Twenty years later, Sveum recalls L.A. riots

PHILADELPHIA -- When you fear for your life and police officers suggest you might want to bring along a weapon, it’s pretty safe to assume the memory will remain crystal clear two decades later.

Cubs manager Dale Sveum still has a vivid recollection of what was happening 20 years ago on this day when he found himself close to the epicenter of the Los Angeles riots as a member of the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Phillies and Los Angeles Dodgers were about to kick off a three-game series at Dodger Stadium on April 29, 1992, with the Phillies set to head out to the field when the verdicts were read in the Rodney King beating trial.

“What you remember is going out just before batting practice is when the verdict came down,” said Sveum, who was in the lineup at first base that night. “We all had to go stretch but obviously we saw the verdict.”

The “not guilty” proclamation was impactful enough but it would resonate even more as the hours and minutes went by. The area south of Los Angeles was most impacted by subsequent rioting (Dodger Stadium sits on a hill immediately north of downtown).

The game went on as scheduled, though, even as the rioting was escalating.

“About the time it got to about the first or second inning they actually came over the loudspeakers and said what was going on, the rioting and all that stuff,” Sveum said. “It was weird because there were probably 50,000 people there and by about the fourth or fifth inning there was about 10,000 people, if that many. By the time the game was in the seventh, eighth inning there was hardly anybody in the stands at all. Then of course when the game got over all hell was breaking loose all over the city.”

It was after the game, when police came to escort the Phillies bus back to the team’s downtown Los Angeles hotel, that the seriousness of the situation was realized. Sveum said players were instructed by a member of the Los Angeles police department to each bring a baseball bat with them on the bus for self-defense purposes.

“The bus actually came up to the dugout there in L.A. and picked us up and we actually took bats with us back to the hotel,” Sveum said. “We could see it and cops told us how bad it was. At that time we were just downtown -- not too far -- and driving home there were cars on fire and stuff like that. We had two more games that were cancelled and we had to go to San Francisco.”

It was an uneasy night to say the least.

“They said lock your door and don’t let anybody in your rooms,” Sveum said. “If there is a knock on your door ignore it. That was crazy.”

With the final two games in the series already postponed, the Phillies left Los Angeles the next day, but the unrest turned what should have been a 30-minute drive to the airport into a three-hour one.

“You can see the looting going on outside the bus and the fires,” Sveum said. “It was obviously a strange time. Then we got to San Francisco and [rioting] all started there and they cancelled the first game. We had rescheduled doubleheaders. We came back to the West Coast and played three or four doubleheaders.”

A member of the Philadelphia media said this week that some of the local coverage of what was happening in Los Angeles consisted of updating the safety and whereabouts of the Phillies traveling party.

By the time the six days of unrest was finished there was an estimated $1 billion in property damage and over 50 deaths.

“It was a trying time for the whole country,” Sveum said. “It was unfortunate the way everything happened. Hopefully those types of things are behind us.”

Today, Sveum still carries that vivid memory of the uncertainty and what it was like to think your life might be in danger.

“Yeah, you were scared a little bit,” Sveum said. “You can see on the news what was going on just outside the stadium. It wasn’t too far from the stadium or the hotel. Especially when the cops tell you, 'Take bats with you,' on the buses, you knew it was serious.”