In the middle of the 2017 MLB season, Diamondbacks catcher Chris Herrmann and wife, Shelby, nearly lost their son midway through the pregnancy. David Wallace/The Republic
Lying on her side, her legs propped up by pillows, Shelby Herrmann felt a guilt she knew was misplaced. Every night last summer, she watched her husband’s season unfold on television. She saw the frustration on his face. She couldn’t shake the notion it was her – her body – that was causing it all.
Her husband, Chris, the Diamondbacks’ backup catcher, was having a terrible year. He was not hitting. Normally mild-mannered, he had started to snap in the dugout tunnel, throwing things and smashing bats.
Shelby would hear criticisms of his play and she would yell at the TV.
“You don’t know what he’s going through!” she would say.
For some 19 weeks last year, Shelby was on bed rest. Her pregnancy – the Herrmanns’ first child – was at risk. She had needed emergency surgery. She worried constantly that their unborn baby would not make it. She felt helpless.
So did Chris, whose job required him to leave his wife at home alone for weeks at a time. Baseball had always meant everything to him. Now it felt almost trivial.
Thinking back on this, Chris and Shelby sat on their sofa in their Scottsdale home one day last week, their almost-five-month old baby, Crew, in Shelby’s arms. Chris’ eyes filled with tears thinking about what could have been.
“I just know,” he said, “that when I wake up every single day and see him staring at me, there’s no better feeling.”
The Herrmanns had not been trying to start a family for long when Shelby found out she was pregnant last spring. She told Chris to close his eyes and put a box in front of him. In it was a pair of tiny Converse sneakers and a card telling him he was going to be a father.
For the first few months, things progressed normally. Around 12 weeks, Shelby began feeling pressure building inside her. Shelby has never gone through a pregnancy so she didn’t know if what she was feeling was normal. She didn’t think much of it.
The discomfort got worse. In the mornings, she had trouble getting out of bed and walking. To stand up, she had to brace herself against a wall. She called the doctor’s office; a nurse told her the pressure she felt was normal.
It wasn’t until the 20-week ultrasound that they found out what was happening. The tech went from talkative to quiet, then called for the doctor. Shelby’s cervix measured far too short, putting her at risk for a premature delivery. They were told if they didn’t have surgery, the baby’s chances of survival were slim; even if they did, the odds weren’t great.
“We were terrified,” Chris said.
The cervix is the lower section of the uterus, and during pregnancy it is supposed to gradually decrease in length before opening for birth. Shelby was told hers at 20 weeks resembled a normal cervix at 35 weeks. The surgery, called a cervical cerclage, involves stitching the cervix closed to prevent a premature delivery.
Shelby had the surgery the day after the ultrasound at HonorHealth Scottsdale. It was her birthday, June 7. Chris bought a fancy cake but they didn’t really celebrate. Though the surgery went well, they were far from being in the clear. Most cervical cerclages take place around 12 weeks. Because hers was done so late, they were told they had just a 50 percent success rate.
Baseball takes back seat
The morning of the surgery, Chris called Diamondbacks manager Torey Lovullo and told him what was happening. Lovullo told him to take as long as he needs. He didn’t go to the ballpark for two days.
It had already been a tough start to the year for him. Chris was coming off a strong first season with the Diamondbacks in which he hit .284 in 56 games. But two months into last season, his average hovered in the .150s. Most of his at-bats weren’t great, but even his better ones were going unrewarded.
“I’d be hitting the ball hard and it happened to be right at people,” he said. “Nothing was really going my way.”
Baseball had always been Chris’ life. He played the game with passion. When he hit a game-winning home run in May, he rounded the bases with a fist in the air and shouted at his teammates as they poured out of the dugout.
But the game took on a different feel after the surgery. The nerves that usually rushed through his body during games had disappeared. He felt almost numb.
“My son and my wife – that was the only thing that was really on my mind at the time,” Chris said. “I was just out there just playing. I didn’t have any feelings for the game at the time. It was definitely a weird feeling.”
His teammates could tell things were weighing on him. They did all they could. Many of them prayed. Others asked every day about Shelby. Some just wanted to help take his mind off of things at home.
