Ali’s Legacy in Cards Baseball

Lonnie Ali spoke at the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards. Photo by BILL WINE

Lonnie Ali spoke at the 2014 Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Awards. Photo by BILL WINE

After a wildly successful weekend at Jim Patterson Stadium, the Louisville baseball team finds itself two wins away from locking up its third trip to the College World Series in the last four years. If that happens, the Cards will be accompanied by a hoard of supporters hoping to catch the program’s first national title with their own eyes. Among that group will be the Derby City’s most famous family.

Muhammad Ali, whose son Asaad played for Louisville from 2009 to 2012, and his wife, Lonnie, have long been adamant supporters of the baseball program and had been planning on making the trip to Omaha last summer if the Cards had made it to the sport’s biggest stage. Even without the family patriarch, Lonnie Ali wanted to let Coach Dan McDonnell know last weekend that she was still hoping to make that trip in 2016.

“Many people were disappointed that we didn’t make it to Omaha last year, and the Ali family was one of them,” McDonnell said after his team’s 15-3 win over Ohio State last Saturday. “They were planning to meet us out there last year, so Lonnie and I spoke several times throughout the year to say, ‘Do your best to get to Omaha because the Alis want to be to there.’ Lonnie had somebody text me last night to make sure we knew they were thinking about us and that they were still planning to go to Omaha. So I shared that story with the players.”

When he was in town during the spring months, Ali was a frequent visitor to Jim Patterson Stadium and a staunch supporter of the baseball program. His appearances in Athletic Director Tom Jurich’s suite behind home plate often provided added inspiration for UofL in big games.

“I always knew he was from Louisville, but I didn’t realize how connected he was to the university until I got here,” McDonnell said. “He loved baseball, and he loved supporting this program.”

This year, the Ali family introduced the Muhammad Ali Leadership Scholarship, which will be given annually to a player on the team who has exhibited the same leadership qualities Ali was famous for. The inaugural recipient, senior first baseman Danny Rosenbaum, hit two home runs in UofL’s win over Ohio State the day after Ali’s passing and was named to the All-Regional Team.

Lonnie and Asaad, who is currently working as an assistant coach at Ellsworth Community College in Iowa, were in Durham two weeks ago to attend the Cards’ games in the ACC Tournament that weekend. Even though that weekend didn’t go as Louisville had planned, the Alis made sure McDonnell was aware that they were expecting to have a long and successful summer of Cardinal baseball to follow.

“Even through this sad time, there’s been a lot of correspondence back and forth between myself and the Ali family, and I’ve shared that with the team,” McDonnell said. “Lonnie is closely following us, and that’s a nice distraction to keep her mind off other things. She’s made it clear that they plan on being with us in Omaha next weekend, and we hope to hold up our end of that bargain.”

After Ali’s passing late Friday night, each member of the Cardinal baseball team wrote “Ali” in Sharpie on the side of their hats as a tribute during their games on Saturday and Sunday. McDonnell says the team will have a tribute patch stitched into their cap for this weekend’s super regional series against UC-Santa Barbara and then hopefully again for the College World Series the week after that.

“We felt like this is an appropriate thing to do because of his connection to the program but also because of his connection to the university and to the city,” McDonnell said. “We’re the major university here in this great city that Muhammad Ali meant so much to. There’s a real sense of pride that we’re able to wear his name on our hat and let the rest of the world know how special he was to all of us here in Louisville.” VT