BY IRA WINDERMAN
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
MIAMI — In a stadium that opened in the presence of Muhammad Ali, Miami Marlins executive Andre Dawson reflected Saturday on a more personal — and distant memory — of the iconic boxing champion who died a day earlier.
While Marlins players Giancarlo Stanton and Mike Dunn reflected on Ali being part of the opening ceremonies at Marlins Park in 2012, Dawson, the 61-year-old Hall of Famer, said his Ali moment dates to his time at Miami’s J.R.E. Lee Elementary.
“I met him when I was in elementary school when he was Cassius Clay,” Dawson reflected just outside of the Marlins locker room, before Saturday’s game against the New York Mets. “He came out to the school and spoke. He talked a lot. But I was in awe of him because of his stature. And I got to meet him in a couple of other occasions, and then when he wasn’t doing so good here years ago.”
Only two members of the team remain from when Ali was a guest of honor for the unveiling of Marlins Park in 2012, with both sharing their thoughts Saturday.
“That’s not really the image that you want to see,” Giancarlo Stanton said of Ali, dealing with his Parkinson’s, appearing at that game. “But I always remember just the video, the film of him, growing up, and obviously all the iconic pictures.”
In commemoration of that appearance, the Marlins feature a plaque at the entrance of the locker room that features a quote from Ali that reads, “Champions aren’t made in gyms. Champions are made from something they have deep inside them, a desire, a dream, a vision. They have to have the skill, and the will. But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
That plaque was covered Saturday with a black towel.
“He changed a lot of things,” Stanton said, “sports, in the world he was as huge influence. He’s one of those guys that’s going to be remembered forever, of course, not only for what he did in the ring.”
‘A historic icon’
Stanton said he keeps a photo of that meeting in his phone.
Dunn also took a photo with Ali that day.
“I’ve got the picture framed up in my house,” the reliever said.
Dunn said the memories are not of Ali’s health at that time, but his mere presence.
“You’re just seeing a historic icon,” he said, “I mean a guy who’s greatest of all time, and what he did for boxing and what he’s done for boxing. I remember growing up and then hearing the stories from my dad and then watching everything I could.”
Marlins manager Don Mattingly said he met Ali at the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston.
“He was in the locker room,” he said. “I was always a huge Ali fan. I was Cassius Clay. A huge fan.”
But it was Dawson, who carries the Marlins title of special assistant to the president, who was most emotional Saturday.
“I was watching the news (Friday) night and heard that his situation was grave,” Dawson said.
“And now you start thinking the worst. And I dozed off, and I turned on SportsCenter, and they were remembering him. And I just got a little numb. I couldn’t go back to sleep. I turned the television off eventually.
‘He championed life’
“I guess you don’t know where to begin. You can never say enough that would reflect what he did, how iconic he was. He touched a lot of people’s lives. For me, personally, he was the most prolific athlete ever, and always will be. You talk about him being a champion, the people’s champion. To me, he championed life,” Dawson continued.
And with that, the memories flooded back, to all those decades ago, in grammar school.
“I don’t remember exactly what grade I was in,” Dawson reflected. “But it was when he first started. He was in Miami training. It was in the auditorium, it was an assembly.
“He was talking and laughing and clowning a lot. He got everybody’s attention. I think it was after the (Sonny) Liston fight. He was Cassius Clay, and he was very popular. We were told that he was very popular.”