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Umpires visit Tampa hospital

Umpires spend quality time at Tampa hospital

TAMPA -- In a profession contingent on making tough calls, Tuesday morning proved to be a no-brainer for Major League umpires Bob Davidson, Andy Fletcher, Alfonso Marquez and Mike Reilly.

The quartet visited St. Joseph's Children's Hospital in Tampa and hosted a Build-A-Bear Workshop that benefited over 100 pediatric patients.

The traditional men in blue donned the same color shirts, but for an entirely different reason as they visited rooms, joked with patients and showed a warm caring side as part of the BLUE for Kids Program.

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"This experience, I'll tell you what, if you find an umpire who doesn't like this, he's an idiot," Davidson smiled as he helped a young eight-year-old named Parker pick out a teddy bear.

A Colorado resident, Davidson visited the Tampa-based hospital two years ago and was humbled to help out again.

"This is one of the most satisfying things," he said. "It's just great to see a smile on these kids' faces, and you feel good inside, you feel like you are giving back. ... It makes baseball, it puts it in perspective, it's just a game. This is life."

The program has distributed more than 2,000 stuffed animals since its inception in 2006 and provides a way for umpires to reach out despite a hectic travel schedule.

"My wife worked at a children's hospital in Memphis, where we're from, so I've been around this a little bit," Fletcher said, as the crew decorated the last of the brimming stuffed animal bins, while the leftover toys were set to be distributed throughout the rest of the hospital.

"I've seen the great looks on [the kids'] faces when they get something like this," Fletcher said. "It's very rewarding to be able to spend a little time doing this. ... It's just a lot of fun."

It was almost hard to tell who was having more fun, as the men engaged in light conversation -- bear, dog or cat? -- and helped each child -- mostly cancer and rare blood disease patients -- custom design a stuffed animal.

"To be honest with you, it'd be great if we could do this in every city," Davidson said, as he put the finishing touches on a bear's cheerleader outfit.

After all, in what other setting would you see Rays mascot Raymond giving a boy in a David Ortiz jersey a bear hug?

"The biggest thing for me is, you come in here and expect the kids to be down," Marquez said. "It's amazing, it's just another day. They are upbeat, not sad or anything like that. It's nice because when you are thinking of complaining about something, because now you see it could be worse."

While the group encountered some Rays fans -- and several patients with Yankees and Red Sox apparel -- the umpires were quick to rule that the event was not about baseball.

"Most of the kids may not know what we do [for a living] and that's fine, too," Fletcher said. "It's just nice to get up and spend part of your day doing something that you don't normally do. And to see the smiles, it's truly priceless."

The visit was the 26th hospital visit for the BLUE for Kids Program, with plans for several more trips before the 2008 season ends.

"These guys are all fathers, they are all uncles," the program's executive director Sam Dearth said. "It's not just about baseball. A teddy bear is universal."

Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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