Umpires visit children's hospital

Umpires visit children's hospital in Chicago

CHICAGO -- They are known as the men in blue.

But for all intents and purposes, the oftentimes venomous thoughts and commentary thrown in the direction of Major League umpires might as well have them wearing black hats as the villains of baseball's daily routine.

"Oh yeah, we definitely have a negative image," said veteran umpire Ted Barrett with a smile. "It's a negative portrayal.

"The times we are on television is when we make mistakes or mess up or there are arguments. If you are a fan of a ballclub, automatically we are going to be the villain."

Barrett's comments depict one way of looking at umpires. But on Tuesday morning, the far less talked about humanitarian side of these hard-working individuals stood on display at the University of Chicago Comer Children's Hospital.

Nine hours before their crew worked the White Sox 5-1 victory over the Orioles at U.S. Cellular Field, Barrett and fellow umpire Angel Hernandez visited a dozen children over a 90-minute period at the hospital. They offered up words of encouragement and brought along Build-A-Bear Workshop stuffed animals for the kids battling serious illnesses and any brothers or sisters in attendance.

This trip was the first of its kind in Chicago and serves as part of the BLUE for Kids program, a non-profit organization founded in 2006 by umpires Marvin Hudson and Mike DiMuro as a way for their group to give back to the community. The Chicago visit was the 12th of its kind since the program began.

According to Samuel Dearth, the executive director of this non-profit organization, the hospital trips rank as one very important element amongst a few contributions made by the umpires. They also have donated 1,000 game tickets to date to kids in foster care or through mentoring programs, often allowing these young baseball fans to come down on the field and meet with the umpires in cooperation with the specific Major League team.

Dearth has worked with five umpiring crews so far in regard to the hospital visits, usually dealing with one point person per crew. Those umpires spoken of by Dearth are Hudson, DiMuro, Barrett, Laz Diaz and Bob Davidson. These individuals will bring other very willing members of their crew for these all-important interactions.

"It's a way to reach out to the communities where they are," Dearth said. "I know Bob [Davidson] did one hospital event and now he wants to do one a month. We will grow it as we can and as it makes sense."

"We are trying to get to more and more hospitals in more cities," Barrett added. "We also sponsor some kids, through Big Brothers, Big Sisters, out at the ballpark. We meet with them, take some pictures. But this is the one we enjoy the most, coming to the hospital and meeting with the kids."

As an ordained minister as of this past March, the affable Barrett seems to have chosen a profession that frequently would work against his beliefs. Barrett chuckles at the question, explaining how he feels umpiring is where God wants him to be.

Booing and jeers simply don't take place when the umpires walk into a specific child's hospital room. He or she is too busy smiling with glee when these individuals enter, with hope and gifts in hand.

On Wednesday, Hernandez and Barrett stopped by the room of a 14-year-old boy named Gaby, who suffers from Arnold-Chiari Malformation. It's an illness characterized by abnormalities in the area where the brain and spinal cord meet, as defined by WebMd.com, and has led to 14 surgeries for Gaby.

He didn't seem to have a care in the world, though, when Hernandez and Barrett sat with Gaby and his family.

"I'm going to be working my first All-Star Game this Tuesday, so make sure I don't make any mistakes," said Barrett, who will be working the left-field line in San Francisco.

"That's our fan base," continued Hernandez with a laugh. "Friends and family members."

"You have a new fan now," Gaby quickly added with a broad smile.

Gaby went on to add how the umpires' visit and receiving the bear dressed in a White Sox uniform was one of the coolest things he had ever done. Barrett mentioned how the kids' most frequently asked questions deal with their favorite players or favorite places to visit as umpires.

Of course, the fact that these umpires take time out of their hectic schedules to be in these hospital rooms answering questions is credit enough to this often unfairly maligned group.

"I know about 16 to 20 of the guys personally, and to a T, they are all very much like you and I," Dearth said. "It's no difference for Ted going up in that room than if you went up in that room to lift a child's spirit. It doesn't take a super athlete, just a caring individual. They all have a caring side and want to do more."

"There are 68 umpires on the staff and I know each and every guy very personally, and I can tell you they are just great people, with great hearts," Barrett added. "Any one of us would love to do something like this. It's humbling and touching to think by coming in here, it picks them up. I get a lot of satisfaction coming in here and meeting with the kids."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.