The 10-year-old Baltimorean has been to just one Major League Baseball game, seeing the Orioles play a team that "wore green," but he couldn't stop looking at the baseball. He loved its slickness and raised seams, and he quietly smiled when holding it. Duke also enjoyed the gift Build-A-Bear that he received and sat near his bed.
Major League umpires Bob Davidson and Sam Holbrook gave Duke these gifts, making two calls that no one in the Johns Hopkins Hospital School Age Medical Surgical Unit would argue with.
"I really liked it," Duke said. "It was good."
Davidson and Holbrook came to Johns Hopkins on a visit for Big League BLUE Reach, presented by Waxie, a program through which umpires visit hospitals and cancer treatment facilities to try to lift the spirits of children. They spend time with the kids and give them sports souvenirs along with Build-A-Bear Workshop stuffed animals.
The program comes from BLUE for Kids, a non-profit organization founded last year by Major League umpires Marvin Hudson and Mike DiMuro to serve the community outreach initiatives of professional sports officials.
BLUE for Kids hosted seven Big League BLUE Reach events in 2006 and is scheduled to have 10 this season. The group also operates a ticket program called BLUE Crew Tickets to benefit children in mentoring programs and foster care. Kids get free tickets to a baseball game, with the opportunity to meet the umpire for a photo and a souvenir baseball.
Davidson and Holbrook are part of a growing number of umpires involved in the program, and it wasn't hard to see how much they enjoyed taking part.
On the surface, it might not have been the easiest situation, since both didn't get back to their hotel rooms until nearly midnight on Thursday night after working the opener of the Royals-Orioles series in Baltimore.
The tour began at Johns Hopkins at 10 a.m. ET on Friday, but the umpires spent about two hours walking quietly through the unit on the fourth floor of the hospital and doing anything possible to make the kids feel better.
Both umpires are married with two children, and they worked in tandem at making the children smile.
"I enjoy this as much as much as anything I've ever done," Davidson said. "It's not about baseball or umpires, it's about these little kids in here. Just to see them relax and smile and be happy, it makes my day. I wish we could do one of these, to be honest with you, in every city we work in."
Davidson showed a different side of what fans and players see on the baseball field. He played the clown, and played it well. He knew how to poke fun at himself and the kids and got smiles out of each of the children.
Holbrook played the quieter role, answering questions and helping dress the various Build-A-Bears to the children's content with a variety of clothes such as Orioles outfits, scrubs or cheerleading skirts.
"It's just great to be able to come in and try and put a smile on a kid's face," Holbrook said. "It's just nice to be able to, the old cliche, to give something back. But that's really what it is. We've been blessed with the jobs and the families and stuff like that. I have no idea what these people are going through, and just to be able to come in and brighten their day for 30 seconds or so is good to be able to do."
Samuel Dearth is the executive director for BLUE for Kids, based in upstate New York. He's a former Appalachian League umpire himself and enjoys helping the umpires make some kids laugh when they need it.
Dearth was part of the crew that slowly worked its way through the School Age Medical Surgical Unit on Friday morning, handing out the Build-A-Bears and baseballs that Davidson and Holbrook autographed.
"Oftentimes, you'll pass rooms that you just visited, and that same kid -- they're very shy -- will have that smile on their face holding that Build-A-Bear stuffed animal," Dearth said. "It's a satisfying feeling for these guys. They want to create a smile, and they want to lift the spirits."
They did plenty of that on Friday morning. A.J. Giudicy, a big Cardinals fan, came to Johns Hopkins from St. Louis. He's had his picture taken with players like David Eckstein, Jim Edmonds, Chris Carpenter and others, and he learned a little bit about the life of umpires from Davidson and Holbrook.
"It was fun, and it was interesting," Giudicy said.
He also sat in his bed working the baseball, much like Duke was doing a few rooms down the hall. These two umpires made some kids who are in difficult situations very happy.
"It really uplifted [Duke's spirits]," said his mother, ShaRon Duke. "The kids can focus ... more on the bear and the ball."
Jeff Seidel is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.