Umpires visit Baltimore hospital
BLUE for Kids Program hosts Build-A-Bear Workshop
BALTIMORE -- Brandon Eggleton has been in and out of the hospital all summer. A small boy with a high, squeaky voice and freckles dotting his cheeks, Eggleton has had two kidney surgeries at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in the past few months. But none of that concerned him on Tuesday morning.
Wheeled into a room filled with Build-A-Bears, Major League umpires and the Oriole Bird, Eggleton took his wheelchair right up to the Oriole and handed him his baseball card. It was a fair trade, the Oriole gave Eggleton his own card, signed.
In a matter of minutes, the Little League outfielder from Louisville, Ky., had not only traded cards with the Oriole, he'd made himself a firefighting Build-A-Bear and gotten a chance to hang out with Major League umpires Bill Welke, Chris Guccione and Chuck Meriwether as part of the BLUE for Kids Children's Hospital Program.
"He's so much stronger than I am," Brandon's mom, Missy Eggleton said, watching her son high-five the umpires. "I get upset and he's like, 'Mommy, what's wrong?' and will flash a big smile at me. If I know he's OK, then it helps me be OK."
The smile on Brandon's face was unmistakable on Tuesday as it was on a number of other children the umpires were able to visit, help build a bear and offer some words of encouragement. The program founded by umpire Marvin Hudson in 2006, has distributed 2,400 stuffed animals over the last two years and has over 30 umpires involved. The program is assisted by Bristol-Myers Squibb, a pharmaceutical company, which has volunteers at each event as well.
Johns Hopkins is Maryland's designated pediatric trauma and burn center, so the patients in the children's ward ranged from cancer patients to burn victims. For the umpires, it was an experience not to be missed.
"We work night games, and sometimes in the morning you just want to read the paper and rest up, but I'll tell you, we all jumped out of bed this morning," Welke said, this being his second event with BLUE for Kids. "This is one of those days where we jumped up out of bed and couldn't wait to get here. We were a half-hour early, because we were very much looking forward to doing this."
Guccione had also done an event before and was a little more prepared for both what he would see and how he would react. Meriwether, on the other hand, was new to the experience and the umpire admitted that although getting yelled at on the baseball diamond is rough, it was nothing compared to the struggle he saw these children facing.
"When Bill told me we were coming the other day, I was excited," Meriwether said. "Earlier, they took me upstairs to see a kid who could not come down [to the main room]. On the way up, I said a prayer, because I'm thinking, 'If I go in here and he's looking like he's having a bad day, I don't know if I can make it.' But he was so strong and so full of life -- it just makes me smile to see him smile."
After spending time with some of the children on the hospital's first floor in a room organized for the event, the umpires then took their act on the road and went from room to room on the oncology floor where, instead of deciding on balls and strikes, they were helping to decide between firefighter or pirate outfits.
As Welke presented the options to Mohammad Hassan, a young cancer patient in the hospital, Mohammed had a very important question for the umpire: "Does it actually work, the fire hose?" he asked. When the answer was an unfortunate "No," Hassan opted for the pirate outfit for his bear.
"It really makes you stop and think how blessed you are that everything's turned out OK," Meriwether, who has two sons of his own, said. "As a baseball umpire, it kind of puts it in perspective. Baseball is important, but this makes you stop and think."
And as for whether or not it was a worthwhile experience for the first-time visitor, Meriwether left no doubt of that with a smile that rarely disappeared from his face.
"We keep talking about how much longer we've got to do it today and I don't have anything else to do until seven o'clock tonight," he said. "I'll definitely do it again. I live in Nashville, Tenn., so maybe during the offseason I can get a few guys together and we can do it out there, too."
Amanda Comak is an associate reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.