Braves Cheered On by Truly Brave Hospice Fans

About a deep home run away from Turner Field, home to the Atlanta Braves, sits a hospice for cancer patients. Among the residents and the nuns who run the place, are more than a few Braves fans. Braves players and coaches have developed a special relationship with the hospice.

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The Atlanta Braves appear unlikely to make the playoffs this year, but it's not for lack of cheering from a group of neighbors. About a deep home run away from Turner Field, there's a hospice for cancer patients, and among the nuns who run the place, more than a few Brave fans.

Philip Graitcer has a story about how the sisters and a coach brought together the patients' home and the home to Braves.

PHILIP GRAITCER: Our Lady of Perpetual care home is just across the street from Turner Field. An iron fence surrounds it and a two-hundred-fifty-year-old oak tree shades the brick-and-glass building.

It's one of five homes run by the Hawthorne Dominicans, an order of Catholic nuns founded 100 years ago by Nathaniel Hawthorne's daughter. Sister Edwin(ph), the home's director, has been a sister for almost 43 years.

Sister EDWIN (Director, Our Lady of Perpetual Care Home): Our mission is to take care of people dying with cancer who cannot afford to pay for care elsewhere, which is mostly your poor and your middle class.

GRAITCER: About two-dozen residents are here, and along with loving care, they get daily doses of baseball.

(Soundbite of noise)

GRAITCER: When the game is being played, they can do the cheers and fireworks from inside the chapel.

(Soundbite of applause)

GRAITCER: Most of the sisters grew up in cities where there were Major League teams and went to games as children. As they rotated through Dominican homes in Cleveland, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and New York, the sisters continued to follow their teams.

Sister Edwin grew up in Cleveland.

Sister EDWIN: I'm a Cleveland Indians fan. Sister Miriam(ph) is a Philadelphia fanatic and Sister Walter is for Boston, and Sister Agustin is a die-hard Mets fan. We have a Braves shrine up in the men's day room.

GRAITCER: On the second floor, there's a display case filled with autographed baseball, jerseys, bubblehead dolls and even a fielder's glove once owned by Sister Aquinas(ph) who's now deceased.

The link between baseball and the sisters became more tangible about seven years ago when Braves coach Bobby Dews happened upon the home. He's been with the Atlanta Braves since 1974.

Mr. BOBBY DEWS (Coach, Atlanta Braves): One day, I decided to go south out of the stadium to do my running. And I saw this building up on the hill and happened to go in there and looked at the courtyards. And it looked like some sort of a religious establishment.

GRAITCER: Dews' religion is baseball. He spent his life playing, managing and coaching. We talked in the dugout before a Braves game. Once he found Our Lady of Perpetual Care, he started dropping by regularly, talking with the sisters and sitting outside next to the oak tree.

Mr. DEWS: I love that courtyard so much and I love the statues that are out there. And it's a great calming experience, and when I go there and then come to the ballpark, I have a much better attitude than I've got before I go there.

GRAITCER: Back in 1999, he was going through a rough time. He'd just been moved from third base coach to bullpen coach. And his dream of one day becoming a Major League manager seemed to be drifting away. He says he discovered Our Lady of Perpetual Care just in time.

Mr. DEWS: I'm a recovering alcoholic and anything that I can do to keep from having that old desire to drink is a plus for me. And this probably has prolonged my period of sobriety.

GRAITCER: Soon Dews began talking baseball with the terminally ill residents and bringing players and even manager Bobby Cox over to meet them. The residents, like the sisters, became diehard Braves fans.

Willie Kendrick(ph) has been at the home for four months.

Mr. WILLIE KENDRICK (Resident, Our Lady of Perpetual Care): I have throat cancer, and a stroke on my left thigh.

GRAITCER: Kendrick uses an electric car to move around. He's 64, a lifelong baseball fan, but never had enough money to go to a game. Now, when the Braves are at home, he rolls outside and just listens to the crowd.

Mr. KENDRICK: I would give anything to go. (unintelligible). I can go there every night when I ain't got nothing to do. That will be just (unintelligible) me I can go every night.

GRAITCER: Three times a year, Bobby Dews arranges for tickets so the residents and sisters can go to a game. They walk, limp and wheel across Bill Lucas Drive, enter Turner Field through the south gate, and take the elevator up to the terrace level. Their seats are terrific, right behind home plate.

Unidentified Man: Welcome to Turner Field, y'all, and enjoy the game today.

GRAITCER: On this hot August afternoon, Willie Kendrick is finally at a ballgame.

Mr. KENDRICK: I'm (unintelligible) the Majors. You know, to see it here, I've seen them on television, but it's nothing like being here, this close to it.

GRAITCER: Kendrick eats his first ballpark hotdog. The game goes only for nine innings and with the score tied - Braves 3, Reds 3 - Kendrick leaves before it's over. The hotdog has given him an upset stomach and he's tired. After 15 innings, the Braves lose, 5-to-3.

For 25 years, coach Bobby Dews arrived at the Braves Stadium not knowing that the hospice and the sisters were right next-door, silently caring for the dying. But now, it's fixed in his mind.

Mr. DEWS: There's probably not a day goes by that I don't think about that home in some way.

GRAITCER: And although twists and turns in his baseball career may not have led him to where he had hoped, finding Our Lady of Perpetual Hope has offered a certain unexpected consolation.

Mr. DEWS: It's almost like a heaven on Earth because the people know they are dying and - but there's such a beautiful, loving, caring atmosphere there right before they die that it's got to be just, maybe, a practice before getting to heaven.

(Soundbite of crowd cheering)

GRAITCER: For NPR News, I'm Phillip Graitcer.

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