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Umpires give kids a 'bear'-y happy day

Umpires give kids a 'bear'-y happy day

PHOENIX -- Major League umpires Wally Bell, Laz Diaz and Mike Winters visited Phoenix Children's Hospital on Tuesday, giving away stuffed animals as part of the umpires' BLUE for Kids charity.

Most of the pediatric patients were too young to know who the umpires were, but the crew was happy to be known simply by the blue polo shirts they wore and the Build-A-Bear Workshop bears they gave away, replete with costumes.

One young girl, Trissa, smiled and laughed as she picked out a cat and a cheerleader outfit to dress it in. Her energy was infectious as she held her stuffed animal, a bow in her short hair to match the cat's cheerleader outfit.

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"It's really amazing to watch the kids' faces," Winters said. "I think it's more fun for me than the kids."

Make no mistake, though, the kids had fun. Patients chose from three stuffed animals (a bear, cat or dog) and a slew of outfits (a Diamondbacks uniform proved most popular, along with a Hawaiian grass-skirt getup and surgical scrubs). Even those kids too shy to converse with the umpires nonetheless had soft smiles as they picked out a bear.

The umpires visited each floor of the hospital. In a computer lab, Bell told the children, "If you want to see something scary, type up 'Wally Bell, " while Diaz played catch with a young boy.

"It's humbling," Diaz said. "I'm very proud and honored to be able to do it."

BLUE for Kids was founded in 2006, replacing earlier charity programs run by the umpires. The charity has two focuses: umpire visits to hospitals, of which there will be 12 this year; and a ticket program, through which umpires donate game tickets for children in foster care and at-risk youth, and then meet with the kids on the field before the game.

"It's just an opportunity, as the umpires go around the country, to give back to the communities," BLUE for Kids executive director Samuel Dearth said.

BLUE for Kids is sponsored by pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, and on Tuesday, Troy Hansen, a BMS sales rep who often works at Phoenix Children's Hospital, helped the umpires distribute stuffed animals.

"It's nice to know there is a way to touch people's lives," Hansen said, "and it's no sacrifice at all to help out."

Smiles rarely left the umpires' faces as they worked their way through the hospital, giving out bears and chatting up kids as they went, clearly happy to have a program like BLUE for Kids through which they can help kids across the continent.

"The story," Bell said, "is the child with the smile on their face."

Major League umpires will be making similar visits to hospitals in Chicago and Philadelphia in May.

Mark Thoma is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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