UMPS CARE Charities, the official charity of Major League Baseball umpires, brought umpires Randy Marsh, Angel Hernandez, Marvin Hudson, Lance Barksdale and James Hoye -- along with Gapper, the mascot of the Cincinnati Reds -- to the hospital to visit the young patients and try to brighten their day. Also with the umpires: a complete Build-A-Bear Workshop for the kids.
The umpires set up in an activity room with the Workshop and spent some personal time with each patient. They presented a choice of Build-A-Bears, asked the child which outfit they wanted and helped them dress the bear, and engaged the child and his or her parents in conversation. While the patients waited their turn, Gapper entertained them with antics, horseplay, and whistles.
"It means so much to the kids for someone to visit and bring them something," stated Hernandez. "They get to pick the costumes and dress them, and then get the Cub Condo and the birth certificate. The whole experience of putting it together with them is priceless. For us to be part of it, it's a golden moment."
"The umpires were great with the kids," said Lisa Hall, operations coordinator in the division of child life at the hospital. "There are a lot of groups I bring in where I have to coach them along a bit. The umpires felt very comfortable going up to the kids and being around them. And Gapper has been coming to the hospital for a long time -- he's always great."
While the kids obviously enjoy the event, the umpires have a great time as well.
"You go in there thinking you'll feel sorry for the kids," explained Barksdale, "but the kids don't want you to feel sorry for them. ... I get more out of it than they do. I try to put a smile on their face, and a lot of times they make me laugh.
"There was a little girl, she had to wear a mask for germs, but she had the most beautiful blue eyes. Her little cheeks and her eyes, we'd see her smile there. Her personality just shone through."
Hernandez has been making hospital visits for years, both on his own and with UMPS CARE Charities, and looks forward to it each time.
"Knowing that you're going to leave the kids with a smile keeps me going," he said. "It really jump-starts your heart. You look forward to it, and I get excited knowing that I'm going to go there."
Hernandez also recalled one particular patient, a young boy, in explaining why the visits are so rewarding for him.
"He was in shutdown mode, but he opened up to us and the nurse was just so amazed," Hernandez said. "I don't know if it was the baseball side of it or the bear, or everything, but he responded to us and it was great. His mother was tearing up. Moments like that ... it makes you feel good that you're there."
In order to get to those moments, Hernandez, Barksdale, and the other Major League Baseball umpires are involved year-round in fundraising and support for UMPS CARE Charities. The organization purchases all the bears and clothes itself, and its fundraisers include a Run for Bears in conjunction with the Baltimore Marathon on October 10, a golf tournament and a 100-hole golf marathon on November 11 in Arizona. For more information about any of these events or to learn how to make a donation or pledge for a participating ump, visit http://www.UmpsCare.com. The charity also receives sponsorships from multiple corporations, including Bristol-Myers Squibb, Gerry Davis Sports, The World Umpires Association and MLB.com.
One of the other efforts of UMPS CARE Charities is providing tickets to baseball games for children awaiting adoption, along with a behind-the-scenes tour of the stadium. Barksdale compared that outreach to their hospital visits.
"They're not sick, but you know the hurt might be there," he said. "On the other hand, they're somewhere they want to be, where the kids in the hospital are not. I enjoy the opportunity to take someone on the field for the first time who may not ever get that opportunity."
In addition to the UMPS CARE Charities outreach, Barksdale is also involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes back home, coaches youth-league sports and speaks to various groups. Hernandez also visits hospitals in Florida and conducts free umpiring clinics for his local Little Leagues. The philosophy is simple.
"I do whatever I can to help out," Hernandez stated. "My family, the community. I do what I can."
Barksdale echoed that sentiment: "Anything we can do for those kids -- kids can't fend for themselves. Everyone goes through hard times, and if there's anything I can do, I'll do it."
And their efforts are greatly appreciated. Hall praised UMPS CARE Charities, stating, "They've got it planned out, everyone knows what everyone is doing. And the umpires are always a great turnout, the kids love baseball.
"It breaks up the day for them. They're used to seeing nurses and doctors, so this is different. ... Not only do we want to help with their physical needs, but we also provide emotional support, kind of a personal touch for the family."
The umpires receive that personal touch as well.
"It makes me feel great when I see the smile it puts on the kids' faces," said Hernandez.
And a smile truly is the greatest reward.
Kevin Cuddihy is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.