The Blue Jays saved the best for last, wrapping up the first portion of their Winter Tour back home in Toronto on Sunday with a special visit to Ronald McDonald House.
Adam Lind, Steve Delabar, Anthony Gose, Josh Thole and manager John Gibbons joined more than a dozen volunteers from the Jays Care Foundation Community Crew to prepare and serve dinner for more than 70 families, and they managed to make some friends along the way.
"It's just hanging out," Delabar said. "We've run into a couple of kids who are not in the best health, but they still have good spirits, and it's great to be around them and just have a good time with them.
"Every day they see the same faces over and over. So for the Jays to come in, they get new faces and the crowd is bigger, and Ace comes along with us. It's good to get everybody's spirits picked up a little bit and just have a good time."
Not all of the faces were new for Thole. It was bittersweet for the catcher to run into 7-year-old Ottawa native Matthew Paravan for the third time in the past year. Paravan is fighting an undiagnosed neurological disorder that has found him in three hospitals since May, each of which Thole happened to visit while the young Blue Jays fan was there.
"When Matthew is feeling well, he gets moved up to Bloorview Kids Rehabilitation Hospital, so we met Josh when the Jays came there," said Stephanie Paravan, Matthew's mother. "Matthew is a huge, huge Jays fan, and he played baseball before he got sick, so we met Josh and [his wife] Kathryn at Bloorview. Then about two weeks later Matthew's condition had worsened, so we were sent back to Sick Kids, and the Jays came and we saw Josh and Kathryn again."
Thole was excited to see his new friend again and hopes their next meeting is in a different environment.
"It's nice to see [them], but definitely not in these circumstances," Thole said. "That's what's tough. Because he's in this circumstance, that's how we've built a relationship. That's the hardest thing with all of this.
"It just hits home differently. I've seen them three times now and you see him progress or regress from stage to stage, and it really does hit home at this point. ... It's the third time's a charm type of thing. I suppose it could be a friendship that you hold for a long time. The first time, you're just doing your thing. The second time, it's, 'Oh hey, I remember you,' and now, it's, 'Oh my gosh, here you guys are again.'"
The visit was one of pure excitement and joy for Matthew, who is determined to be healthy enough to make it to a Blue Jays game at Rogers Centre in the coming season.
"It's so great to see," Stephanie Paravan said. "It gives such a big boost to all of us, not just for Matthew but for all of us when these guys come out, especially someone like Josh. It was Josh and Todd Redmond and Brett Cecil who had all been at both events, and every single one of them made a point of coming up to Matthew and talking to him after remembering him from Bloorview. It's so amazing.
"Ace has been awesome too, because Ace recognizes Matthew every time we see him. Even at the Santa Claus parade, he saw us in the stands and came right over. ... It's awesome."
Though Ace usually takes center stage at children's events, he made one friend Sunday who outshined him by leaps and bounds. As the mascot and players had a chance to mingle and speak with families, 4-year-old Lillian captured the attention of the crowd with her boisterous demeanour and display of nonstop energy.
Affectionately known as 'Lillie' at Ronald McDonald House, the bundle of joy brought a smile to everyone's faces with her dance moves and rambunctiousness throughout the evening. The break was welcomed by Lillie and her family, who are waiting for her 16-month-old sister to recover from a heart operation in preparation for yet another surgery.
Lillie's sister Ariana has three heart conditions, which led to a 20-hour surgery and left her with many synthetic parts in her tiny chest. Lillie tells others that Ariana "has a broken heart."
Another spirited young lady captured the hearts of the day's special visitors with her vitality and fearlessness. Unique Vreugde, 9, took time to tell her story to Gibbons and each of the players, who were all equally impressed.
"I have bone-marrow failure," she said matter-of-factly. "It means my bone marrow does not make any blood cells, and I've been here since the beginning of April because of that. ... I was born in South Africa and then I moved to Canada for five years. I tried to immigrate there but then I got diagnosed, so we have to come back here because of Sick Kids."
Vreugde and her family are incredibly grateful to have the resources that Ronald McDonald House offers.
"It's been absolutely amazing for us," said Nic Vreugde, Unique's father. "I don't know how we would get through it without this place, to be honest. We were at the children's hospital a lot for a good seven or eight months straight, and we slept there every night. So I don't know how we would be able to manage without the Ronald McDonald House."
The Home for Dinner program is something the Jays Care Foundation proudly sponsors every year with a group of volunteers. Captivated by the crowd Sunday, the Toronto players extended their visit beyond dinner, as they did with every stop so far on the Winter Tour, so that they could have a chance to interact with everyone.
So taken aback by young individuals like Matthew Paravan and Unique Vreugde, each of the Blue Jays sought permission to give the jerseys off their backs to the children they met, making four bright smiles even wider.
Alexis Brudnicki is a contributor to MLB.com.