Norwalk Reflector: HAZELWOOD: All-Star Game connects generations of families together
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HAZELWOOD: All-Star Game connects generations of families together

Mark Hazelwood • Updated Jul 10, 2019 at 8:41 PM

CLEVELAND — Ultimately, it was just an exhibition game.

But it sure didn’t feel that way for those in attendance and millions watching from home throughout Tuesday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Progressive Field in Cleveland.

Much is made about how far the MLB is behind the NFL and NBA. But one aspect that cannot be questioned is the big-game feel and festivities of the All-Star Game compared to the NBA’s version and the NFL’s Pro Bowl.

From the touching tribute to late Hall of Famed Frank Robinson, to the neat Cleveland tie-ins to Jim Thome, Sandy Alomar, CC Sabathia, Kenny Lofton, Dennis Martinez, Travis Hafner, and others — the 90th Mid-Summer Classic was done right.

And that’s not to even mention the raucous ovation for Houston All-Star Michael Brantley’s first appearance back in Cleveland after an outstanding 10-year career as an Indian. Or, the Stand Up to Cancer tribute in the fifth inning, with the camera cutting to Indians starter Carlos Carrasco, who was diagnosed with a form of leukemia in early June.

Carrasco fought back tears as he was flanked by manager Terry Francona and All-Star teammates Shane Bieber, Francisco Lindor, Brad Hand and Carlos Santana.

And, of course, none of that is to mention Bieber, who 13 months ago was pitching for Akron in Double-A of the minor leagues. Added to the All-Star roster just four days prior, he struck out the side in the fifth inning and joined Alomar (1997) and Pedro Martinez (1999) as the only players in 90 years to win the All-Star MVP award in his own ballpark.

As someone who attended games and watched 100-loss teams as a kid at equally depressing Municipal Stadium — it really was a special five days in Cleveland.

But don’t just take my word for it. I spoke with several Norwalk residents who were just as emotional watching the hometown Indians host the All-Star Game for a record sixth time.

* * *

Shane Horner’s eldest daughter, Mascie, just graduated from Norwalk High School in late May.

Younger daughter, Emmie, is still in high school, but Mascie will be going off to college soon — an emotional time for any parent.

The three-sport athlete from NHS has been going to Indians games since she was a little kid with her dad.

Her wish this summer? Attend the Home Run Derby on Monday night.

“I told her it was a little pricey,” said Shane, a 1994 NHS grad. “She was really wanting to go, and as it got closer, was asking me for weeks.”

Ultimately, Shane decided to pay the price and bought a pair of tickets.

“I had some extra money to spend ... I thought about it for a bit, then I decided to go ahead and surprise her and get tickets,” Shane said.

Further expanding on how well things went in Cleveland, Monday’s Derby is being called one of the greatest, if not the greatest of all-time. And that’s not cliche because it just happened.

When a 20-year-old son of a Hall of Famer, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays, hits the scoreboard at 476 feet on his first swing — it’s an all-time spectacle.

“Mascie was very excited,” Shane said. “It was well worth the money spent. We were able to see a classic, and it was something we can remember we did together for the rest of our lives.”

Sports is clearly an important part of the Horner family’s lives. Shane was also an athlete in high school, while his sister, TJ (Horner) Thomas, was a standout volleyball player.

When she went into the NHS Athletic Hall of Fame two years ago, her speech on growing up with Shane and parents, Dave and Marilyn, is one of the best I’ve heard.

So it was no surprise that Shane decided to make the extra financial effort to see Mascie get her wish.

“There’s nothing that makes me more happy than seeing my girls happy,” he said.

* * *

Reid Shoop has lived and died with the Indians.

If you talk to him in the dead middle of winter, the Tribe will inevitably come up in conversation.

And that is because the 1994 NHS grad — who has worn many assistant coaching hats at NHS — got hooked by his mother.

