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Louisville is stop for boxing, baseball fans

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- There's no mistaking the new Muhammad Ali Center near the banks of the Ohio River . Larger than life images of the boxer in action cover the facade and the crease of the roof calls to mind the wings of a big butterfly.

Expansive windows face the river but few visitors linger over the view. Adults tend to settle in at video stations to relive some of Ali's most memorable bouts and marvel at his ability to ``float like a butterfly, sting like a bee." Would-be contenders work up a rhythm on a speed bag at the re-created training camp. As they practice shadowboxing or study their form reflected in a mirrored wall, some are probably playing out dreams of becoming ``The Greatest."

The Ali Center holds up the Louisville native's achievements to jump-start others into fulfilling their own ambitions -- in or outside the ring. An introductory video and exhibits trace Ali's trajectory from a recreation boxing program to his 1960 Olympic gold medal to his three heavyweight championships , without stinting on his personal life.

The man revered almost equally for quick quips and physical grace was himself guided by the can-do optimism of Rudyard Kipling's inspirational poem, ``If." ``We found out that he carried this poem in his wallet," says staff member Jeanie Kahnke . ``It really explains his life."

This port city and onetime gateway to the West seems to inspire dreams of greatness. Take, for example, the Kentucky Derby , the oldest continually held sporting event in the United States. Exhibits at the Kentucky Derby Museum at Churchill Downs illuminate the dogged pursuit in which every breeder, trainer, and jockey seeks the horse that can prevail in the Run for the Roses.

But there are more egalitarian dreams, as any kid who's swung a baseball bat can attest. ``We pick up a bat and dream . . . of the World Series," the video introduction to the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory intones.

The facility is a short walk from the Ali Center and equally hard to miss, with its 120-foot scale-model replica of a Babe Ruth bat out front. Ruth is just one of many power hitters who have had bats crafted in Louisville since ``Bud" Hillerich turned a bat in his father's woodworking shop in 1884 . According to company lore, Pete Browning got three hits for the Louisville Eclipse in the first game he used the bat -- and an industry was launched.

Exhibits celebrate the national pastime, but serious swingers head to the batting cages to take their cuts with a human-scale model of the Babe's bat or the whopping 39-ouncer preferred by Ty Cobb . Bats turned to the specifications of Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez are the most requested of current players, but members of Red Sox Nation might want to take a few cuts with a 32-ounce Manny Ramirez model.

Most bats are made of northern white ash. ``It proved itself a long time ago to be the best wood," says John Jordan as he leads a factory tour. Lathes turn out minor league and retail bats in about 30 seconds. The precise and high-tech CNC Multimatik is reserved exclusively for major leaguers' lumber. ``It's the only one in the world," says Jordan of the machine that holds the specifications for more than 2,000 models in its hard drive. Near the Multimatik, a rack holds wood destined to become bats for Ramirez and David Ortiz , among others.

Jordan hails from Ireland. ``I played hurling when I was growing up," he says, ``but I'm a baseball fan now." Locals root for the Louisville Bats , the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds , at Louisville Slugger Field .

The Slugger Museum anchors the west end of Louisville's West Main Historic District , where the concentration of cast-iron facade buildings is second only to Manhattan's SoHo . The former commercial district is rebounding as owners find new uses for the graceful structures. Structural steel permitted the incorporation of large windows and at the Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft light floods into the airy two-level space where exhibits highlight both the folk- and fine-art side of Kentucky's artisans.

Across the street at Proof on Main , which opened in March, similarly large windows make the bar and restaurant the place to see and be seen. The bar focuses on local artistry of the potable variety, with about 45 bourbons available. The bar menu offers small bites to complement the bourbon -- smoked popcorn, country ham fritters, and the like.

A block away on West Market Street , glass artist Kenneth vonRoenn helped lead the conversion of a former factory into a hotbed of glass design. ``This was the city's first cast-in-place concrete building," he says of the sturdy structure, now called Glassworks , that houses glass studios and architectural offices. Visitors can browse in the shop or take a tour to see artists at work.

``This was a pretty seedy little area," says vonRoenn, who specializes in architectural installations. He designed the pedestrian walkway at West Main and Fourth streets as well as the glass and steel sculpture arching above it. It's just one of the changes in the neighborhood since Glassworks opened in 2001 . ``Downtown is just starting to come alive," he says. ``It's fun to be a part of it."

Fittingly, vonRoenn's company has been engaged to brighten the atrium of the Muhammed Ali Center with -- what else? -- a glass butterfly sculpture.

Patricia Harris can be reached at harris.lyon@verizon.net.

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