BALTIMORE — Carlos Beltran gave Muhammad Ali about as high a compliment as a Puerto Rican sports figure can give.
“Puerto Rico is a country where we have developed a lot of boxers,” Beltran said Saturday. “So Ali is kind of like Roberto Clemente. What [Clemente] was for us in baseball, Ali was in boxing.”
Unlike Clemente, Ali was not from Puerto Rico, but Beltran’s comment showed another way in which the former heavyweight champion, who died Friday night, transcended his sport.
Beltran was among several in the Yankees’ clubhouse to have met Ali. The rightfielder’s moment came before the 2004 All-Star Game in Houston, where Ali threw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“You’re seeing a legend and you see a line of All-Star players waiting to take a picture with him,” Beltran said. “That’s how powerful of a man he was. What a great athlete. He represented boxing but at the same time he was able to represent minorities.”
CC Sabathia and Alex Rodriguez were among those in line that day at Minute Maid Park.
“I’m sure everybody in that room had the same feeling that I had, like he’s the greatest star of them all,” Sabathia said. “It was a cool moment to see baseball stars kind of clamoring over, trying to get to him, trying to take a picture. Everybody was standing in line wanting an autograph. It was like we were kids again.”
Said A-Rod: “Well, there are stars and then there are real iconic stars, and he transcends sports. I heard some of the guys on ESPN this morning say that to say that he was a boxer is really an understatement and a putdown. I mean, he’s so much more than that.”
Rodriguez said he was fortunate to be in Ali’s presence several times. “He always had something funny to say,” A-Rod said. “I posted a picture today of him. I was so nervous when I went up to him and talked to him, and then he said, ‘Here, you punch me and I’ll punch you.’ I was just a young lad then, and I was nervous and excited, and it’s a moment I’ll never forget.”
A-Rod added: “I think he’s the one and only, right? I mean, you think of Pele, you think of Michael Jordan. I don’t know [how] you rank them. But I think he’s got to be in the conversation of being the greatest, most influential athlete of all time.”
McCann slowly improving
Brian McCann missed a third straight game with a hyperextended left elbow. He said he took batting practice at about “50 percent” Friday, and Joe Girardi said he upped that a little bit in the cages Saturday.
“He felt significantly better,” said Girardi, who hopes McCann can return by Monday.
With David Lennon