07/13/2004 9:00 PM ET
Ali, Idols set the All-Star stage
Ex-champ representing Boys and Girls Clubs of America
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
|Muhammad Ali handed out the ceremonial first balls and wowed the All-Stars. (Rich Pilling/MLB Photos)
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HOUSTON -- There are All-Stars, and then there's The Greatest.
Muhammad Ali is a former heavyweight boxing champion, but he'll always be a legend across all sports. That includes baseball, whose greatest stars looked much like kids themselves Tuesday as they watched him bring out the balls for the first pitches by members of Houston's Boys and Girls Clubs with his 13-year-son Asaad.
For a team full of stars, many players said seeing Ali was the highlight of the All-Star experience.
"That was unbelievable," Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia said. "That was the best thing, I think, about the [All-Star] trip."
In typical Ali fashion, he shadowboxed with the kids, bringing a smile before he handed them their baseballs. After Jamie Caro and Jacob Hobbs -- representing Salvation Army Boys and Girls Club and the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Houston, respectively -- threw to the plate, players came out to greet the kids and meet The Greatest.
In a scene reminiscent of the players' reaction to Ted Williams' appearance at the 1999 All-Star Game in Boston, both the American League and National League teams encircled the mound, then huddled around Ali when motioned by Yankees All-Star and AL starting shortstop Derek Jeter.
"That's what I'm going to take from this," Jeter said. "That's an honor for me. It's a privilege. I'm a huge fan. I think everybody in the sporting world is a huge fan of Muhammad Ali and has a lot of respect for him. I really appreciated it."
Jeter received a play punch from Ali as well. The teams posed together with The Greatest for a picture as he playfully teased AL starting third baseman Alex Rodriguez who was kneeling in front of him.
Then it was the fans' turn. A chant of "Ali! Ali!" from a scattering of fans turned into a loud roar throughout Minute Maid Park, and he received a standing ovation as he waved to fans in the third-base stands.
"I was walking off the field," Indians outfielder Matt Lawton said, "and I could kind of see him in my peripheral vision. And he wanted to spar a little bit. I'm like, 'Oh my God.' That was pretty cool."
It's not the first time this season Ali's presence has captured a team's attention. Assad plays youth baseball in Niles, Michigan, and when his team qualified for the USSSA State Tournament in downriver Detroit, Ali and the players made a trip to Comerica Park for a Tigers game.
Since Assad and his teammates couldn't all go inside the Tigers' clubhouse after the game, Ali made a surprise visit to meet the Tigers and have them meet his son's team. Fittingly, the Tigers were as awed as the kids were, posing for photos with the former champ and Olympic gold medalist.
The team won its state tournament and will compete in the USSSA World Series for 13-year-olds. Again, they'll be competing in nearby Canton, Michigan.
The Boys and Girls Clubs is one of Ali's many causes as a worldwide ambassador. His battle with Parkinson's Disease has been known for years, giving much-needed attention to the fight to beat the devastating ailment.
"He's a national treasure as far as I'm concerned," AL manager Joe Torre said. "The man, sometimes when people are going through some physical problems, they tend to hide out. But I think he realizes how much good he does just showing up places."
In 2000, Ali was named a United Nations Messenger of Peace. His lighting of the Olympic cauldron was one of the most touching moments of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
His more recent work has been closer to home. Once his son finished Little League, Ali realized there was no next level for kids to advance to. So last fall, Ali and his wife helped lead the effort to build a Pony League field for 13- and 14-year-olds in their community.
The stadium was dedicated in May, fittingly, as Champ's Field. They're now hoping to help fund a new baseball field for Niles High School.
For Ali, it was a return to a city that has plenty of history for him. He fought four times at the Astrodome, winning twice by knockout and twice more by decision. It was also here that his Muslim faith was put to the test in his case as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
"I am 90 percent preacher and 10 percent fighter," he said at the time.
When the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his argument in June 1971, Ali returned here for his first title bout a month later, winning the NABF Heavyweight crown.
Before Ali mesmerized the Houston crowd, recent American Idol winner Fantasia had her own commanding performance from the mound. She brought the crowd to a loud roar herself with a stirring, emotional rendition of the U.S. national anthem.
The performance continues a dream year for the young singer. Since earning the top honor from viewers for the show's third season, Fantasia has seen her recording single, "I Believe," debut at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Her appearance highlighted the procession of famed performers. Gord Downie, frontman for long-running Canadian rockers The Tragically Hip, performed the Canadian national anthem.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.