MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – It’s hard to blame Neil Johnson, a retired high school teacher from Shakopee, if he’s a little numb and starry-eyed this week.
Johnson is one of 30 educators from around the country who were chosen by Major League Baseball as “All-Star Teachers.” As part of All-Star Week festivities in Minneapolis, each MLB team is represented by a teacher dedicated to a community where their team plays.
When Johnson was chosen as an “All-Star Teacher” to represent the Minnesota Twins, he said his reaction was similar to that giddy teenager. After all, it meant he would be rubbing elbows with some of the best players in baseball as well as past stars in the game.
“As my kids would text, O-M-G,” he said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
Johnson and the other All-Star teachers were on hand for the All-Star Game Media Day festivities in downtown Minneapolis. They took in the All-Star Game press conference, were at the Home Run Derby Monday night at Target Field and will be in a suite for the All-Star Game Tuesday night.
Johnson, 61, said one of his favorite moments so far in the All-Star experience was getting his picture taken with Cal Ripken Jr. Sunday night.
“It’s overwhelming. We had a teacher recognition banquet and Cal Ripken (Jr.) comes in, so I had my picture taken with him and got an autographed baseball. He’s been an icon in baseball for how many years, and teachers just normally don’t get to do things like this,” Johnson said.
Johnson was an educator for nearly 40 years at Shakopee High School before retiring this year. His passion is in math and sports. He was a calculus teacher and served as the school’s math department chair for 20 years. In 2008, he started a program at the high school that allowed students taking calculus to get college credit at the University of Minnesota.
Away from the classroom, he’s been a dedicated softball coach at Shakopee. Johnson has the longest tenure of any high school softball coach in Minnesota and created both the Shakopee Softball Association and the Girls Softball Association. Johnson was also one of the key forces behind building a softball complex in Shakopee and assembling community groups to build fields, press boxes dugouts and bleachers.
For him, it’s all about giving back to the kids and the community.
“The kids are why we teach and why you coach,” Johnson said.
Johnson and the other All-Star teachers will be introduced live on national television at about 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at Target Field before the All-Star Game.
Media Day Jottings
Twins Manager Ron Gardenhire will be one of the bench coaches Tuesday night for the All-Star Game, but said he will have little to no role for in-game decisions. That includes whether reliever Glen Perkins or catcher Kurt Suzuki will actually get to play in the game.
“I know one thing: I’ll be high-fiving people. That’s my job is to sit and the bench, shake hands and watch how these guys go about their business,” Gardenhire said. “I don’t have any responsibilities, I’m going to enjoy it.”
For Perkins, it’s a bit more meaningful to be selected for this year’s All-Star Game, playing in his home state representing his hometown team. Perkins, originally from Stillwater, said it’s exciting to be a part of all the festivities this year.
“It’s a dream come true. It’s something even five years ago I never thought would happen, let alone when I was a kid, thinking about playing for the Twins. It means a lot,” Perkins said.
Expect Perkins to pitch late in the game, especially if the American League has a lead. He could even be the closer. He said if his name gets called, it will definitely be more nerve-wracking and adrenaline-filled than pitching in a regular season game but he will be ready. The team that wins Tuesday’s game will have home field advantage in the World Series.
Suzuki was all smiles at Media Day Thursday and happy to answer multiple questions more than once. It’s what happens at those events, but Suzuki was basking in the glow of being a first-time All-Star. He’s had quite a first season with the Twins after signing in free agency, filling in defensively for Joe Mauer at catcher and providing a boost offensively.
“You couldn’t have drawn it up any better than this, right?” Suzuki said. “I mean it’s the hometown team, playing in front of your hometown crowd and for it to be your first All-Star Game, it’s incredible I think it’s going to be a great experience. It’s a dream come true.”
To nobody’s surprise, Derek Jeter got the most attention at Media Day. It’s the last All-Star Game for the New York Yankees’ shortstop, who will retire after this season. Jeter was interviewed by hundreds of reporters during the American League player availability on Monday. He’ll start for the AL and bat lead-off.