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MLB umpires make the right call at Children's

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By John Grupp
Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011

Three-year-old Emily Berger of Shaler was having a tough day at Children's Hospital in Lawrenceville. She had undergone surgery the day before, and her throat hurt.

Then a nice man handed her a stuffed monkey, and everything got a little better.

"This is what life's about, right here," umpire Jerry Meals said. "You really feel for these children."

Meals, besieged with critics since his blown call in the 19th inning of the Pirates' 4-3 loss at Atlanta last month, was among four Major League umpires who took time to visit sick kids Tuesday morning.

"Rarely do people yell at us here," crew chief Dale Scott said, smiling. "That's kind of nice."

Meals, Scott, CB Bucknor and Dan Iassogna — in town for the Cardinals series — hosted a Build-A-Bear workshop for dozens of children coping with cancer, illness and injury. They spent another 45 minutes or so in the oncology department with the most seriously ill.

"It's good to see kids smile who are going through a lot more than we are going through," said Bucknor, who worked for five years as a child life therapist at Cornell Medical Center before going to umpire school. "You never really understand what your situation is until you see somebody else's problem."

Indeed, the hospital provided perspective. One night after getting booed by thousands of Pirates fans for a questionable seventh-inning ball-strike call on Albert Pujols, Scott was reminded what's really important.

"It gives us a chance to see that baseball is a game," Scott said. "It's a fun game, and it's a lot of passion and a lot of fans. All that stuff. But there is a lot more to life than baseball."

At one point, Scott, 52, of Portland, Ore., handed a stuffed animal to 2-year-old Matthew Concannon of Millvale. The child, diagnosed with leukemia in May, clutched with delight the Pirate uniform-wearing bear. Matthew, far removed from the daily treatments and his nights and days on the ninth floor, tossed a foam baseball across the tile floor and held his tiny Pirates hat in one hand. Erin Concannon beamed as she watched her son.

"It's a nice day for everybody," she said.

The event, the 60th children's hospital visit by MLB umpires and the first-ever in Pittsburgh, was planned months ago. Meals, 49, was born in Butler and moved to Ohio when he was 7. He also visited a hospital last year in St. Louis.

"This is a wonderful event," Meals said. "I'm just glad to be a part of it."

Meals, who received death threats after his botched call, initially was reluctant to talk to reporters because he wanted the focus to be on the Children's Hospital event, not a missed call at home plate.

For sure, little Emily Berger didn't care about some baseball game three weeks ago in Atlanta. She only knew that Meals — who took three-plus hours before work to visit with kids — made her day a lot better with a choice of three stuffed animals: a monkey, dog or bear.

"Last night, we knew it was happening," said Emily's mom, Lisa. "As soon as she woke up this morning, she said, 'I want to go and make my bear today.' She had remembered. She knew."

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