ASTON, PA. -- Top of the first and the pitcher struck out the first batter. Few places are so decidedly earthly as a dugout, with its concrete floor layered in kicked-up dirt and the players’ spit-out sunflower seed husks; with its musky stench, the contents of a locker room, cleats and ball bags and flattened gloves, emptied out.
But from the dugout, Sister Linda De Cero, cheering for the pitcher, knew a higher force was at work. “I sprinkled him with holy water,” she said, nodding toward the mound and pulling a palm-sized bottle from the left pocket of her Neumann College baseball jacket. “I gave him the holy water on his shoulder and his hand. His pitching hand.”
Sister Linda, Neumann's director of pastoral services and baseball team chaplain, is a short but formidable presence in the dugout. As Sister Marguerite O'Beirne, Neumann’s vice president for mission, put it (in her Irish accent), “You don’t see too many nuns sitting in a dugout, do you, screamin’ and hollerin’?”
At Neumann, a Roman Catholic college outside Philadelphia, it’s not an incongruous sight, the players say. "She's one of the guys. You can come in, give a fist-pound to her" -- bump fists, that is -- "when you're doing good," said George Hatton, a sophomore catcher. He does watch his words more when Sister Linda's around. "Baseball players tend to have potty mouths."
Neumann intentionally blends athletics and Catholicism -- as President Rosalie M. Mirenda asked, "Why not use sports as a venue for leading people to a deeper spirituality?" Each of Neumann’s 17 Division III teams has a volunteer chaplain. A new athletics center scheduled to open this fall will feature exhibits highlighting the Franciscan values of balance, beauty, play, reflection and respect. “A lot of kids don’t come here from families who are supporting the values we’re talking about,” said Chuck Sack, the athletics director. “Really, it’s about taking care of the kids, and teaching them the values.”
A 2006 survey of Catholic colleges  conducted by Neumann's Institute for Sport, Spirituality and Character Development -- which oversees the sports chaplain program -- assessed mission integration in athletics departments. On the question of chaplains, the majority of institutions surveyed (53) did not have chaplains assigned to their athletic teams; 41 had one chaplain for all athletes and 12 had two. Just a handful reported a one-to-one ratio of chaplains to sports teams.
Of Neumann's chaplains, Sister Linda is an exception; most are lay people. “They don’t have to be saints, they don’t have to be perfect at all, they just have to be open to being good examples. They have to also be open to listening to the coaches and the players, and I guess be somewhat prayerful people,” said Edward T. Hastings, the institute's director.
Each chaplain has his or her own style. Each organizes an evening of reflection for the team, but mostly, they’re a source of moral and spiritual support. “I try to be a really good fan. I try to be a fan in the best possible sense,” said Stephanie Taylor, program coordinator for the institute and chaplain for the women’s lacrosse and tennis teams. “I say I do a lot of cheering. I feel like I’m there to just notice things, to notice all the good things that are going on, so when I see it I can get to one of the athletes to acknowledge it."
“I was kind of a liaison between the coaching staff and the players… just kind of getting the flow of maybe how the locker room was or how their schoolwork was going, maybe some family troubles,” said Joe Crowe, director of maintenance at Neumann and chaplain for the men’s ice hockey team, which won a national championship , Neumann’s first, earlier this month. “I frequently have guys stop in my office on campus to talk."
“I told the coach earlier in the year, hockey’s going to be your thing, I’ll never second-guess you or say anything in that capacity. Coaching’s your thing. I’m here any way I can help, if it’s helping with the pre-game, joking around with the guys, stuff like that," Crowe said.
Sister Linda gives each of the baseball players a necklace with a wooden Tau Cross. She held individual meetings with players who were cut during try-outs. She brings players Twix and Swedish Fish and other candies to snack on during games ("You're spoiling us, Sister; you brought us Dots today," one player told her Friday. Another put a plug in for Tootsie Rolls). She rallies them when they fall behind and the noise level in the dugout falls accordingly (“The manager said when a nun tells you to get loud you better do that because it doesn’t happen often”). She prays ("I’m saying my prayers between every inning. I have my beads with me, my rosary beads, I show them that I’m praying” ).
A South Philadelphia native who grew up watching Phillies games with her family, Sister Linda is a baseball fan; she would have to be. She makes it to the home games and the occasional away game; a double-header on a Saturday pretty much chews up half a weekend. “I think you really have to enjoy baseball. It can be a little boring at times," she said.
“The support is just overwhelming,” said Eddy Darrah, a senior and a lefty pitcher. “It means a lot when Sister’s out here in 30 degrees for seven hours.”
During Friday’s game against Keystone College, Sister Linda wasn’t cold -- highs were in the 60s -- but someone asked if she was, and for good reason. Neumann had fallen behind 11-4, but in the bottom of the ninth started cutting Keystone’s lead; she stood throughout, a rosary clasped in her hands, her hands to her mouth, steadily exhaling until the final out, the final score 11-7. “I’m breathing new life into the inning.”
"Be a humble winner," read one of the inspirational messages she'd posted earlier on the dugout wall, "and a gracious loser."