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03/08/10 6:59 PM EST

Ali inspires with visit to Padres camp

Boxing great encourages players to be more involved

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Padres outfielder Tony Gwynn, the son of the Hall of Fame outfielder by the same name, said that he's been lucky to have met a handful of prominent athletes in his 27 years.

What he experienced Monday, though, easily topped anything he had experienced before, as a handshake and a smile from former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali was enough to give him chills.

"That's the first time that I've ever been star-struck," Gwynn said of meeting Ali during his visit to the Padres' complex in Peoria. "I was really nervous talking when I shook his hand. That's something I can tell my kids about. "

Ali's morning appearance at the Spring Training facility was a hit with players, coaches and manager Bud Black.

"Anytime you run into a man like that ... you feel the aura and presence," Black said.

Ali was in Peoria as part of the Athletes with Hope campaign that rolled through camp, adding a little spice to the morning meeting Black holds daily.

"There's not too many great ones around anymore," said Padres left fielder Kyle Blanks. "That's definitely not something everyone gets a chance to see."

The mission of Athletes in Hope is to educate athletes about philanthropic opportunities and generate interest in encouraging athletes to contribute to community and charitable causes. The organization counts Lance Armstrong, Andre Agassi, Jeff Gordon, Cal Ripken Jr. and Ali as founding members.

There was also a presentation on the Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., which serves as a cultural attraction and international education center that is inspired by the ideals of Ali.

That the Padres players, many in their 20s, never saw Ali throw a single punch during his boxing day didn't matter. Many were mesmerized watching Ali during the 40-minute presentation.

"You grow up in a family like mine, where there's a love for all sports, you know who Muhammad Ali is," Gwynn said. "Even if you don't know him for what he did as a boxer, you know him for everything else he did, especially how he meant so much for all African-Americans."

During the presentation, Ali quietly sat in a recliner. Afterward, several players, coaches and staff exchanged handshakes and greetings with Ali. A handful of players posed for a group photo as well.

For many it was the highlight of their day and something they won't forget anytime soon.

"He's one of the most respected people ... on the earth, and to shake his hand was pretty cool," Padres second baseman Matt Antonelli said. "I wasn't born around his heyday, but the things that he's done, the things other than boxing ... he's just a special guy."

Corey Brock is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.