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A Major League Lawn

Nicole Sherry Gives Camden Yards The Spa Treatment

March 1, 2008
By Jess Blumberg
Photography by Bryan Burris

 
A Major League Lawn Nicole Sherry, head groundskeeper at Oriole Park at Camden Yards,
is one of only two women groundskeepers in the majors.
 

Nicole Sherry may not have any grass at her downtown home, but it’s safe to say she maintains the biggest lawn in Baltimore.

As head groundskeeper at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, Sherry, 30, is responsible for keeping nearly three acres of Kentucky bluegrass green and flawless. She manages the seven staff members and three interns who make up her crew.

“People think that we just take care of the grounds and that there is no science involved,” Sherry says from her office in the Camden Yards warehouse. “But keeping this field perfect is a full-time, year-round job.”

On a typical game day, Sherry and her crew arrive at the ballpark at 9 a.m. and mow the grass in two directions, which takes an hour and 45 minutes. They then rake the base paths and mold the clay of the pitcher’s mound and home plate until they are completely smooth. The grounds crew does it over again, minus the mowing, after batting practice and again after the game, clocking in 14 to 16 hours a day.

The work does not stop during the off-season: The crew does maintenance from October until December and administrative work the rest of the winter. Work on the field starts up again in March, a month before the regular baseball season begins.

Sherry, a Wilmington, Delaware, native, didn’t realize what a hectic life she was in for when she took a shine to agriculture at a high school career fair. A representative from the University of Delaware got her attention by describing how to make Styrofoam packaging peanuts from cornstarch — which made them completely biodegradable.

“I grew up in the era where McDonald’s was using Styrofoam packaging and [I knew] how much of it was trapped in our landfill,” she says. She was impressed.

Studying agriculture at the University of Delaware, Sherry took a course on turf management. That led to a three-year stint as assistant groundskeeper at Camden Yards. In 2004 she surprised her colleagues by taking a job as groundskeeper for the Trenton Thunder, a minor-league affiliate of the New York Yankees.

“Nobody understood why I was leaving the major leagues, but I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it without answering to anybody,” Sherry says. “I was surprised by how much I knew on my own.” The Trenton Thunder team members were so impressed with Sherry’s work that they honored her with her own bobble head in August 2006.

Two months later, Sherry returned to the Orioles as head groundskeeper. Sherry and the Detroit Tigers’ Heather Nabozny are the only female groundskeepers in the majors.

It’s been years since Sherry gardened with her mother as a child, but she still shares the concerns of home gardeners. Pests are a major problem. Black turfgrass ataenius grubs can shred blades of grass and cause severe damage to sports fields. The grounds crew also worries about fungal diseases and June beetles — and about how often to water.

What about imitation turf? Sherry acknowledges that the fake stuff is making incursions and calls the future of real grass fields “scary.”

“A lot of places are falling for the synthetic turf,” she says. But she also points out that scientists are working on a real turf grass that is fit for extreme temperatures.

For now, Sherry’s job at Camden Yards is crucial. Outfielders, batters and especially pitchers go to her if they notice anything uneven on the field. She recalls an incident where outfielder Jay Gibbons came to her after his back foot kept slipping in the batter’s box.

“They’re professionals and they know what they’re doing,” Sherry says. “But I help the game, in a way, by making sure the players are safe.”

It’s not always easy being a woman in a ball club. Sherry is aware that she’s under a microscope of sorts. “It’s challenging because I really do have to work hard to prove myself,” she says. “I have to prove a lot more than the normal person because there are so many guys.”