NEW YORK -- Before Justin Verlander pitched Friday night at Yankee Stadium, 11-year-old Shayna "Verlander" Hersh was back at the Tigers' team hotel, going through her regular routine for an hour and 15 minutes.
She put on the familiar ThAIRapy Vest for chest therapy, which shakes the mucus out of her lungs so she can breathe like other kids, and she had breathing treatments with a nebulizer. She did inhalers and took her regimen of pills. More than two hours each day of this, a fact of life for a little spitfire from Michigan who puts cystic fibrosis in its place every day.
Her father, Joel, took her on her first subway ride over to the Bronx, fibbing to her that she was going to meet family she hadn't met before -- the same way he had kept a secret about it being a trip to New York and it being a drive to the airport before that. The last thing she ever could have imagined was that at the end of this secret journey she was going to be watching her idol on the hill that night. Then, she'd get up the next morning, do the chest therapy and breathing treatments and knock down some pancreatic enzymes before eating and going to the MLB Fan Cave to get surprised by Verlander himself, making a friend with the reigning American League MVP Award winner and schooling him in skee-ball.
Take that, cystic fibrosis.
Take that, grief and world-class adversity, the kind that not only hands you CF, but then cruelly takes your mother within the past year because of pancreatic and bile duct cancer -- words a child shouldn't hear.
To anyone who watched Verlander battle in the cold Friday through a no-decision in a Tigers loss to the Yankees, and then wondered how he could spring back early the next morning and go meet a little girl at the Fan Cave, one meeting with her makes it all so clear.
"This is really important. You can't dwell on a tough game," Verlander said after his Saturday morning adventure, which also included surprising two youth baseball teams at their game a mile from the Fan Cave. "You've got to go out and get ready for the next one. This is just part of daily routine. But having a chance to come out and do what I did today, meet the young girl, Shayna, and do those things, it's special and fun. You don't get the opportunity to do it a lot.
"Just because I pitched yesterday and we lost doesn't mean I can't enjoy myself today and have fun."
Shayna is nicknamed "Verlander" by her supportive classmates back at Burton Elementary in Huntington Woods, Mich. In a way, they were all with her here in spirit, as well as her stepsister Miryam, 9, and stepbrother Ari, 8, all of them having fun with Verlander.
Last summer, her mother, a first-generation U.S. citizen named Ellina, whose parents came from Latvia, went into the hospital. Ellina would pass away right before this school year started.
"Shayna basically spent the entire summer with baseball," Joel said as his daughter was playing in the Fan Cave, awaiting her biggest surprise. "I took her to see her mother every day, and they would spend the time watching Tiger games the whole time. She loves baseball. I took her to a Toledo Mud Hens game for her birthday, and that was a thrill for her. She cornered Magglio Ordonez and got an autograph.
"Last fall, she started writing letters to Justin Verlander. She said something to me, and I just didn't pay attention. I figured he probably gets 300 [letters] a day, [so] what are the chances [he reads them all]? Then I subsequently found out that she started writing his agent. She must have looked up online who that was. Then I learned from her teacher at the parent-teacher conferences four weeks ago -- I found out that the class had sent in letters to the Tigers telling them what a great person she was, what an inspirational kid she is."
Then Joel got the kind of good news that practically dispersed a constant dark cloud overhead.
"I got a call from the Tigers, which I was totally thrown off by," he said. "They told me they'd like to bring her into New York City. She's on cloud nine. I am, too, but it's for her."
Verlander not only had the Hershes flown here, not only got them tickets to two games, but also planned to make the most of his big Fan Cave day that he had been tweeting about.
"We were going to come to the Fan Cave when I was in town, so we started looking for somebody to bring, and surprise," Verlander said. "People would send in letters as to why they would come. Shayna sent a letter, but all of her classmates and her teacher wrote a letter for her -- it wasn't just her -- explaining to me some of the things she is going through with her family and life.
"It's such a touching story. I thought, 'What an amazing opportunity to really surprise this young girl and bring her up here to watch a couple games and come to the Fan Cave and come meet her here on this Saturday and really surprise her.'"
The moment came at exactly 9:40 a.m. ET. Shayna was sitting on a stool, being interviewed at the Fan Cave about her favorite ballpark food, her favorite player and so forth. At that very moment, as she looked into the camera, a man wearing jeans and black dress shirt walked up quietly behind her, snuck up on her left side and just smiled at her.
Shayna turned from the camera to see the familiar face looking into her beautiful eyes, which were taking it all in from beneath the pink-trimmed bill of a Tigers cap.
She didn't say a word.
"I think she was in shock when I met her," Verlander said. "She really had no expression on her face. It was kind of like she was such a professional. 'Hey, Justin, I'm going to go back to my interview, just put it right there, I'll get to you in a minute.' It was great."
It was Shayna's perfect moment. Saying anything would have messed it up.
She proceeded to take Verlander on a tour of the Cave, show him how to play the Transformers pinball game, how to hit 100 in skee-ball. She even pitched to him in the basement, and blazed a strike into his bare hands as he shook it as if it had stung. She told him she wants to be the first Major League female pitcher. He said he would show her how. They bonded. She was already in love.
"She's all go. What a beautiful little girl," Verlander said. "I'm really excited this worked out, because this is the first opportunity I've had to do something like this. First of all to come here to Fan Cave, and then to be able to surprise a little girl like Shayna -- it's just a great experience for me."
"It makes me want to jump," she said when asked how it feels to watch him pitch.
Perhaps the hardest part for Joel was keeping this a secret.
"It's been a killer for the last week and half trying to keep my mouth shut," he said. "I told four people. One was my father and the other three were outside Detroit, so no one else would know."
Everyone knows now. Every Tigers fan will know that Verlander left that grueling no-decision against Ivan Nova and the Yankees, concerned by what he called a team "funk," a night so cold he said he lost some feeling on his pitches, not wallowing in any kind of bad feeling. He went to sleep, woke up and eagerly strolled into the Fan Cave with the biggest smile you've seen on his face this season.
Verlander had battled that night. Shayna had battled right along with him. Is that any surprise? Just last week, she had her first at-bat in the local Little League, playing against boys. She swung on the second pitch, high and tight, and the ball came off her bat right into her nose. It bled, she cried, but then Joel wiped off the blood and she got right back in and kept playing.
"She's a tough kid. She's been poked and prodded a lot in her life medically," Joel said. "During the whole game I kept asking her if she wanted to go, because it was cold. She kept saying no. She was hoping it would go to extra innings. I'm freezing, [and] every time I'd ask her if she was cold she'd say no. I could see that she was shivering. She won't ever let you leave early from a game."
Life is too good to leave early. Shayna "Verlander" Hersh is proof of that. So is her idol.