The mystery of who would throw out the Miami Marlins' unannounced first pitch in their new Marlins Park was finally put to rest Wednesday night, but the talk is not dying down.
Owner Jeffrey Loria's surprise guest turned out to be the greatest himself, boxing legend Muhammad Ali. But a rousing cheer from the crowd quickly turned to a heavy hush at the sight of the obviously ailing 70-year-old, whose body is overwhelmed by the effects of Parkinson's Disease resulting from a lifetime of blows to the head.
It was hardly the inspirational scene in Atlanta in 1996, when a trembling but dignified and triumphant Ali touched the world by lighting the Olympic Torch, one of the Games' most meaningful moments. Ali, who no longer speaks in public, was wheeled onto the field in a cart moving at a very slow crawl, his arms shaking heavily while a smiling Loria clutched one hand and supported Ali with an arm around his shoulders.
The reaction from the sympathetic crowd wasn't what the Marlins apparently intended: the stadium's PA announcer, after what seemed like several minutes of near-silence, valiantly tried to start an "Ali! Ali!" chant over the loudspeaker.
Eventually, shortstop Hanley Ramirez took the ball from Ali's right hand, and the game was on. But though the appearance had all the star quality a five-minute first pitch on ESPN could possibly hope for, the effect was both upsetting to some and to all in stark contrast with the flashy style and celebratory mood that accompanied the rest of the team's Opening Day ceremonies. The crowd both in stadium and on Twitter reacted with an apparent mix of depressed sympathy, mass confusion, and, at least online, open suspicion over Loria's motives.
"It was uncomfortable," observed Fox Sports' senior baseball writer Ken Rosenthal. "And I think unnecessary."
(For those who remain confused over the choice of a Louisville boxer, Ali maintains strong ties to Miami from training at South Beach's famous 5th Street Gym to winning his first title fight over Sonny Liston in Miami in 1964.)
"The opening of Marlins Park started off with a parade of showgirls and Jose Feliciano singing the National Anthem," wrote Deadspin's Erik Malinowski. "It ended with the sad, shameless sight of Loria trotting out Ali's disease-ravaged body for a forced on-field ceremony. Happy Opening Day, everyone."
Here's what Twitter users thought of the event: