Eleven-year-old Shayna Hersh might give Justin Verlander a run for his money.
The fifth-grader from Berkley is the self-proclaimed biggest Detroit Tigers fan ever, goes by “Verlander” at school and is the only girl who plays baseball in the .
In fact, Shayna got a black eye and bloody nose during her first practice this year and it didn’t slow her down at all, she said.
But this little baseball fan isn’t competing with the Detroit Tigers pitcher (though she dreams of being the first female pitcher in Major League Baseball) — she looks up to him.
That’s why when he gave her the surprise of a lifetime last weekend, she was stunned. This week, Shayna and her Burton classmates – her partners in getting Verlander's attention _ were still reveling in Shayna's dream-come-true.
"When he tapped me on the shoulder I thought it was my dad so I ignored him," Shayna said Tuesday, laughing, about meeting Verlander in the MLB Fan Cave in New York City on Saturday.
"I was really excited. All of the sudden I thought I was going to vomit. I got butterflies in my stomach!"
The making of a special fan
When Verlander was allowed to select one fan for a meeting at the Fan Cave for the Yankees game, he selected Shayna, according to her father, Joel Hersh.
Verlander, of Bloomfield Township, flew Shayna and her dad to Manhattan, put them in the Hilton for the weekend (where the Tigers stayed), invited them to the game at Yankee Stadium on Friday evening, spent an afternoon with Shayna at the Fan Cave and sent her away with a goody bag full of baseball memorabilia.
“Justin picked up all expenses,” Hersh explained. “The only request they had of me was to keep the trip secret — the most painful part!” (More later about the top-secret mission to get Shayna unknowingly to Yankee Stadium).
Hersh said he can testify to his daughter truly being the biggest Verlander fan around.
“Shayna’s bedroom is a shrine to Justin Verlander. She has news clipping of Justin on the wall, a stuffed Justin doll (which the Tigers weren’t aware existed), baseballs with autographs from various players, and the plethora of books she’s read on baseball,” he said.
And, she’s one remarkable, no-frills kind of girl.
“She’s a sweet girl, great student and a tough kid who’s been through a lot of tough life experiences,” her dad said.
With her smiling face and giggles talking about how much she loves baseball, you might not know how much adversity Shayna has faced – and overcome. Not only does she suffer from cystic fibrosis, but she just lost her 37-year-old mother in August.
It’s oftentimes that baseball is her relief now.
“Her mother went into the hospital the day after school let out for the summer and subsequently died a week before school started again in September,” Hersh explained. “Shayna and her siblings Mimi (one year younger) and Ari (two years younger than Shayna) spent the entire summer at Beaumont Hospital by their mother’s side while and watching Tiger baseball as a distraction from their reality.”
Verlander said on Monday that it was the first time he had the opportunity to reach out to a fan in that way, and it was an experience he’ll never be able to forget either.
"Here I am in a position where some people look up to me and to be able to kind of use that status and help lighten somebody's life, be an inspiration or whatever it may be, I don't try to think of those things. I just try to lead by example, be a good person and hopefully people feed off that,” he said.
“But to be able to go and see a girl like her and physically meet her and see the reaction it has on her, it means a lot. And that's really the first time I've done something like that. It was really, really cool."
After flying to New York and being able to watch Verlander pitch in person, Shayna didn’t think the experience could get any better. “I was really excited, that was the first time I saw him pitch in real life. I only saw it on TV before that,” she said.
That was until Verlander sneaked up behind her while she was doing an interview about her tour of the MLB Fan Cave, tapped her on the shoulder and invited her in for a big hug when she finally realized it was really him.
She was speechless and Verlander said her reaction was one of the most rewarding parts. "Her reaction, I didn't know what I was going to get. It was kind of like she was in shock. It was great,” he explained.
“I had a blast doing it because of her, really. The Fan Cave is neat and all but that wasn't why I was going. Spend some time with her. It was fun."
Shayna and Verlander hung out and even played some Skeeball on Saturday. In fact, that went down as one of Shayna’s best memories, because who wouldn’t love bragging rights from beating Justin Verlander in Skeeball, right?
“That was my favorite part, beating him,” Shayna recalled, giggling.
Catching a hero's attention
When it comes to Shayna’s homerun of a lifetime, it all started with good old-fashioned letter writing – lots and lots of letters to Verlander, his agent and anyone Shayna and her friends at school could think of.
“She'd been sending letters for awhile, but all of her classmates sent a letter, (too),” Verlander explained on Monday.
“Just kind of grabs your attention. You get 20-some letters from a class full of fifth-graders, it's pretty special. So I decided to surprise her and it worked out well.”
The campaign grew out of an assignment for Shayna and her classmates to write a letter to their hero. Shayna wrote hers to Verlander, of course, and when her peers found out, they decided to help her out.
Shayna's teacher, Helen Klassen, said her students are so caring about Shayna and what she’s gone through that they all came together to get Verlander’s attention so he’d consider meeting his biggest fan.
