Umpiring crew makes special visit to Pittsburgh children's hospital

July 4th, 2024
Laz Diaz has been working with Umps Care since its origins in 2006.Photos by Will Aldrich

PITTSBURGH -- Nothing pairs better with the Fourth of July weekend than baseball. That’s why it was fitting that a team of Major League umpires found a way to surprise some kids in Pittsburgh who couldn't make it to the ballpark with a gift of their own.

Partnering with the Umps Care Charities, the four umpires working the series between the Cardinals and Pirates -- Laz Diaz, Erich Bacchus, Tripp Gibson and Mike Estabrook -- handed out 100 stuffed Build-A-Bear animals to patients of all ages at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh on Wednesday morning.

Along with the teddy bear (complete with a birth certificate), the kids received a bag of goodies that included an activity and coloring book, Fourth of July-themed bracelets, hats to design themselves, and, of course, a foam baseball.

Diaz, the crew chief for the series, has been working with the charity since its inauguration in 2006 and participates in roughly three events per season. As someone with children, grandkids and nephews of his own, the umpire said events like these help put life into perspective.

“It’s special for me, period,” Diaz said. “Coming out here and seeing a smile on these kids’ faces. They’re getting poked, they’re getting examined, and just for five minutes of their 24-hour period here [I can] put a smile on their face. It’s incredible.”

“It’s special for me, period,” umpire Laz Diaz said. “Coming out here and seeing a smile on these kids’ faces.”

Diaz said he enjoys getting to talk to children about their favorite players and teaching them about his role as an umpire and the sport he is around every day.

“It was really nice,” said Irwin, Pa., resident Dana Soflin, who took part in the event with her daughter, Addyson. “Her spirits have been down recently, because she wants to go home and she's not able to. [Bacchus] was so nice and helped her pick out a bear. I think it's nice that they do that. I really do.”

Through 214 events across the United States and Canada, Umps Care has helped deliver nearly 22,000 stuffed animals to kids.

“It’s absolutely wonderful because we get to experience something that gives us a little break from the reality of having a sick kid,” said Shawn Davis, a Morgantown, W.Va., native there on behalf of his 8-month-old son, Tate.

“I think it's absolutely amazing,” Davis said. “I was blown away at the event. So grateful to the Pirates and the team for doing this.”

Jennifer Skolochenko-Platt, the executive director of Umps Care, helps coordinate around 17 visits per year thanks to league-wide participation from MLB's team of umpires. That number is up significantly since the charity was founded nearly 20 years ago.

“It’s just been great to see the evolution of it, and the growth and support from the umpires and from our general donors who love this program and love seeing the joy that it brings,” Skolochenko-Platt said. “It’s just been really awesome to witness.”

The umpires also raised the funds for the gifts handed out at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Not only did the umpires take part in handing out the stuffed bears, but they actually raised the funds to purchase them, as well. They also put in tremendous amounts of work behind the scenes to ensure the organization succeeds.

“They are so incredibly supportive of the charity as a whole and all of our programs,” Skolochenko-Platt said. “For them to take time when they’ve got a little bit of downtime to give back is something that is really powerful. They started this organization in 2006 because they wanted to use their unique platform to be able to give back and make a difference in the cities in which they work.

“The continued support, event after event, year after year, is great. It’s just heartwarming.”

Having worked with the charity for more than 12 years, Skolochenko-Platt said her favorite part of the job is seeing the joy the event brings to young faces across the country.

“This particular event, as a parent -- personally, and most of our umpires are parents -- is incredibly grounding,” she said. “It really just makes you take a step back and bring things down to a level of the things that are really important in life … health being one of those."