“If he needed to talk or needed a hug, we were just there for him,” teammate Nick Ahmed said. “I know it meant a lot to him to be able to lean on us as a team and have a good support system here.”
A Diamondbacks family
Shelby was placed on strict bed rest. She was told to get up only to go to the bathroom or to grab something quickly, and she was told only to shower once, maybe twice a week and only for five minutes. While in bed, she had to be on her side with her feet elevated.
The day after she was discharged from hospital, the Diamondbacks left on a massive, three-city trip. Feeling helpless, Chris set up a television in the bedroom. He flew his mom into town to be with Shelby while he was away for the first time.
It wasn’t long until word circulated among the team about what had happened. Players’ wives and girlfriends sprung into action.
“Once they found out what was going on,” Shelby said, “they just rallied.”
They stopped by to keep her company or bring her coffee, a snack or a magazine. They organized a food delivery service. They hired a housecleaner to come by once a week.
“We tried to pitch in as best we could,” said Amy Goldschmidt, whose husband, Paul, is the Diamondbacks’ star player. “I think we all knew if it was us, she would have been doing the same thing.”
Every movement Shelby made worried her. Every movement the baby made worried her. And because stress is bad for a pregnancy, even her worrying worried her.
“I was absolutely terrified that if I rolled over on my side or if I stood up,” Shelby said, “the stitches would burst and he would come flying out.”
She blamed herself for Chris’ bad season. Ever since they met, back when Chris was a minor leaguer with the Minnesota Twins, she would come along on road trips. They would dissect games together. But Chris didn’t want to talk about his struggles. He didn’t want to put more stress on Shelby.
“I felt like a deep responsibility for what I was going through, what our child was going through,” Shelby said. “It was totally up to me and my body who is going to live or die. Then also with Chris. We were going through all of this because of something that has to do with me. It was like a domino effect.”
Welcome to the world
Shelby’s doctor gave her sobering survival rates every week or so, but as time went by, the odds kept improving. It was in August, right around 32 weeks, that she felt she could finally exhale. Her doctor cleared her to be on her feet for longer stretches.
She even made it to Chase Field for a handful of games, including the day the Diamondbacks clinched a playoff spot. Their season ended on Oct. 9, with a loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the division series.
Five days later, around 4 a.m., she woke up feeling contractions. By then, she was no longer worried about how things would turn out. A few weeks earlier, she and Chris had gone in to have the stitches removed from her cervix. She felt a sort of calm during the procedure.
“It hit me all at once that everything is going to be fine,” Shelby said. “I was just staring straight up at the ceiling, at this little black dot, and I started crying.”
At 4:44 p.m. on Oct. 14, twelve hours after Shelby first felt contractions, Crew Ryan Herrmann was born. Shelby made it to 39 weeks. The delivery itself was as easy as the previous four months had been difficult.
“He came right out,” Chris said.
Back to the field
Chris does not like drawing a straight a line from his wife’s complicated pregnancy to his poor performance on the field. He thinks it sounds like an excuse. But he’ll admit players go through things off the field that most fans never hear about.
“There’s a time to try to separate all of that,” he said. “I’ve got to focus on my job. I was having a really hard time with it.”
He says he feels like a weight has been lifted off him. On Friday, he hit his first home run of spring training and hit another ball off the wall. He says he’s excited about baseball again. He’s eager for the season to start.
Crew has big puffy cheeks and blue eyes and is perfectly healthy. When he wakes up crying in the middle of the night, Shelby says she happily tends to him. Chris will hear her laughing with the baby and ask how she isn’t exhausted.
“I’m running on fumes,” Shelby said. “But we were so close to not having this, so I make a point every single day and remember what I went through so that I’ll never take anything for granted with him at all.
“He’s just such a blessing. Before we had kids, everyone would say they’re such a blessing, such a miracle, and I would agree with it. But it’s now that I truly understand it. Yeah, they are. They really, truly are little baby miracles.”
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Reach Piecoro at (602) 444-8680 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickpiecoro.