Muhammad Ali delivers first pitch in Miami
MIAMI — Just when the Miami Marlins thought there were no more surprises in store at their new stadium that seems to have everything, a 70-year-old man was escorted into the clubhouse before Wednesday's first game.
It was Muhammad Ali.
"When he walked in here, everybody was sort of staring and then they dropped their jaws," said Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. "Then everybody jumped up and said 'wow' and there was applause for him. It was nice. He's an icon. They all know his place in American history."
Ali might have made his name hitting foes rather than home runs. But Loria couldn't think of anybody more suitable to deliver the game ball to the mound for his team's first game in Marlins Stadium, which Ali did after visiting the players.
The legendary boxing champion couldn't throw out a first pitch because Parkinson's disease has robbed him of his motor skills. But that didn't matter in the slightest to Loria.
"I wanted to give the fans a sense that we're doing special things for them," Loria said after the 4-1 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals.
Loria said he's known Ali for "a while" but wouldn't be specific. Loria said about two months ago he was able to convince Ali to return to Miami, where he trained as a young fighter and won the heavyweight title for the first time in 1964, knocking out Sonny Liston.
"I thought it would be nostalgic and his wife (Lonnie) thought it might be fun for him to come here," Loria said.
The next order of business was for Loria to keep it all a secret. That proved very successful.
Marlins catcher John Buck was one of the early ones to find out Ali was on hand, and that was only "about five minutes" before he showed up in the clubhouse. Other players had no clue until they saw him.
"We were shocked to see that kind of person, to see him up close," said Marlins shortstop Jose Reyes. "Everybody was taking pictures and touching him and stuff like that."
Fans didn't learn about the very special guest until a gate opened in centerfield during the opening ceremonies and out came Ali riding in the backseat of a golf cart alongside Loria. Parkinson's disease makes Ali's hands shake noticeably. He waved slightly with his right hand while Loria did his best to hold down his left one.
"He's just so strong," Loria said. "I was holding onto his hand and he just about destroyed my hand. He is as strong as he ever was. The disease is debilitating but he's still the most famous person on the face of the earth. And it was a big up for me and for the crowd."
The fans chanted "Ali, Ali, Ali." The man known as "The Greatest" then took a ball Loria had provided him and gave it to Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez at the mound. Call it the first ceremonial handoff in Marlins Park.
"It was unbelievable to have a chance to meet him," Ramirez said. "He's a hero, not only in America but all over the world people respect him."
Ramirez called it "hard" to see Ali's hands shaking as they did and said "you don't want to see that happen to anybody." While some fans spoke about being uplifted by Ali's presence, others talked about the moment having some awkwardness.
"It was an honor to see him up close," said Alex Garcia, 40, of Miami who had a seat not far behind home plate. "But seeing him in his prime and seeing him now, it's kind of difficult."
Many became well aware of Ali's condition when he had struggles lighting the flame at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Ali has attended sports functions since then, including Arizona Diamondbacks playoff games and the 2009 NBA All-Star Game in Phoenix, where he has a home. But Loria called this the most major role Ali has had at a sports event since those Olympics.
Loria really wanted to make it special. Earlier Wednesday, before any players knew Ali would be visiting the clubhouse, Loria had put up some placards on the wall that had Ali sayings.
"He just smiled," Loria said of Ali's reaction to seeing one of the placards.
After his pregame duties were done, the golf cart carrying Ali took him for half-lap trip around the stadium before it left through the same centerfield gate. Ali then watched the game in Loria's suite, where baseball commissioner Bud Selig also was seated.
Loria actually watched the game in the stands. But he plans to again see Ali while he remains in Miami for a few days.
"His son is a player," Loria said of Asaad Amin, who played catcher at Louisville. "We're actually going to sit and talk with his son (Thursday)… He wants to know more about going about his business as a possible professional."
As for Ali's impression of Marlins Park, Loria said his reaction was, "Wow." Many said the same thing Wednesday when they saw Ali.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter@christomasson