Umpires Mike Reilly, Chuck Meriwether, Eric Cooper, and Laz Diaz split into two groups, each with one of the mascots, and visited with the sick children. Each child was given a choice of Build-A-Bears and their favorite outfits, including baseball and cheerleader uniforms, fireman gear, doctor's scrubs and more. While the mascots entertained with their antics, the umpires talked to the children, helped them fill out their new furry friend's "birth certificate," and then constructed the Cub Condo carrying case, where the bear would reside between hugs.
The goal was simple -- to bring smiles and a little bit of joy to a tough time in a child's life. And by all accounts, that goal was met and then surpassed.
Diaz remembered one child in particular.
"This one little kid, he was so happy to see us come in," Diaz said. "He was in an oxygen mask, but he was gasping for air, he was so excited. We had to tell him., 'Calm down, calm down.'"
The participation of the mascots was a huge help in the goal as well.
Said Cooper: "Most kids were more excited to see Lou Seal than to see us. I'm not sure if all of them understood what we did, but they understood that we were giving them a bear and were appreciative.
"It doesn't matter if they understood who we were or not. The purpose of the visit was to put a smile on their face for a few minutes and give them something they can remember us by."
Meriwether agreed that the mascots were a huge hit. He said that to start, the kids "were a little apprehensive, just peeking around. But as soon as they see the mascot, they light up."
The patients weren't the only apprehensive ones at first. Some of the umpires weren't sure what to expect going in, but quickly got acclimated. Cooper was participating for the first time and admitted, "It's a lot more fulfilling than I ever thought it would be. When you walk into a child's room and say hello and have a gift for them, their faces just light up. It was very rewarding and makes you appreciate things that go right in your life."
Susan Martinez, the hospital's director of advocacy and volunteers, related why the visits are so important to the patients.
"When we see the children, it's often the worst time of their life," she said. "No parent wants to bring their child here. For us to be able to change a day like that and have some of their heroes from baseball visit -- and bring a present -- that just gives a tremendous amount of support."
To help give that support, the umpires remain involved year-round in UMPS CARE Charities and many other worthwhile endeavors. Another UMPS CARE Charities initiative is providing tickets to baseball games for children awaiting adoption or in youth mentoring programs. For Diaz, it allows him to offer words of encouragement and an opportunity to inspire.
"I tell them, 'I came up through an inner city and I'm umpiring a big league game,'" he said. "'If I can do it, anyone can do it.'
"I have a job that lets me participate in something like that, and I enjoy it. I let 'em know there's more to life than being on the wrong side of the tracks."
Both Meriwether and Cooper are also involved with charities at home, Meriwether with Nashville RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner cities) and his church's youth, and Cooper with Mentor Iowa. While their hectic schedules may not allow them as much hands-on participation as they might like, they stay as involved as possible and assist with the fundraising efforts as well.
Fundraising is important with UMPS CARE Charities, too. The umpires purchase the Build-A-Bears and the outfits themselves, and those costs add up. The organization runs multiple fundraisers annually, including a golf tournament, a 100-hole golf marathon, and a "Run for Bears" in coordination with the Baltimore Marathon in October. For more information on UMPS CARE Charities, or to make a pledge or donation for any of their fundraisers, visit www.UmpsCare.com.
"I've played in the charity golf tourney every year that we've done that," said Cooper. "It's gotten bigger and better every year. It's a great time to golf with the other umpires and our sponsors, too."
Those sponsors are an integral part of the events as well, and include Bristol-Myers Squibb, The World Umpires Association, MLB.com, and Gerry Davis Sports.
The fundraisers and sponsors together mean a whole lot of Build-A-Bears. And the bears become a symbol of hope for the children, according to Martinez of the hospital.
"Long after the event ends, the bears are still there and still enjoyed," she explained. "That bear becomes the thing that helped them get through the tough times. It becomes a symbol of their own heroism, having gotten through their hospitalization."
Martinez lauded UMPS CARE Charities, and said that when they call about an event it's not "if" they can be scheduled, but "when. "
"We love having all visits, but when I get a call from UMPS CARE Charities, it's an extra-special event," she said. "I know it's going to go well. We would welcome them back any time they wanted to come through."
That suits the umpires just fine.
"The first time I did a hospital visit, for two or three days before I was thinking I couldn't do it," said Meriwether. "Now, I wish I had one every week."
Kevin Cuddihy is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less