Shoop and his wife, Heather, have two boys, Cameron, 14, and Cohen, 9.

But with just two seats from a season ticket package on Tuesday, it was Reid’s mother, Barb Spino, 71, who made the hour trip to Cleveland.

“My mom and I have had season tickets together for four years now,” said Shoop, who also had season tickets for several years prior to 2016. “We usually attend 20 to 25 games together each year. We were really excited to attend the All-Star festivities for the first time.”

It was a special experience for Shoop, who recently took his family to Baltimore to see Camden Yards for the first time. There was one problem, however. The Indians (50-38) — the best team in baseball since June 3 — decided to have their only true dud in the last five weeks. They watched on a hot, muggy night in Baltimore as the Tribe got crushed, 13-0, by the Orioles, who happen to be far and away the worst team in the MLB for the last two seasons.

It’s one thing to see the Indians get blown out and drive home from Cleveland. But the Shoop family was eight-plus hours from home for that drubbing.

With two tickets to the festivities, Shoop and his family got creative. Heather and Cohen were at the Futures Game on Sunday, while Reid took Cameron to the Home Run Derby on Monday.

Needless to say, the last three days certainly canceled out lingering negative feelings from the trip to Baltimore.

“The whole city was excited,” Shoop said. “Walking around downtown, it felt like Opening Day or a postseason game. It was cool to see so many fans of different teams and talk baseball with them.

“The derby was awesome, and it was impressive to see those athletes perform like that,” he added. “Vlad Jr. (Guerrero) was something else. The All-Star game was a once in a lifetime experience — and I was glad I could share it with my mom. She’s the biggest baseball fan I know, and it was great to experience this with her. It’s something we will always remember.”

* * *

From the second he got inside Progressive Field on Tuesday, the emotions were all over the place for Todd Lillo.

A 1991 Willard graduate, Lillo has lived in Norwalk for over 20 years and has a business in town, Todd Lillo Team — Union Home Mortgage Corp., on Whittlesey Avenue.

Lillo lost his father, Gerald, to cancer in April of 1997. He was just 58. But he certainly left a love for sports, particularly baseball, on his son.

“I didn’t go to the 1997 game, but I was down here for the home run derby that year,” Lillo said. “I was at the 1981 All-Star game — my dad took me to that at old Cleveland Stadium.”

That game was famous for being played in August as a result of a player’s strike, one day after the Browns and Steelers played a preseason game and tore up the field.

On Tuesday, Lillo had the event hit a little more close to home. He was able to write his dad’s name on the Stand Up to Cancer signs handed out to the fans that were held up during the fifth inning.

“Little bit of emotion today, being back here,” he said. “They are handing out these ‘Stand up to Cancer’ signs, which is what took my dad. So a little bit of emotion here, I’ll be honest.”

When the Cavaliers won the NBA championship on Father’s Day in 2016, Lillo listened to the game on a radio while sitting next to his dad’s grave.

Todd credits his late father for his passion for baseball, which trumps the other two major sports. He was able to take him to an American League Championship Series game in 1995 vs. Seattle.

“He gave off that doom and gloom vibe, because he had seen it before,” Lillo said. “But I could also tell he was happy to be there.”

All of these are reasons that made ‘just an exhibition’ so endearing. I’ve known Todd for almost 15 years, and one of the reasons he is one of my closest friends is because of the Cleveland Indians.

So when he held up the sign for his dad on Tuesday, and thanked him for his love of the sport, I should thank him as well.

It was that kind of experience all weekend and into this week in Cleveland. The city celebrated its rich baseball heritage perfectly. The sellout crowd of 36,747 for Tuesday’s game was awesome.

The game itself played out perfectly, with no spectacles or players doing anything silly or out of the norm. It was played to its purest form in a 4-3 win by the American League.

Just an exhibition? Not hardly.

Tuesday night was a showcase of the ability of sports to connect generations of families.

And it was beautiful to see.

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