Ali spars with Jeter before All-Star Game
Posted: Wednesday July 14, 2004 9:29AM; Updated: Wednesday July 14, 2004 9:29AM
HOUSTON (AP) -- Derek Jeter could barely utter a word, almost frozen with fear when he met Muhammad Ali the day before.
So imagine how Jeter felt when the former heavyweight champ came at him with his fists raised in a classic fighter's pose Tuesday night.
"It was a little scary when he starting throwing punches," Jeter joked. "I was scared. I didn't want to get hit."
Ali was an honored guest for the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star game, returning to the city where he fought four times and relinquished his heavyweight boxing title by refusing to join the military during the Vietnam War.
The selection of Ali for the gathering of baseball's best was considered a peculiar choice by some, but commissioner Bud Selig dismissed such criticism. Ali has said he became interested in baseball once his 13-year-old son, Asaad, joined a Little League team in their community of Niles, Mich.
"Muhammad Ali is one of the sports legends of our generation," Selig said before the game. "I don't think that that's valid criticism."
Ali, now 62, fought four times at the since-deserted Astrodome, beating Cleveland Williams in 1966, Ernie Terrell in 1967 and Jimmy Ellis and Buster Mathis in 1971.
But Ali became known for much more than being a terrific and mouthy heavyweight champion in April 1967, when he moved his legal residence to Houston to fight induction into the military at the downtown U.S. Armed Forces Examining and Entrance Station.
He was roundly criticized for the decision around the country, and was indicted 10 days later by a federal jury for violating the Universal Military Training and Service Act. He was convicted in Houston on June 20, 1967, and was sentenced to five years in prison and a fine of $10,000.
Ali never went to prison as his case went through appeals, but was stripped of his titles and forced to stop boxing for more than three years. His refusal gave more steam to the growing anti-war movement, and the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971. Ali returned to the ring shortly thereafter.
He became the world champion twice more, and eventually retired in 1981.
Ali has returned to Houston several times over the years, including a 1997 benefit for Parkinson's disease, the ailment from which he now suffers.
This time, however, Ali returned to Houston for a welcome worthy of a champion.
"He's a national treasure as far as I'm concerned," AL and New York Yankees manager Joe Torre said. "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."
Ali walked onto the field with his son, Asaad, and waited on the mound as a boy and a girl threw the ceremonial first pitches to Jeter and hometown Astros star Lance Berkman.
He threw a series of playful punches at the boy, 12-year-old Jacob Hobbs of Houston. The sellout crowd of 41,886 at Minute Maid Park roared with approval.
Jeter then gathered the players around Ali for an impromptu photo opportunity, much like the sentimental All-Star tribute for Ted Williams in 1999.
"It looked like some people might have been scared," Jeter said. "It's something I think everyone will remember."
Barry Bonds made his way through the crowd to gently pat Ali on the back, and Cleveland Indians outfielder Matt Lawton couldn't resist throwing a couple of lighthearted jabs at Ali as he walked off the field to a standing ovation.
Ali had some fun of his own, too, putting up two fingers behind Alex Rodriguez's head, drawing big laughs from several All-Stars.
Many of the players were awed at the chance to meet Ali.
Others weren't so excited about Ali's appearance in Houston.
A local civil rights group, the Houston National Black United Front, urged Ali not to participate in the ceremony, saying that he'd be better off highlighting claimed racial inequities in the nation's fourth-largest city. A group of about 50 protesters gathered outside Minute Maid Park, chanting "No Justice, No Peace" and handed out fliers to passers-by.
"It's not about Ali, it's about the power structure. We love Ali," group chairman Kofi Taharka said. "We just reached out to him to show solidarity with us. We're saying there's another side of Houston that hasn't displayed world-class city behavior regarding a number of issues in our community."
As usual in recent years, Ali declined interview requests.