“They are young, but already have that community spirit,” Klassen said, adding that they never used her sickness or loss of her mother as a reason in the letters. “It was purely (her) passion as a fan.”
Since it was, after all, Shayna’s fifth-grade class that bolstered the letter-writing campaign to Verlander, it’s a story her classmates love to tell.
“It started because Shayna really wanted to meet Justin Verlander,” explained Jake Primak, who is in Shayna’s class.
“She’s really good at baseball, so Jason started calling her ‘Verlander,’” Gabe Berke chimed in.
“We even called Justin Verlander’s manager on my cell phone!” he added with a laugh. “She really deserves it.”
Jason Bormann, the one who began calling Shayna “Verlander,” explained that Shayna isn’t just the biggest fan he knows, but one amazing baseball player, too. Bormann explained that she knows his stats, about his family, what his houses are like and all kinds of things about him.
"I always tell her, when – not if – you become a professional pitcher for the Detroit Tigers, I'll be your bodyguard," he said with a big smile.
Klassen said the students’ excitement for Shayna – even though they can only watch her experience on TV and hear her share memories – shows how close-knit they are, especially because most of them have been in school together since kindergarten.
“It’s like a big family,” she said. “They really wanted to help her dreams come true. That was important to them.”
That’s why Klassen decided to use their experience as a class lesson, which students were eager to talk about once the weekend was over and they had seen Shayna all over the news.
(Shayna says her story went as far as Ghana on an international news station).
As part of a social studies lesson, Klassen’s fifth-grade class learned through the real-life civic duties presentation they had just helped to create. They were able to learn how their voices made a difference and what kind of impact they could have for someone else, Klassen explained.
An added bonus of the lesson was the one of friendship and support from her peers.
“She was certainly our star this weekend,” she said.
One tough secret
Certainly one of the most crucial and tricky parts of the entire experience was keeping it a secret from Shayna every step of the way, her dad explained.
Hersh said it began by having their au pair “accidently” wake Shayna up for school and the “mishaps” layered on from here.
“Shayna typically wakes up at 5:45 a.m. for school to give (her) time for breathing treatments and chest therapy,” he explained. Not only was he trying to keep the secret for Shayna, but he also feared word would get out if her siblings knew.
“I told them I couldn’t explain what was happening, but I was leaving with Shayna and we weren’t returning until Sunday evening. My son wanted to go discuss the issue with Shayna, but I turned him and Mimi around and told them they had to go to school now and they couldn’t re-enter the house.”
And that was only the beginning of trying to keep things mysterious.
By 9 a.m. Friday, Shayna realized she wasn’t going to school and thought she had it all figured out.
“I told her it was a surprise. She said, ‘I know, we’re going to the Air Force Museum in Dayton, OH,’ ” Hersh said.
He told her that he could “neither deny nor confirm her suspicions” — a phrase she’d hear a lot that day.
Though he couldn’t keep the airport a secret, Hersh made sure Shayna turned away at the ticket kiosk and he even pretended to sit at the gate for San Francisco until boarding time.
Because Shayna naturally had Tigers on the brain, she asked her dad multiple times if they could see the Tigers play in New York once they arrived, he explained. He simply told her that the Tigers had the night off and that their trip was about visiting family.
“I told her we were going to meet cousins she’s never met at their synagogue for a Sabbath dinner. I told her the name of the synagogue was ‘Bait shel Ruth,’ ” he explained.
Hersh ended up dodging all kinds of giveaways that could have cost Shayna the entire surprise, like when staying in the same hotel as the entire team.
“As we got out of the airport car, Delmon Young walked past us to a waiting car. Luckily, Shayna didn’t recognize him,” he said.
After evening breathing treatments, it was time to go for Shabbat dinner, during which Hersh had to distract her every time the subway passed a Yankee Stadium sign. Soon enough, the wait to surprise her was over.
“As we arrived at the gate (of Yankee Stadium), I asked her if she knew what ‘bait shell Ruth’ translated into. She said ‘House of Ruth’ and then gave me a goofy smile and said ‘Babe Ruth!’” Hersh said. “I told her there were no cousins, the Sabbath service was inside and Justin Verlander was ‘leading the services from the mound.’ She was extremely excited.”
Of course, the day only got better with seats next to Verlander’s management team and Tigers’ families (all of who still had to keep the secret that she’d be meeting him the next morning).
Saturday after her treatments, Shayna and her dad headed for a Fan Cave tour that resulted in the infamous moment of shock recorded on camera when Verlander tapped her on the shoulder and she froze. It’s one of her favorite parts, she explained, and certainly the funniest moment for her classmates to watch.
“Shayna nearly fainted when she saw it was Justin tapping her on her back,” Hersh said. “She was totally caught off guard.”
It’s an experience that Hersh says they’ll never forget. He said Shayna even made sure to bring back autographed memorabilia for her brother and sister — a moment that made him proud as a father and added to the whole unforgettable experience.
“I am very excited for Shayna and in Justin Verlander’s debt,” he said. “He made a little girl’s dreams come true.”