

Angelenos talking to Angelenos: Covering the L.A. riots when local news still mattered


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