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Ali inspires message of giving back

Ali inspires message of giving back

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Ali inspires message of giving back
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- One by one, White Sox players, members of the organization and even media covering the team walked up and knelt down next to Muhammad Ali to pose for a picture Tuesday morning in the Camelback Ranch clubhouse.

It was an unofficial record for clicks snapped in a five-minute period by team photographer Ron Vesely, who even handed off the camera to Minor League conditioning coordinator Dale Torborg to have his picture taken with Ali.

Some people gently put their arm around the back of the chair in which Ali was seated. Others made a fist in tribute to boxing's greatest, with Ali returning the gesture.

Many of the photo ops ended with two simple words: "Thanks, Champ."

"He has his good days and bad days as you can tell," said White Sox general manager Ken Williams, who has been friends with Ali, his wife, Lonnie, and Ali's sister-in-law, Marilyn, for four years, by Williams' recollection. "The other night at dinner, he had a great day and he was actually flirting with my friend.

"When he has a good day, every now and then he'll give you a little nugget of wisdom and it will raise your consciousness. I value the family. I value his sister-in-law, Marilyn. she does a great job in helping to care for him. Lonnie is a superstar and is really his mouthpiece. They are just sharp people and caring people."

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Williams brought these sharp and caring people into the White Sox clubhouse for more than just the obvious, which is a rare chance to interact with Ali. They brought a message of giving back through their Athletes for Hope organization.

Ivan G. Blumberg, the CEO of Athletes for Hope, led the discussion after an introduction presented by Lonnie. Blumberg engaged a full White Sox clubhouse in a number of topics related to athletes helping others.

Are athletes obligated to give back? Does the bigger the name contributing mean the bigger the impact? What's more important: the giving of money vs. the giving of time? These questions brought up lively discussion among the players, with some individuals carrying on the conversation after Ali and his group departed.

"The whole thing was cool," said White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whose 4-year-old son was in attendance and had his picture taken with Ali. "The guy who spoke [Blumberg] gave very valid points about a lot of things, basically about getting out there and doing anything you can to help, whether it's time, money or just get out there and help.

"It's a message the White Sox believe in very strongly. I try to do everything I can to help people. It's just something everyone should try to do, no matter what you do or how you live or what your means are. You can always try to help other people."

Messages received from this 45-minute seminar, of sorts, varied across the clubhouse. Paul Konerko started the Bring Me Home Campaign in 2007 with his wife, Jennifer, and Jim and Andrea Thome, in order to raise support for the needs of foster children. Gordon Beckham recently joined that campaign. But for the White Sox captain, Tuesday's presentation illustrated how the work done in Chicago could be brought back to where he permanently lives, which is Arizona in Konerko's case.

"That's something, personally speaking, that you do kind of shut it down when you go into the offseason," Konerko said. "Maybe you should do stuff around where you live instead of just doing it in Chicago every year."

Brent Lillibridge eloquently explained during this discussion how it hit home a few years ago that even the players with a moderate level of popularity or fame can bring attention to a cause. It's a message Williams understood a few years ago, thanks to the help of Lonnie Ali.

"I didn't even realize my own potential to have an impact here and there, albeit to a lesser degree, but an impact, nonetheless," Williams said. "I got that message that was delivered today and it really changed my thinking and I try to help out when I can.

"Whatever it is you are able to use, you use that for the betterment of society. It's amazing that even without speaking, he can make an impact in a room."

Ali does talk, according to Williams, and the White Sox general manager broadly smiled when pointing out how The Champ humorously reacted to a mention of Joe Frazier. Williams presented Ali a White Sox jersey with the No. 40 and Champ across the back, in honor of the 40th anniversary of the 1971 "Fight of the Century' heavyweight title bout with Frazier.

An early question asked of the White Sox group dealt with what they thought of when hearing the word "hope." In many cases, White Sox players provide hope to those whose lives they touch. The White Sox enter their third year of providing hope to the surrounding community through their highly successful Volunteer Corps.

And even without his famous spirited discourse consistently present because of an ongoing battle with Parkinson's, Ali still "floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee" through his mere presence.

"He stood up for himself and his rights and his religion at a time when it could have cost him his life and those around him," Williams said. "It takes a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage for that and for what he's dealing with today."

"There is that uniqueness that this is a special person," said Konerko, who equated meeting Ali on the same level as meeting a president. "It's just impressive because when you talk about the most famous people over the course of mankind, he's probably on the list somewhere ... as far as being recognizable on a global level. That's kind of cool."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Being Ozzie Guillen, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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