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06/21/09 1:30 AM EST

Civil Rights history hits home with players

'Once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity not lost as Reds host Sox

CINCINNATI -- Players on both the Reds and White Sox knew they had the best seats at Great American Ball Park for viewing the pregame ceremonies of the Civil Rights Game on Saturday night.

Very few players and coaches, if any, squandered their chance to watch.

Wearing throwback uniforms from 1964 -- the year the Civil Rights Act passed -- players viewed the scene from the top step of the teams' respective dugouts as Major League Baseball Beacon Award recipients Hank Aaron, Muhammad Ali and Bill Cosby were honored on the field.

"It's kind of hard to describe being part of something like this," Reds second baseman Brandon Phillips said. "Just to be in the game and wear the jerseys that Frank Robinson used to wear -- he was my first Major League manager [with the Expos]. It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal having the greatest athletes, actors and comedians and all those people in one city and one field, talking to them and shaking their hand."

Reds players made a concerted effort to meet Aaron up close after the tribute ended. Reds manager Dusty Baker, a close friend and former teammate of Aaron, shook hands -- as did relievers Arthur Rhodes and Jared Burton. Reliever David Weathers had his young son, Ryan, pose for a picture with the former home run king.

"For me, it's always nice to see icons of American history," Reds starting pitcher Bronson Arroyo said. "You see these guys all the time, but it's just nice to see them like this -- a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us. To have a one-minute conversation with Sugar Ray Leonard, for me, that was something I can tell my family and friends about. It was really special to be part of that."

The White Sox had no active role in the ceremony in their light blue throwback uniforms, but they watched intently from across the field.

"It was really neat -- they told us we didn't have to be out there," White Sox reliever Scott Linebrink said. "Go see the guys that were out there -- Bill Cosby, Hank Aaron and Muhammad Ali -- that's pretty amazing company. To see the different representations there, outside the game of baseball, really showed how big this thing was. It's bigger than a sport. This sport has done a lot to integrate. We've come a long way as a society, too. That's what I took out of it."

A sold-out crowd of 42,234 fans attended the game -- most of them were in their seats long before first pitch to watch the events on the field. There were multiple standing ovations, especially when Aaron, Ali and Cosby were brought out separately onto center field on golf carts. They waved to the crowd as they rode along the warning track.

"No doubt -- it was definitely a hit," Arroyo said. "We haven't had an atmosphere here like that since Opening Day, and it even rivals that. To have the stadium completely full, an hour before game time, it was a lot of excitement.

The only thing that didn't work according to plan for Cincinnati was the game's outcome. The Reds blew an early 5-0 lead to the White Sox and lost, 10-8.

The Beacon Awards Luncheon was held at the nearby Duke Energy Center earlier in the day. The three icons were the center of attention, as was former President Bill Clinton, who delivered the keynote address.

Included in the sold-out audience were Baker, White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and several Reds players.

"I think it was the best lunch I've ever been to in my life," Guillen said. "It was great entertainment and a lot of information. I've never seen Mr. Clinton talk in [person], and he was outstanding. I see why people love him. I know a lot of people from my country want to be part of that lunch. The thing that went through my mind is that it's not because of Jackie [Robinson] -- a lot of people talk about Jackie because he was the first one -- but remember what Bill Cosby said, 'What about the rest of the people?'

"If not because of them, I don't think I would be sitting in that room having lunch with those people and managing at the big league level and playing at the big league level and sitting close to Dusty Baker and next to [White Sox general manager] Kenny Williams -- all of those great people out there. A lot of times, you take things for granted and you forget where you came from and how many people went through tough times to make our life a lot better."

Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig, Leonard and Bob Gibson were the presenters of the awards.

"It's hard to find greater men than were at that luncheon, and the presenters weren't bad, either," Baker said. "This has been a great game to play in. I feel honored and privileged to be a participant as a manager, especially with the great guys that were here today."

Mark Sheldon is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.