- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 22, 2006

DETROIT.

Before the Detroit Tigers stepped out on the field to face the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park for Game 4 of the American League Championship Series — a game they would win to clinch the pennant on Magglio Ordonez’s dramatic home run — manager Jim Leyland spoke to his players about the inspiration they could draw from one particular athlete.

He spoke to the Tigers about Muhammad Ali.

“He brought up Ali the night we beat the A’s to go to the World Series,” Detroit closer Todd Jones said. “He said the thing he admired the most about Muhammad Ali was that he was not only able to be in big fights, but to produce in big fights. he was telling us that it is one thing to get here, but it is another thing to handle what is going on and to compete and to handle the situation you are in.”

He may likely have done so again before last night’s Game 1 of the World Series in Detroit against the St. Louis Cardinals, and if he didn’t last night, you can be sure he will invoke Ali’s name to his players once more at some point during the series.

It is an inspirational well that Leyland has gone to before, in 1997, when his Florida Marlins won the World Series by defeating the Cleveland Indians in seven games.

After the series, Leyland told reporters that his theme to his players throughout the playoffs was Ali.

“The was my theme throughout the series,” Leyland said. “He fought a lot of people but when it came to the heavyweight fight, which in our case was the World Series, he trained harder and trained smarter, he trained with more dedication. I read one time that he was the hardest-working athlete in the world, and I said that I wanted to pattern this World Series after his career.”

Leyland is hardly the first person to draw on Ali for inspiration. From the lighting of the Olympic torch in Atlanta in 1996 to the American women’s hockey team, before winning the gold medal in Nagano in 1998, watching the documentary “When We Were Kings,” about Ali’s famous battle against George Foreman in Zaire in 1974, Ali has been held up as an example of perseverance and determination.

That’s one difference between this series and the last time Detroit and St. Louis met in 1968. Back then, Ali had been exiled from boxing for his opposition to the Vietnam War and refusal to take part in the military draft, based on his religious beliefs. No one was calling Muhammad Ali an inspiration in 1968. Heck, they crucified Jose Feliciano for his stylized version of the national anthem before Game 5 of the series that year at Tiger Stadium.

But Leyland seems to have a particularly affinity for Ali. Why?

“I’d rather save that for after the series,” he said, declining to reveal his reasons for his devotion to Ali. “If things go right, I’ll tell you. If they don’t go right, I’ll tell you anyway.”

The boxing theme fits well in Detroit, a town with a great fight legacy, though the hero here is another heavyweight champion, the great Joe Louis, who grew up in Detroit and considered the city home. Leyland might want to draw some inspiration from Louis as well, because it’s clear the city of Detroit does. Like the Tigers, Louis is very much part of the identity of this city, where the Detroit Red Wings play their hockey games at Joe Louis Arena.

Louis held the heavyweight championship for 11 years, and fought in a bout bigger even than the first Ali-Joe Frazier fight in March 1971, the so-called fight of the century. As the Nazi rise continued in Europe, and America was on the brink of World War II, Louis beat german heavyweight Max Schmeling in their rematch in June 1938, knocking him out in the first round. An entire country took inspiration from that.

One year later, Louis would return to Detroit to defend his heavyweight title against Bob Pastor before 33,000 fans at Briggs Stadium, the old Tigers ballpark that is now in a state of disrepair and soon to be demolished. Louis knocked Pastor out in 11 rounds, in a fight that was the last one ever scheduled to go more than 15 rounds. It had been signed as a 20-round fight.

Like Tiger Stadium, though, boxing has fallen on hard times in Detroit. The famous Kronk Gym, where Emanuel Steward trained such champions as Tommy Hearns and Mike McCallum, was closed earlier this year because of budget problems, and then took another hit last month when, while Steward was out trying to raise money to reopen the gym, thieves broke in and stole all the copper pipes.

That is the legacy of boxing in Detroit now.

So maybe while Leyland is drawing inspiration from Ali, boxing in this town can do the same from the Tigers, a team that had been on the ropes, losing 119 games three years ago, and is now battling for the heavyweight championship of baseball.

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