In 2004, years after he had fought his last fight and deep in the throes of Parkinson's Disease, Muhammad Ali threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in Houston. Baseball's biggest stars were all on hand, and all they wanted was to get close to the biggest star
In 2004, years after he had fought his last fight and deep in the throes of Parkinson's Disease, Muhammad Ali threw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game in Houston. Baseball's biggest stars were all on hand, and all they wanted was to get close to the biggest star of them all.
Derek Jeter went to put his arm around Ali, and he was greeted by a series of left jabs that sent the Yankees great in mock-retreat. The legendary boxer, his ability to speak long since altered, still possessed all of the showmanship that made him one of the hallmark athletes -- and transcendent figures -- of the 20th century.
When the three-time heavyweight champion, civil rights activist and cultural icon died on Friday night, the baseball community joined the rest of the world in mourning, and in showing how revered he still was.
Ali, 74, burst on the sports scene as the Olympic light heavyweight gold medalist at the 1960 Summer Games in Rome when he was still known as Cassius Clay, decades before some of the players who paid their respects to him were even born.
"The best there ever was and ever will be!" defending National League MVP Bryce Harper, who was born in 1992, wrote on Twitter. "Rest easy, Champ #ALI"
• Cut4: Ali at the 2004 All-Star Game
Ali meant so much to Padres outfielder Matt Kemp that Kemp has a picture of Ali hanging up in his house. Kemp got to meet his hero once during Spring Training in Arizona, calling it "probably one of the best times of my life," and describing himself as "star struck."
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"He just brought that swag, not just to boxing but to all sports," Kemp said after the Padres' game against the Rockies. "He was smart, man. The way he talked, the way he carried himself, he was cocky, but in a cool way. Everybody enjoyed his presence. I think he was a lot of people's hero, and he's definitely going to be missed."
Added Kemp's teammate, Melvin Upton, Jr.: "He pioneered sports, kind of set the mark for boxing. Unfortunately, I didn't get to see his boxing matches, but he was a thrill to watch. He means a lot to the sports world and is a big, big loss."
Like Kemp, Astros center fielder Carlos Gomez was lucky enough to meet Ali in person, back when he was playing for the Brewers. Gomez shared a picture on Instagram of the two of them together in the Milwaukee clubhouse.
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"Wow completely devastated right now!" Gomez wrote. "I was blessed with the opportunity to meet you and share words with you. I will forever cherish this photo of that moment. We lost not only the greatest boxer of all time but one of the greatest athletes and human beings ever. Thank you for everything you gave us champ! My deepest condolences to his family, my thoughts and prayers are with you."
Nick Hundley was yet another player who got to see Ali up close and personal. After Friday night's game in San Diego, the Rockies catcher, said, "When I was with the Padres, he came to Spring Training. He came to the clubhouse. I got to take a picture with him, shake his hand. Everybody was pretty excited about it. He played his game at the highest level. Get as far as you can and see how far your talents will take you."
Many players remembered some of the plethora of famous lines the fast-talking Ali uttered during his lifetime.
Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen tweeted a photo of Ali in the ring with the quote: "I hated every minute of training, but I said, 'Don't quit. Suffer now and live the rest of your life as a champion.'"
"Forever a champion. #RIPAli," wrote McCutchen.
Rangers pitcher Derek Holland referenced one of the fast-talking Ali's most well known quotes, writing on Instagram, "Rest in peace to the greatest of all time. 'Float like a butterfly sting like a bee.' Wish I got to see you fight live. A true champion and the greatest ever. May u rest in peace."
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The White Sox Brett Lawrie shared the iconic 1965 photograph of Ali standing over Sonny Liston after knocking him out during a heavyweight title fight. Over the photo was another quote from Ali: "He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life."
Major League clubs also shared in remembering Ali.
The Marlins were one team with a special relationship to Ali, who threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the opening of Marlins Park in 2012.
"He's the greatest champion in the world," Marlins president David Samson said. "We have a quote of his in our clubhouse."
The Braves, meanwhile, posted a photo on Twitter of Ali lighting the Olympic cauldron during the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. The event took place at Centennial Olympic Stadium, which afterward became Turner Field, now in its final season as the team's home.
Those weren't Ali's only connections to baseball. He went undefeated in four title fights at the Astrodome, the former home of the Astros, beating Cleveland Williams (1966), Ernie Terrell ('67), Jimmy Ellis ('71) and Buster Mathis ('71).
And of course in 2004, Ali appeared at the Astros' new home, Minute Maid Park, during the All-Star Game. Ali joined children from the Boys & Girls Club who threw the ceremonial first pitch, playing to the crowd by throwing punches in the air as he took the field. As the players gathered around the mound, Ali posed with Jeter and then-Astro Lance Berkman, then shot some punches toward the thrilled Yankees shortstop.
Almost 12 years later, legendary broadcaster Vin Scully summed up the importance of Ali when he broke the news of his death during the Dodgers-Braves telecast.
"That of course will be a huge story throughout the sports world, affecting not only boxing fans, fans of every sport, and those who don't care about sports," Scully said as the called the Dodgers-Braves game. "He had so much of a reaction from his fans and the impression that he made on so many people. Muhammad Ali."
Andrew Simon is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.