Ali captivates clubhouse with surprise visit

Times Staff Writer

Sporting royalty needed a walker to shuffle into the Angels’ Tempe Diablo Stadium clubhouse Tuesday, the once lean and powerful body of Muhammad Ali ravaged by age -- he’s 65 -- and Parkinson’s disease.

But that did nothing to diminish the aura surrounding the former heavyweight champion, who is considered the most recognizable man on earth.

About 45 minutes before the Angels’ 12-2 win in a Cactus League game against the Chicago White Sox, Ali, who lives in Scottsdale and has a son who plays high school baseball in the area, took a seat in the middle of the Angels’ locker room.


That chair might as well have been a throne, as players, coaches, trainers, front-office officials, clubhouse employees and Manager Mike Scioscia all waited in line for their moment with the self-proclaimed “Greatest of All Time,” who posed for pictures and, with the help of his handlers, signed a few bats and baseballs.

“I’ve never seen the clubhouse so quiet and everyone be in awe like it was today,” utility player Robb Quinlan said. “It’s pretty special to see.”

It’s very difficult for him to speak, but Ali, a political and cultural icon who was named Athlete of the Century by Sports Illustrated, playfully balled a fist for several pictures.

Though he appeared expressionless, staring straight ahead most of the time -- a far cry from the brash, outspoken and controversial Ali of his prime -- any time a small child was placed in his lap, Ali’s eyes would sparkle.

“He’s arguably the greatest athlete to ever live,” reliever Scot Shields said. “In my opinion, it’s him and Michael Jordan.... You know you’re pretty big when you’ve got the whole clubhouse standing around, and every single person wants to take a picture with you. That’s something special.”

Ali’s visit was arranged through Gerald Gibbs, who runs a Los Angeles-based marketing firm that handles many of Ali’s appearances and is a friend of Tim Mead, the Angels’ vice president of communications.

Players were finishing up their morning workouts when word began to circulate that Ali, who watched four innings from a stadium suite, was going to visit. Within minutes, the clubhouse was abuzz.

“Man, is there a camera here?” pitcher Kelvim Escobar said. “He’s one of the greatest ever. He’s one of the guys I’ve always wanted to shake hands with.”

Fifteen minutes before first pitch, players were still basking in Ali’s presence.

“We’re not worried about the game right now -- it’s not often you see that happen,” Shields said.

“I’m glad I was a part of it.”

Rehab report

Jered Weaver and Bartolo Colon continued their strong comebacks from injury, appearing in games for the first time this spring.

Weaver, slowed by shoulder tightness, started a triple-A game against the Chicago Cubs, giving up two hits in three scoreless innings, striking out three and walking one, his fastball reaching 91 mph during a 46-pitch outing.

Colon, recovering from a rotator-cuff tear, started a double-A game against the Cubs, giving up two runs -- one earned -- and three hits, striking out two and walking none, his fastball hitting 92 to 94 mph during his 29-pitch outing.

“A lot of good things happened today,” Scioscia said. “Colon and Weaver were incredible. Jered used all of his pitches, and Bart hit 94 mph with his fastball. That’s a huge step for him.”

Taking the fifth

Dustin Moseley appeared to lock up the fifth rotation spot with a strong start, giving up two runs and eight hits, striking out six and walking one in six innings against the White Sox.

The right-hander is 2-0 with a 2.29 earned-run average in 19 2/3 innings this spring, and his emergence will enable the Angels to keep Hector Carrasco, who was also being considered for the rotation, in the bullpen.

Scioscia wouldn’t confirm Moseley has won the spot, “but he’s taken some huge strides toward it,” he said. Moseley would make two starts before Weaver returns to the rotation April 16.

Around the horn

Howie Kendrick had two hits and three runs batted in, and Maicer Izturis, Casey Kotchman and Erick Aybar each had two hits. Closer Francisco Rodriguez and reliever Justin Speier each threw scoreless innings.... John Lackey will start a triple-A game against the Oakland Athletics today, his final tuneup before Monday night’s season-opening start.... Escobar, pulled Saturday in the third inning because of lower-back spasms, threw an eight-minute bullpen session and reported no pain or discomfort. The right-hander is scheduled to throw 90 pitches in a minor league game against San Francisco on Thursday.... Reliever Matt Hensley was reassigned to minor league camp.