ST. LOUIS — Years ago, on a Triple-A trip to Louisville with the New York Mets affiliate, Angel Pagan went down to his hotel lobby and saw a red carpet, a limo and a huge crowd. Curious to see what was going on, Pagan walked around until he saw the celebrity who had been surrounded.
“I looked and saw Muhammad Ali, and I can’t even describe the feeling I felt …” Pagan said Saturday, his eyes lighting up and his voice trailing off. "I got nervous. Somebody said, ‘Hey, do the combination you did against Joe Frazier’ and he stood and started doing it! I never got to see him fight but I had the privilege to at least see him do something that was close to what he used to do before I was born. It was magical, man.
“He’s the best there ever was in sports, and not just for the boxing but for the impact on society and the things he did off the field. You could sense that aura that day and that energy around him.”
Pagan is the biggest boxing fan in the clubhouse, but he wasn’t yet a Giant in 2010 when Ali visited Scottsdale Stadium to help promote the charity Athletes for Hope. Those who were there that day remember it the same way Pagan remembers that chance encounter on a minor league trip.
“He walked in the room and it was history, a big piece of our recent history, that walked in that room,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He was so charismatic, even with where he was with his health at that moment. Even the young guys, everyone, they knew Muhammad Ali. It was a special day.”
Ali passed away Friday night at a hospital across the street from the Giants’ spring training park. He had for decades battled Parkinson’s disease and was frail when he visited the Giants, but players and coaches remember him for who he was in his prime. Pagan has gone back to watch clips of Ali’s most famous fights, and Bochy said he “wouldn’t miss any of his fights” as he was growing up.
“If you show one fight it’s going to be the ‘Thrilla in Manilla,’” he said. “If you want to see a fight, it’s going to be that fight.”
After a 40-minute presentation on that 2010 day, Giants players and coaches took turns sitting next to the legendary boxer and posing for photos. Pagan beamed as he told the story of how he got his own photo with Ali. His cell phone was out of battery life when he got down to the hotel lobby, but he ran into a gift shop and purchased a disposable camera.
“It was the last one they had left,” Pagan said.
Pagan credited Ali not just for his work off the field, but for the lasting impact he had on future boxers. He noted that current stars display the same bravado Ali had while selling fights, and he said he enjoys looking back on Ali’s trash-talking interviews.
“I think he’s in a better place,” Pagan said. “He was suffering, but he was fighting a bigger fight in life, and he’ll rest in peace. We were all honored to get to see him do what he did.”