Benedictine sisters double as diehard Rays fans

ST. LEO

When the Benedictine Sisters of Florida watch baseball, they are focused. There are no cellphones or iPads. No crunching of Tostitos or channel flipping.

There is God, as always, and there is the game.

During commercial breaks, they might discuss the goings-on at Holy Name Monastery, which sits on a lake among the old oaks and rolling hills of east Pasco County. But when the pitcher steps onto the mound, talk returns to the ball game.

The sisters live in the monastery next door to Saint Leo University, working, doing charity and praying together. They wear matching light blue shirts and khaki skirts, a bit more relaxed than traditional nuns' habits but still neat and modest. Once upon a time, they ran a school.

When the Tampa Bay Rays faced off against their division rival Boston Red Sox Wednesday night, six or so sisters donned Rays gear and settled into chairs and couches around an old tube TV.

Rays shirts are for special occasions, such as when visitors come by or the sisters make the rare trek to Tropicana Field. They went two weeks ago to see the Rays beat the Houston Astros 5-0. The last time someone took them to a game was when Bishop Robert Lynch scored tickets about a decade ago.

Sister Donna DeWitt, 70, had never been to a game before the Astros game. She had to pay extra attention, without having the benefit of replays or game summaries. And she didn't know the infield is raked between innings.

"They don't show that on TV," she said.

It's about an hour-and-a-half drive to St. Petersburg, and the sisters don't get much allowance money, said Faith Pridmore, who directs fundraising for the sisters. So when a supporter from St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in New Tampa took them out to the ball game, it was a big deal. Seven or so of the 16 sisters went. Teresa Hernandez, 57, of New Tampa got the idea after she served dinner to the sisters on a game night.

She bought 20 tickets for $20 each. To add to the special occasion, Hernandez fixed up goody bags of peanuts, M&M's and water, and she took the sisters to a steak house after.

"You would have thought you gave them a million dollars," Hernandez said.

The sisters loved the game, and — in case team or city leaders wrangling over a new stadium are paying attention — they like Tropicana Field for the most part. Having a dome is important, Sister Jean Abbott, 72, said. Otherwise rainouts would pile up. But it sure would be nice if it was a little closer to them and brought more fans out, she said.

Sister Margaret Mary Roberts, 66, had trouble seeing fly balls sitting in the stands, but Sister Eileen Dunbar, 60, was quick to point out that many visiting teams have the same issue. It's a Rays home advantage, she said.

These devout fans try to give the Rays another advantage through prayer. Teams like the Yankees, the Cubs and the Red Sox surely have lots of Catholics praying for their wins, they said. So why not Tampa Bay?

"I always say a little prayer that God's will be done," said Sister Mary Romana Gomez, 79.

If it weren't for the lack of alcohol and swearing, though, they could be any group of fans sitting at a sports bar.

They debate the details of America's pastime endlessly — while the pitchers warm up, during commercials, really any time they aren't cheering their favorite players. They call advice before plays and groan when the Rays don't listen.

"Too short!" moaned Sister Mary Romana, flopping back against the couch as a player was tagged out after a hit. She grew up with cricket in Belize but has picked baseball up just fine.

The sisters can rattle off ages of the players and discuss management. They like the focus on pitching and manager Joe Maddon's style ("You never hear him yelling," said Barbara Molloy, a resident volunteer who lives in the monastery.)

Sister Eileen likes that the team is young, and Sister Jean likes that the players seem to have fun with the game. The sisters have their favorite players; Longoria, Zobrist, Rodney and just about every pitcher are named.

But the sisters have to be up early each morning, some as early as 4:30 a.m. They start to drift out one or two at a time around 8 p.m. Sister Donna gets ready for bed and returns to watch the final innings. Most check the score the next day. On Thursday, they woke up to the news that the Rays beat the Red Sox 5-1, pulling within a half-game of Boston in the AL East standings.

Sister Mildred Gelis already knew this. The 88-year-old sister has been with the order for 71 years, and she was one of the quietest during the game.

Sister Mildred sat up into the night until the last play, the way she does for every game.

Clare Lennon can be reached at clennon@tampabay.com or (727) 869-6262. Follow @clarelennon on Twitter.

Benedictine sisters double as diehard Rays fans 07/26/13 [Last modified: Saturday, July 27, 2013 8:53pm]

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