The queue was so long it had to be for someone known worldwide. Maybe JLo. Maybe Beyoncé. Or Harry Potter’s kid.
It was the end of the sixth inning in a spring 2002 throwaway practice game at Oakland A Stadium in Phoenix, and that line did not belong to such a trivial event.
The queue starts in the first row behind the plate, spans 20 rows of seats, descends the lobby between the upper and lower sections, and then descends to the concession area.
“Ali is over there,” a fan tells me.
This long line of people patiently awaits Muhammad Ali’s autograph, as he signs everything. Free. Never in my life have I wanted to join a long line of people as much as I do now.
But I don’t. Instead, a colleague and I simply looked down to see Ali sitting in his seat.
This week, Muhammad Ali is touring the world once again as PBS launches Ken Burns’ latest documentary. The four-part “Muhammad Ali” series begins September 19.
The documentary is full of classic images of Ali, but it misses so many special moments where he entertained audiences that weren’t filmed for free.
During that spring training match in 2002, I was standing in an almost empty A club. It was probably the eighth inning, and by that time all of the markers were gone.
Around the corner on walks The greatest of all time. Here it is. In person. Mohamed Ali.
Most people in these kinds of jobs get used and numb to seeing and talking to pretty famous people, but there are exceptions. Elvis Presley. Santa Claus. Mohamed Ali.
He was accompanied by three people and it was obvious that Parkinson’s disease had a good grip on the champion. He could walk, but his body tremors were frequent.
It hasn’t even been six years since he lit the Olympic flame to open the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
That day in Phoenix, he walked through the clubhouse, and at one point we made eye contact and I had a smile on my face like I was looking at the Easter Bunny. The truth.
Ali then takes a seat at a table in the club house.
And he begins to do … a magic show. That was in 2002, a few years before cameras became phones. We had phones, but they didn’t have cameras.
We just used our eyes, knowing full well that it was a memory neither of us would forget.
And everyone there is watching Ali do tricks. Every player, coach, clubhouse guy and reporter all had smiles on our faces that couldn’t erase. A’s manager Art Howe just looked at Ali because he was like the rest of us – neither of us could believe this was happening.
Even with Parkinson’s disease, Ali ordered every room.
Ali spoke to us more than expected. At this point in his life, he didn’t like doing interviews because he was aware that he couldn’t speak the way he wanted.
Ali gets up to do this round, and he starts to shake. The shaking gets worse.
We all look at it without knowing what to do. And all of a sudden Ali falls down, and we are all nervously staring at this icon who is embarrassed that he cannot get his body and his mouth to do what he wants.
At that time, we were aware that this man, this living legend for all of us, showed the frailties that a human being could have.
He must have asked his friends to help him, and then he completed the magic trick.
He stops, then he starts signing baseballs. The guys at the A’s clubhouse start bringing him trays of baseballs and he signs them all.
I could hear him mumble at one point, “I think you’re taking advantage of me.”
Sports journalists normally sign a document that we cannot use our access for autographs. We could be in trouble.
It was a risk I wanted to take, but I didn’t.
No photo or autograph of Ali, just the indelible memory of watching a little magic show from The Greatest of All Time.
This story was originally published September 19, 2021 5:00 a.m.