The Miami Marlins opened their new stadium in ideal South Beach style—a festive atmosphere, Brazilian dancers and the traditional fly-over as the retractable roof was opened to allow the breath of the tropical sun to cascade over the freshly grown grass.
But nothing screamed Miami louder than who was scheduled to throw out the first pitch. It had been kept a closely guarded secret with information being leaked only minutes before it was about to occur that a five minute standing ovation had been scheduled for whoever it was.
Anticipation grew from the fans at home and spectators in the stands, who could ever command this kind of respect?
A political figure? No, too polarizing.
A war hero? Not well known enough to alert the inebriated bunch watching for his arrival.
A well respected academic? Please, this is baseball.
It had to be someone great. It had to be “The Greatest."
When Muhammad Ali’s name echoed across the PA system it was an instant moment of shock and inspiration for all watching. Every sports fan, no matter age, gender, ethnicity or sport preference, knows who Ali is and what he has meant to sports and, more importantly, to culture.
He being chosen to throw out the first pitch was no accident. Ali won his first Heavyweight title in Miami nearly 50 years ago, defeating Sonny Liston with a TKO in the seventh round. But logic and common sense clashed on this night.
When Ali first broached the center field fence, in a golf cart donning the new Marlins brand, there was not the same adoring roar that he entered the ring to in 1964. Instead, it was as if the air had been left out of the stadium, an eerie silence that overwhelmed the crowd and gave a sense of connection between the fans watching on TV and those in attendance.
The uneasy feeling of pity and shame washed over the millions watching as if we all were thinking the same thing—this is not Ali. This small old man, hunched over in a golf cart unaware of the millions of eyes watching him.
This is not the champ.
As the cart rolled ever closer to the mound, there were attempts to start up a chant “ALI! ALI! ALI!” Even the PA announcer got involved, attempting to evoke some kind of life out of a stunned crowd. But the subject matter was too real, or too surreal, to make any kind of attempt toward respectable consciousness.
Is it our fault this happened? With very few public appearances by Ali over the past few years, has our realization of him already transformed from man to legend? Were we expecting a Michael Mann-directed Will Smith to triumphantly walk to the mound and toss a floater that we can only clap about in this traditional ceremony?
As Ali neared the infield, the stadium was in a near hush. Players began to approach Ali, having the kind of trepidation you would a sick grandparent who you never really had a relationship with in the first place and were being forced by your parents to do the right thing. The kind of demeanor that suggests they'd rather be anywhere but there.
It was not out of disrespect for Ali, but disbelief by the players. You could see the questions running through their heads—does he know who I am? I want to shake his hand, but will I hurt him? Does he know what is going on? Why did my team do this to me?
Was this a smart move by the Marlins?
Ali never really took the ball. He had it in his hand, but whether he wanted it always seemed uncertain. To my knowledge, Ali never got out of the cart, let alone threw the first pitch. ESPN’s director took the first cut to commercial he could, feeling the tension raised by the poor move in hindsight to parade Ali out in front of the world.
Marlins owner Jeffery Loria, accompanying Ali in the cart, figured out some place between the outfield and second base that this was probably not a good idea. His expression changed as he felt the calm of awe blanket the crowd and realize that this not Atlanta circa 1996.
Everything that the Marlins franchise has done in the offseason was bathed in the idea of symbolism. Rebranding of the name to symbolize a community more than a region. Changing of the logo to allude to the colors that define one of the nation’s most vibrant cities. A new stadium marking the year zero in Marlin baseball.
But this was supposed to be the biggest symbol of all—a full circle for the man we all know as “The Greatest” while indoctrinating his style of brilliance into the future of this franchise.
Instead, it was a symbol of the very same narcissism and poor decisions that have plagued this franchise for years.
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