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This pitchman deserved to make another pitch

HOUSTON -- The Church of the Lord Jesus Christ is housed in a metal warehouse-type building on a side street in Houston, about 12 miles from the ballpark where last night's All-Star Game took place. There's no stained glass, no majestic steeple, no ornate decorations. If not for a small sign identifying the church, you would pass by and not know it was there. And even if you saw the sign, you still wouldn't know that one of the most famous sports legends in the world is inside, spreading the word of the Lord. "Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the ungodly," preacher George Foreman tells the congregation of about 50 who are present this hot Sunday night. "Who you sit down with and take advice from says a lot about a man." Someone in baseball could have used some advice when Muhammad Ali was picked to represent the ceremonial first pitch before last night's All-Star Game. Foreman should have been there, too. Houston is George Foreman's town, not Ali's. It was Foreman who is one of the city's most recognizable figures. It is Foreman who has donated time and money ($250,000 to flood victims here several years ago) to this community. It is Foreman who drove his Hummer into the flooded streets of the city and helped people. It is Foreman who operates a youth center for children. Yet last night it was Ali, Foreman's old foe, whose main claim to fame in Houston was refusing to be inducted into the army here during the Vietnam War. He defended his title here twice, against Ernie Terrell and Cleveland Williams, but those are footnotes compared to the history that took place 37 years ago in a federal building a few blocks from where the new ballpark sits. Since then, Ali, suffering from Parkinson's syndrome, has gone from an object of scorn to America's teddy bear, the celebrity trotted out when America wants to feel good about something. And the crowd and players certainly felt good last night when Ali, accompanied by his son, went to the mound and stood next to two Boys & Girls Clubs of America kids as they made the pitches to the plate for him. But Foreman's story is as American as baseball and apple pie. He was a thug growing up on the streets of Houston's Fifth Ward when he was saved by Job Corps. Under the direction of a counselor, he turned to boxing and wound up winning the Olympic gold medal in the heavyweight division. One of the last images of those Mexico City Games is Foreman waving a small American flag in the ring after receiving his medal. He went on to become a feared professional heavyweight champion. But he was an angry, hostile figure, and no one shed tears when he retired after getting beat by Jimmy Young in 1977. He says he found God in a vision in his dressing room after that fight and became a minister. The story is well known after that. He gained nearly 100 pounds while he was retired for a decade, came back to boxing in 1987 to raise money for his youth center, won the heavyweight title again at 45 by knocking out Michael Moorer and became a beloved figure in America after a total personality change. His rise to the greatest grilling machine pitchman in the country earned him $140 million. Yet he returns to this humble church every Sunday to proclaim the gospel and share his faith. He opened the service Sunday by playing electric guitar while two of his sons, George IV and George V; his nephew, Jody; and his daughter Natalie sang. He urged the members of his congregation to believe in the power of prayer, and they do. They put their trust in prayer and in George Foreman, asking him to pray for troubled friends, bless travel plans and strengthen their faith. He held court after the 35-minute service, taking time to ask about kids or inquire about their health. "The work I do here is the most important thing in my life," Foreman said. "This keeps me grounded. People come here from Russia and China and Japan looking for me, and they miss this place. They come looking for some mighty building, and I don't even have my name on a sign outside." Foreman said he was not invited to be part of the All-Star Game festivities, but he doesn't feel slighted. If anything, he is happy his old-time nemesis is being honored. "If you are asking me who should throw out the first pitch, George Foreman or Muhammad Ali, I would say Muhammad Ali," Foreman said. "He changed the world. I can't say good or bad, but he changed the world. I don't want people to ever forget Muhammad Ali. "At a time when commercials were about to be big in sports and he could have made a lot of money, he changed his name for his religion," he said. "That means Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Cola and companies like that, you could say goodbye. And today they want him to throw out the first pitch? Good for him. I only wish I could be there with him." Baseball commissioner Cadillac Bud Selig said the decision to have Ali for the ceremony was made by baseball's marketing people, and they ran it by Selig before final approval. "Ali is one of the sports legends of our generation," Cadillac Bud said. "He transcends all sports." But he has been done and done and done. Of course the marketing people wanted Ali. It's a marketing ploy and comes across like that. To have Ali and Foreman together, though, in Foreman's hometown, in the year of the 30th anniversary of their epic "Rumble in the Jungle" heavyweight title fight in Africa, would have been a celebration, not a stunt. Of course, Fox, which broadcast last night's game, may not think so. It is locked in battle with NBC over competing boxing reality shows. Oscar De La Hoya is backing the Fox show, and Foreman, who said he still intends to fight sometime this fall and is on a weight loss program to get down to 225 pounds, is involved in the Sylvester Stallone NBC program, "The Contender." It is not likely Fox would be celebrating any appearance by George Foreman. What would Foreman have done if he could have been there on the field last night with Ali? "I would pick him up and give him a big hug," Foreman said. That would have been an all-time All-Star moment.

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