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Muhammad Ali's visit is a treat for Angels

Former heavyweight world champion, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, stops by clubhouse and watches game. Says outfielder Vernon Wells: 'We all just soaked it in.'

March 23, 2011|By Mike DiGiovanna
  • Boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited the Angels' spring training facility in Arizona on Wednesday.
Boxing legend Muhammad Ali visited the Angels' spring training facility… (Michael Buckner / Getty…)

Reporting from Tempe, Ariz. — When Torii Hunter heard a few days ago that Muhammad Ali would be visiting camp Wednesday, the Angels outfielder got that same feeling of anticipation he had as a kid in late December.

"You know how you have to wait to open Christmas presents? That's how I felt," Hunter said. "I couldn't wait."

The clubhouse fell silent when Ali, a Phoenix-area resident, was escorted in by his wife and sister-in-law before the Angels' 8-0 exhibition win over the San Francisco Giants.

"It was like royalty walked in — it was silent," Hunter said. "We're all in the presence of greatness. Every athlete respects what Muhammad did, all the [beatings] he put on all those boxers. He's the greatest of all time."

It was no surprise that Hunter, hardly the bashful type, was the first to approach Ali after the former heavyweight champion, now 69 and suffering from Parkinson's disease, took a seat in the Angels' clubhouse.

"It's an honor to meet you," Hunter said, shaking Ali's hand. "I like that watch! That's nice." Hunter then looked up with a wide-eyed grin and yelled, "That's the Champ!"

Ali, who visited the Angels a few springs ago, posed for pictures with players, coaches, club officials and media members. All of the players in the clubhouse then gathered around Ali for a group shot before Ali headed to a stadium suite to watch the game.

"It was fun to see him and think about all the quotes from his heyday," said left fielder Vernon Wells, who met Ali 20 years ago, when Wells was 12. "We all just soaked it in. It was a special day. Few people have that type of presence when they walk into a room."

Injury scare

Already down one middle-of-the-order hitter with Kendrys Morales opening the season on the disabled list, the Angels lost another slugger when Wells was pulled after three innings because of tightness in his left hamstring.

But the injury is not believed to be serious, and Wells, who hit .273 with 31 home runs and 88 runs batted in for the Toronto Blue Jays last season, should return to the lineup by Friday.

"This is the first time it's come up," Manager Mike Scioscia said. "It's very mild. He wanted to stay in and play, but it doesn't make sense to push it right now."

Wells felt the tightness as he rounded first base on a third-inning double but said if it was a regular-season game, he would have stayed in.

The Angels bunched five hits, including Bobby Abreu's three-run home run, against starter Matt Cain for five runs in the first inning.

"Any time guys are swinging the bats like we were against a guy like that on the mound, it's fun to watch," Wells said. "These are the types of things you want to see before camp ends."

Jepsen update

Reliever Kevin Jepsen, scratched Tuesday because of tightness in his left hip, played catch and did some drills, but he did not throw off a mound. Scioscia expects the right-hander to return to game action Thursday or Friday.

Willits' return near

Reserve outfielder Reggie Willits, sidelined since March 13 because of a left calf strain, ran at full speed Tuesday and began running curves Wednesday.

He will remain in Arizona after the team breaks camp Saturday to play in minor league games, where he can maximize at-bats by leading off every inning. Willits will likely open the season on the DL, with Chris Pettit expected to take his roster spot.

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