MINNEAPOLIS -- Thirty of the best educators in North America, representing every Major League Baseball team, were introduced along with players on the field and serenaded by Broadway star Idina Menzel before the start of Tuesday's 85th All-Star Game at Target Field.
These were the winners of the Target Presents People All-Star Teachers campaign, celebrating remarkable current and retired teachers who make an impact on the lives of their students and communities. The full list of winners can be found at AllStarTeachers.com.
It was even more fitting, perhaps, when you consider that this was also the farewell All-Star Game for a player from Kalamazoo, Mich., who was raised by two teachers. And coincidentally, the Tigers' winner was Michael Sinclair, who has spent the last three decades teaching at the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center, near where Derek Jeter was brought up.
"That was over the top!" Sinclair exuded as he and others reached the luxury suites along the first-base side, where they proceeded to watch the game and take pictures with Menzel and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden. "I am just blown away. It's so overwhelming. In front of all these amazing fans, national television -- it's such a moment of pride and a thrill for my kids, my students, my family. We're just a small part of this, but oh man, it's amazing."
"This has been incredible," said Blake Smith, who represented the Angels as a teacher at Valley High School in Santa Ana, Calif., having started his education career as a maintenance man working for the blind. "This is just the culminating event of everything. One of the most incredible moments of my life was being on that field, and every inch of my body was tingling when the Thunderbirds flew over. It does not get better than this. I'm happy to be a teacher."
Smith could not let it go. Earlier in the day as they rehearsed on the field with Menzel, he broke from the ranks to get a selfie with the singer of the hit song "Let It Go" from the movie "Frozen." Then as she walked in the door of the suite, they recognized each other and he asked if she would say "Hi" to his students via video on his mobile phone.
What resulted is a 40-second video and his students will get their own Menzel version just for them. This is the type of teacher that fans just voted as the best in America, times 30.
"She was very gracious and she was able to say "Hi" to my students and just make their day by singing a little bit of Frozen's 'Let It Go,'" Smith said. "I get to see them on Thursday. I teach summer school for severely disabled students, so they're probably waiting to hear about everything and seeing all the photos."
The teachers were nominated from among thousands of candidates, and fans voted at AllStarTeachers.com to decide on a winner for each club. Each winner was allowed to bring a companion to All-Star Week, where they were given the royal treatment. They were introduced during the press conference Monday to announce All-Star lineups, and they rode in a pair of trolleys during the 10th annual All-Star Game Red Carpet Parade presented by Chevy.
For each of them, the same common theme emerged: They felt a tad awkward because of the humble nature of their profession. It is about helping others grow as people. And they also shared one other thing: They "let it go" and basked in the attention, happy and proud to show off their calling.
"They probably don't get enough credit," Royals All-Star outfielder Alex Gordon said. "For what they do for our nation as far as teaching our young kids at school, this is good. It's good recognition and I'm glad to be a part of it."
"That was a beautiful scene," said Laysha Ward, president of community relations for Minneapolis-based Target, as the 30 teachers mingled around her and watched Jeter's All-Star grand finale in person. "I think a lot of people were moved by that. It was so nice to see them be appreciated in this way."
Neil Johnson retired in June from Shakopee (Minn.) High School, after 39 years of teaching. Calculus and softball coaching have been his passion, and in 2008 he started a pilot program that allowed calculus students to receive credit from the University of Minnesota. He gets emotional when he talks about what it has meant to teach so many students for so many years.
"It's a bit overwhelming," he said. "There are a lot of teachers in the state of Minnesota who easily could have qualified for this. I retired this year and it's kind of icing on the cake for my walking away. It's quite an honor."
The teachers had the honor on this night.
"It's funny, we go to work every day and you do the things that you do because it's important and you enjoy doing it, and it's what you know how to do best," said Regina Kinasz, a Cubs fan who teaches math at St. Emily Elementary School in Mt. Prospect, Ill.
"You don't look for the adulation like this. I'm finding it very humbling. I feel like not really very deserving. It doesn't seem like it's right. But it's kind of exciting, though, for people to say, 'You know, what you're doing really makes a difference.' ... It's beyond belief."