The silver plaque that hangs near the main entrance to the Marlins’ clubhouse was draped in black on Saturday, the famous quotation etched into it hidden in darkness.
“Champions have to have the skill and the will,” it read. “But the will must be stronger than the skill.”
Those words belonged to boxing legend Muhammad Ali, whose death late Friday carried special meaning for the Marlins. Ali threw out the ceremonial first pitch when Marlins Park opened in 2012.
He visited with Marlins players and coaches before taking the field prior to the first game in their new ballpark. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the two remaining Marlins players who were with the team at the time, said meeting Ali is a moment he will never forget.
“It’s huge,” Stanton said. “There’s a handful of guys you want to meet. All you want is a photo with him. You don’t even need to say anything. It’s almost like fantasy characters, to put it in perspective.”
Said reliever Mike Dunn, the other Marlin who was with the team then: “Just to see an icon like that is unbelievable. It was impactful.”
The Marlins players and coaches took a photo with Ali that day. Stanton said he keeps that photo on his phone. Dunn said he has it framed on his wall at home.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly and special assistant Andre Dawson both met Ali during the course of their baseball careers. For Dawson, his first memory of Ali goes even further back.
Dawson said Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — visited J.R.E. Lee Elementary in South Miami when Dawson was a student there in the 1960s. Clay was just starting to become famous.
“I don’t remember exactly what grade I was in,” Dawson said. “But it was when he was first starting out and he was in Miami training. It was in an assembly in the auditorium. He was talking and laughing and clowning a lot. He got everybody’s attention. He was Cassius Clay, and he was very popular. We were told he was very popular.”
Dawson, a Hall of Fame baseball player, called Ali “the most prolific athlete ever, and always will be.”
“You can never say enough that would reflect what he did, how iconic he was,” Dawson said. “He touched a lot of people’s lives. You just think of the word ‘champion.’ To me, he was a champion in life.”
Mattingly met Ali at the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston.
“I was always a huge Ali fan,” Mattingly said. “I was kind of always enamored with him from the standpoint that he was the one guy who was worldwide.”
Dawson said he was at home late Friday watching TV when the news broke that Ali had died.
“I just got a little numb,” Dawson said. “I couldn’t go back to sleep.”
▪ Sunday: Marlins RHP Jose Fernandez (8-2, 2.53 ERA) vs. New York Mets RHP Matt Harvey (4-7, 5.37), 1:10 p.m., Marlins Park.
▪ Monday: Off day.
Marlins were the first to announce the death of Ali
The Marlins beat everyone to the punch in announcing the death of Muhammad Ali. The team broke the news Friday with a tribute to Ali on the Marlins Park scoreboard, more than two hours before major media outlets confirmed the death of the boxing legend.
“It was really a very innocent, heartfelt situation,” said Marlins president David Samson, who made the decision to put up the tribute.
Samson got a call during the Marlins-Mets game that Ali had died. Because of Ali’s Miami roots and his connection to the Marlins (he threw out the first pitch at the inaugural game at Marlins Park in 2012), Samson decided to pay homage to the boxer.
“I wanted to see if we could get a tribute up on the board for fans to give him an ovation,” Samson said.