Looking back at the first "100 Bears For The Holidays" campaign, veteran big league umpire Dan Iassogna never could have imagined the program would reach the level it's at now.
The event began in 2006 -- the same year UMPS CARE Charities was founded -- with MLB umpires donating approximately 30 Build-A-Bear stuffed animals to children in hospitals.
This year, umpires from across both Major League Baseball and Minor League Baseball celebrated surpassing the 20,000-bear milestone.
"The best part about UMPS CARE is -- between all the Minor League and Major League umpires -- every single person is involved in it," said Iassogna, who umped his first MLB game in 1999. "They're giving their time, they're making donations, they're doing hospital visits, they're doing Build-A-Bear workshops. I'm really proud to work with a group of men and women who are all committed to the same cause."
Though UMPS CARE is ramping up awareness for its "100 Bears For The Holidays" initiative with the festive season in full swing, the campaign is a year-round effort.
Major League umpires host a yearly golf tournament to help raise money for the program. Minor League umps host a bowling tournament. Both groups come together for a series of fundraising events in Spring Training every year.
That hard work has resulted in UMPS CARE delivering 21,165 stuffed toys to date.
But the majority of those bears aren't simply shipped to the hospitals. In many cases, the umpires deliver the stuffed animals themselves.
Every season, each of Major League Baseball's umpiring crews visits at least one hospital in a big league city. Some visit multiple hospitals throughout the season -- and some continue the efforts into the offseason.
Just recently, Iassogna and longtime friend Jim Reynolds -- who also served as an MLB umpire from 1999-2022 -- visited Connecticut Children's Medical Center in Iassogna's home state. The duo was joined by Andy Baylock, former college baseball coach at the University of Connecticut.
"At the end of the day, we only do ball, strike, fair, foul, safe, out," Iassogna said. "But when we go there, all you're doing is putting a smile on someone's face. You're handing out a bear and dressing it up in whatever outfit they want. It may not sound like much, but it's so rewarding to see them make those decisions.”
Over the years, Iassogna and his colleagues have visited children at hospitals across the United States and Canada. While much of their time is spent with kids battling cancer and other serious illnesses, they also visit burn units and epilepsy clinics.
For these children, their hospital room door opening is rarely an exciting thing. It's typically a doctor or a nurse checking in or relaying a treatment plan for the day. Sometimes it's to run another battery of tests or take blood.
So when a group of umpires comes through the door -- often accompanied by the local MLB team's mascot -- with a bag full of bears, it's a welcomed treat. After all, the kids get to spend the next few minutes answering a series of questions far different than the usual ones centered around how they're feeling.
Do they want a stuffed bear? Or maybe a monkey? How about a lion or a dinosaur or a dog?
Once they make that choice, it's time to pick an outfit. Some choose to dress their new friend in a baseball uniform. Others deck out their stuffed animal in their favorite superhero outfit or turn it into a pirate, a princess or a firefighter.
"They don't really get to make many decisions during the day because the doctors are making all those decisions for them," Iassogna said. "So just to see them smile for a bit is such a fantastic thing. Out of all of it, the hospital visits are the most meaningful for me."
UMPS CARE Charities has expanded well beyond the "100 Bears For The Holidays" program since launching in 2006. Among its other initiatives, UMPS CARE has provided more than $300,000 in college scholarships, and it has welcomed more than 9,000 participants -- ranging from sick kids and their families to military families to at-risk youth -- for VIP ballpark experiences.
More recently, UMPS CARE responded to the shortage of youth baseball and softball umpires by launching the Official Leadership Program in 2021. It's designed to help kids from under-resourced communities by teaching them social and emotional learning skills, as well as umpire mechanics.
"Just how it's expanded from 30 bears and a pretty good idea to what it is now -- it's a credit to everyone behind the scenes and just a total group effort," Iassogna said.
But at the end of the day, it all starts with a stuffed bear.
"All you have to do is put that bear in their hands, and you'll immediately say, 'OK, what do you need and what can I do?'" Iassogna said. "It goes right to your heart. Just to see them smile -- all over a bear with an outfit -- is very, very fulfilling."