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GLENDALE, Ariz. – His mouth opened Tuesday. For the longest time, it emitted the most glorious things. There might be five people in history who could go word for word with Muhammad Ali. He spoke in song. Ali without a voice is like B.B. King without Lucille.
Ali spent Tuesday morning inside the Chicago White Sox's clubhouse. He was there with Athletes For Hope, an organization that urges players to find a cause and donate time and money. His wife, Lonnie, and his sister-in-law Marilyn Williams helped him into his chair. His weight hunched him over. A blank expression froze his face. Parkinson's Disease is unfair and unflinching.
And watching his mouth open was especially cruel, because it wasn't doing so to talk, to bless the room anew with witticisms. It did because Ali couldn't control it. When Lonnie noticed his jaw slack, she pushed it back up.
Standing on the other side of Ali was Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox manager and, like it or not, his oratory heir. Blasphemy? Hardly. The modern athlete does not talk. He avoids causes. He sanitizes himself in 140-character bursts. He takes the vow of political correctness. He certainly doesn't talk in rhyme.
And even the littlest bit of humor is rare, so to see Guillen – who does talk, and who does involve himself with politics, and who makes Twitter amusing, and who is as politically incorrect as they come – cracking jokes with impunity might be as close as we get to Ali. No one will – or should – mistake him for a global ambassador anytime soon, not from his relatively anonymous position as manager in baseball. And yet he's far more than that for which he gives himself credit.
"I'm the Charlie Sheen of baseball," Guillen said, "without drugs and a prostitute."
He chuckled. He was talking about the double-standard with him – how if, say, Chicago Cubs manager Mike Quade and Guillen said the same controversial statement, the vilification for Guillen would be ten-fold. His name adds a multiplier to his words. He understands this. It doesn't stop him.
For Guillen, and so many others today, Ali, 69, represents so much of what was right with sports. Most, of course, don't understand the context of Ali's trash-talking, match-selling, legend-making rants – how his greatest moments and words provide a timeline for the United States in the '60s and '70s.
Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of Ali-Frazier I, the Fight of the Century, which came soon after Ali's 3½-year banishment from the sport for refusing to enlist in the Army. Of all his famous lines, the best is not about who he is ("I am the greatest") or about what he can do ("Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee") but why he refused to go to war: "I ain't got no quarrel with them Viet Cong."
Beneath the political undertones and grammatical mess is a declarative statement fierce and convicted. That was always Ali: clear, concise and to the point, like any great speaker. He didn't talk in sound bites. He just talked so perfectly it was impossible to ignore.
Guillen is the same. Get past the accent – English, remember, is his second language – and the odd curse every five words or so, and his ideals are so similar to Ali's. He gives not the slightest damn about authority figures. He vocally opposes Hugo Chavez, the president/dictator of his homeland, Venezuela. He does what he does because he wants to do it, and his words bring his ideal to life.
"I've talked to him about it," said White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, an old friend of Ali's who arranged the meeting. "We've had conversation about it. But not from a baseball perspective. More from some of the things he does in Venezuela and here that don't get appreciated because people get blinded by the other things."
By the other things, he means Guillen's fights with Williams. And ripping Magglio Ordonez(notes). And Buck Showalter. And Bobby Jenks(notes). And Wrigley Field. Guillen has done plenty of stupid things. Calling Jay Mariotti a "fag" was unnecessary. So, for that matter, was calling Joe Frazier a "gorilla," which Ali did for nearly half a decade.
Ali's mistakes don't define who he is, and neither should Guillen's. There is enough substance to his social stances to balance out his silly one-liners. Guillen has long railed against the hypocrisy of paying Latin American teenagers relative pittances to sign with teams, then giving them no fallback plan when – as is the case with the vast majority – their careers stall. Those words aren't popular inside Major League Baseball's offices. They prompt calls from Bud Selig. And Guillen will say them again and again until something changes because they're the right words to say, and nothing stopped Muhammad Ali from talking about what's right in an even more difficult era.
"Before, it was worse," Guillen said. "It was a race thing, a religion thing. I think right now it's easier. Right now, you say you're sorry and move on. Before, it was hard to open your mouth."
Oh, what the world would give for just one day of the old Ali, a rat-a-tat-tat of cracks and aphorisms. Everyone who sees Ali today pictures that version. After the presentation to the White Sox ended, Ali was wheeled to the middle of the clubhouse for photographs. The line stretched around the room. Almost every player and staff member walked up to Ali and knelt over. Some balled up fists. Others kept rugged faces. A few smiled. Ali was little more than a prop.
When the cameras finished clicking, Lonnie took one arm, Marilyn took another and they walked him to a white Range Rover. Marilyn carried a custom White Sox jersey with the No. 40 on the back, to commemorate the anniversary. The lettering said: CHAMP. When Williams presented it, Ali showed his only vivacity of the day. The mention of Frazier's name made him jump.
Everyone laughed. They knew: The personality, the emotion and especially the words were trapped inside a vessel that refused to cooperate.
"Too bad Ali couldn't (bleeping) talk," Guillen said. "That would be amazing."
Every now and again, he can. "He'll give you a little nugget of wisdom," Williams said, and on those special days when his body musters enough strength to force out a few words – well, those are the sorts of days when those closest to him don't have to dream about what Ali was like. They get to witness it.
Ali slid into the passenger's seat in the Range Rover. He picked up a cup and started to sip. Marilyn slid a napkin under his chin and on top of his shirt. The car peeled away. Inside the clubhouse, as the White Sox were readying for a spring training game, Guillen moved from locker to locker. He spoke in Spanish. He spoke in English.
The Charlie Sheen of baseball? Please. He's the Muhammad Ali of baseball, the voice we should savor while it's still there.