1992 L.A. riots: The night baseball was merely a bystander

Tim BrownMLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

Editor’s note: This story was originally published in April 2017, on the 25th anniversary of the civil unrest in Los Angeles that began when four police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. We are republishing it now as America again reckons with racial injustice, this time on a national scale, after the killing of George Floyd.

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LOS ANGELES – A gray light pole outside the corner gas station bears two notices. One for a young woman who has gone missing. Below it, one for a puppy, also gone. They are faded by the sun.

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There is a sandwich shop across the street, along with another gas station, and stores selling auto parts, cell phones and marijuana. Cars pass. People come and go. Another afternoon, this one breezier than most, but otherwise a regular day at the end of another week.

Most of the nearby homes are fenced in, many with bars on the first-floor windows. A few lots are empty and dusty. Life seems to be doing a reasonable enough job of fending off decay here, 25 years later after the Los Angeles riots, at the intersection of Florence and Normandie. It is a fight, though, hard enough and bloody enough, every single day.

I’m not sure what I expect to find here. But I sit for a while and watch it go by.

There is a statue of a man on a hill eight miles away. The statue is new, installed just a week before. When people see it for the first time they call it by name, almost every one of them, as though involuntarily. They rise up along the hillside until only their heads are visible.

“Jackie,” they say.

Young and old, in strollers and wheelchairs, alone and hand-in-hand, they ride the escalator to the left field reserve level to see him. They take pictures. They drag their hands across his back, where it leans over a concrete pedestal and into his slide toward an unseen home plate. They whisper in their children’s ears about that day 70 years ago, and their children look up thoughtfully and nod and ask where the cotton candy is.

So, after asking directions — “It’s outside,” the elderly black gentleman said. “Go around the corner and you’ll see it, 15 or 20 feet over. It’s beautiful.” — I sit and watch for a while.

And he was right. It is beautiful.

(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)
(Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

On a Wednesday night in April 1992, in the sixth inning of a game against the Philadelphia Phillies at Dodger Stadium, Billy DeLury walked the length of the bench in the third-base dugout. A blade of a man who’d served the organization since 1950, DeLury spread word to the players about the danger just eight miles away.

“He was so serious,” said Dave Hansen, the Dodgers’ third baseman that night. “Billy was never that serious.”

When the game is over, he told them, drive north, away from the rioting, the fires, the looting. No matter where you live, he said, go north and find a way around the smoking city. Hansen’s 30-minute drive to his Long Beach townhouse required more than an hour. He watched the news until nearly dawn, blindsided.

“Twenty-five years ago,” said Hansen, now the Angels’ hitting coach, “and it’s still so powerful.”

Mike Scioscia batted behind Hansen that night, three spots behind Eric Davis and four behind Darryl Strawberry. Davis and Strawberry were L.A. guys from the neighborhoods just south of downtown, old pals who’d way back when, made up two-thirds of an outfield for the Compton Moose in the Babe Ruth League. Davis went to Fremont High, Strawberry to Crenshaw. As DeLury went from man to man, to groups of players, explaining what little he knew, that a jury had acquitted the policemen who’d beaten the man on that video, that parts of the city were on fire and worse, and many wondered about Davis and Strawberry. Their families were there, in their communities.

Still, Scioscia said, “None of us understood the magnitude of what was happening.

“Nobody thought much of it leading up to the game. Like, when you’re in that baseball season, everything else is muted. Everyone understood what happened to Rodney King. Everyone understood the trial was going on. I don’t think anyone said the verdict is coming down today there might be something … ”

The Dodgers lost in just under three hours. They scattered, north and away. The Phillies boarded a bus for their downtown hotel. Later, former infielder Dale Sveum recalled, Phillies players sat in silence on that drive, staring out the windows, many with baseball bats across their laps, just in case. Thursday’s game was canceled. A weekend’s worth of games against the Montreal Expos, too.

In an apartment in Santa Monica, a 19-year-old UCLA student and ballplayer named Dave Roberts — everyone called him DR — watched parts of the city erupt. He’d been raised on military bases, where the greater measure of a man was in the number of stripes on his sleeve. He’d become comfortable on a baseball field, where you could play or you could not, where you were a good teammate or you were not, where he played his home games at a place called Jackie Robinson Stadium. Roberts was part African-American, part Japanese, in a town drawing lines.

“I’m not saying I felt like I had to pick a side,” the Dodgers manager said. “But by that time, my race, my awareness, I looked more closely at who I was.”

Dave Roberts, who was a student at UCLA during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is now the manager of the Dodgers. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
Dave Roberts, who was a student at UCLA during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, is now the manager of the Dodgers. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)

He did choose, too.

“Obviously I felt there was an injustice taking place,” he said. “For me, my biggest take-away was, I can’t believe this happens in real life. I just couldn’t believe the things that were going on. The beating itself. Then the verdict, and it’s like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ Then to see the anger that was throughout the city, and the result. Just terrible.”

In about a week’s time, more than 2,000 people were injured. About 50 of those died. Damages were estimated in the billions of dollars.

It was never about the baseball. It, too, was a bystander, looking out over those eight miles, counting the hours and the wounded. Sixteen days later, more than 41,000 people returned to Dodger Stadium. Hansen was at third base, Scioscia at catcher, Davis in left field. Strawberry had injured his back. Strawberry’s brother, the cop, had been injured, but was alive. The custom interiors shop Davis and Strawberry owned in the old neighborhood was undamaged.

“We’re just on the outside looking in and still getting some perspective,” Hansen recalled. “I could not imagine being in the middle of that, in that perspective.

“I felt like then that we had a responsibility. It’s what we do anyway, right? Be a diversion? I think people were ready to get back to baseball. We almost felt a little responsibility to make that energy, that vibe, come back. Baseball helps. Maybe it wasn’t much, but that was our mindset.”

Twenty-five years since, the corner of Florence and Normandie still carries the reputation. Eight miles away, up on that hill at Dodger Stadium, folks ride the escalator to say the name.

“There he is,” a man says to his son, to his daughter. “Jackie.”

On the field below, Dave Roberts stands near the third-base dugout, in the same place Billy DeLury had found it that night.

“Do we have it figured out?” he asks. “Is it where it’s supposed to be? No. As long as we’re still talking about it, though, I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

He pauses for a moment, perhaps to consider the 19-year-old him, the young man who’d watched it all go by, who’d measured injustice against reaction, against effect, and carried that along with him.

“I can’t believe it’s been 25 years,” he says. “A lot’s happened.”

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