The definitive image of baseball from this time last year was that of the empty stadium—a ghostly cathedral of green, missing not just its fans, but players and workers, too. For the first time in the history of organized baseball, the calendar turned to Opening Day, and no one could set foot in a ballpark.
Well—almost. There was one group of people who still had to visit to the stadium. It’s the same group that has to be there throughout the offseason, through any weather, earliest in the morning and latest at night. It was the groundskeepers.
“The grass doesn’t know anything,” Baltimore Orioles head groundskeeper Nicole Sherry says. “It was still growing. You still needed to maintain it.”
The job of groundskeeper does not just require caring for the field on game days. It’s a year-round gig with a highly particular calendar—the offseason kicks off with aggressive maintenance work, which then lightens up for a bit before the field must be gradually readied for the season, not unlike a pitcher ramping up his throwing before Opening Day. But unlike the players who could rework their training schedules when baseball shut down, there was nothing to be done for the grass, which starts its growing season in the spring. The field had to be cared for.
So in that early stretch of the pandemic, when no one was going to the stadium, or going much of anywhere, Sherry went to Camden Yards every third day. She took care of the field alone. A job that is normally a group endeavor—she typically oversees a crew of roughly two dozen people—had turned solo. To mow the grass by herself took four-and-a-half hours. (On the days in between her visits, her two assistant groundskeepers would come to the field separately to perform additional maintenance, so that one person was checking on the stadium each day.) It was “eerie,” Sherry says, and unlike anything she’d done before. After 14 seasons as the Orioles’ head groundskeeper, she was used to spending time in the stadium without fans and even without players, but she had never before worked the field completely, totally alone.
Now, as Sherry starts her 15th season, she’s excited to return to a situation that’s somewhat more normal. Just as players await their chance to be back in front of fans, she’s looking forward to getting the field ready for them, too—groundskeeping can be as much about making the field comfortable to play on as it is about making it something for a crowd to admire.
“There’s a moment in the spring, it’s like a shift,” she says. “When you really start getting excited about getting that field ready—because you know baseball is just right around the corner, and there’s a lot of anxiety leading up to Opening Day to make sure everything is perfect for our players and perfect for our fans.”
While MLB groundskeepers have the same education as their counterparts in football or soccer—Sherry specialized in turf management as part of an agriculture degree—there are a number of subtleties that make baseball groundskeeping a particular challenge. An NFL groundskeeper doesn’t have to keep up with players’ individual field preferences, but baseball’s positioning means that Sherry has to know which pitchers like the mound to be bone-dry, which infielders appreciate a little bit of moisture under them, and how she might have to change her game-plan to account for a last-minute scratch.
There is a reason, after all, that former MLB owner and promoter Bill Veeck said a good groundskeeper could be as valuable as a .300 hitter. This is the most literal of home field advantages. “You can only do so much,” says Sherry. “But, you know, there’s little things.”
Sherry—one of just two women ever to serve as an MLB head groundskeeper and the first woman to be sit on the board of the directors for the Sports Turf Management Association—wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s worked in golf course management in the past, but baseball, with all of its quirks, is exactly where she wants to be.
With her grounds crew of 25 people, Sherry is like a skipper, directing a roster’s worth of people all with specific roles. She’ll make them run drills—you’re not going to be able to roll that tarp out in the rain without practicing first. It weighs 2,000 pounds and needs to be laid out within 90 seconds. That means that practices aren’t exactly fun, and Sherry might schedule them, like any good coach, when her team least expects it: “Sometimes I’ll throw impromptu practice right after a game, when it’s a nice day and everyone’s really relaxed—tarp practice!”
Like many managers, she landed her job in the big leagues by working her way up through the minors, and she’s watched the gig change due to technology in the last decade. (For them, it’s Statcast; for her, it’s new chemical applications for the field.) And statistics, of course, are a huge part of the work—soil temperature, water content, field observation data. Her job might look like the same from day to day and year to year, just as the schedule can blur together for teams, but the action is a little bit different every single time. (What’s the weather like? Which areas of the field are getting more worn down? The offseason maintenance checklist “varies all the time,” she says, based on the particulars of what happened that year.)
And, of course, she’s hyper-aware of the fact that you win, you lose, or it rains. Adjusting for the weather is the most difficult part of her job—she’s constantly monitoring at least one of the three radars she keeps on her phone for any changes.
All of that stayed the same even in a COVID-shortened season. (The challenges of operating a crew with appropriate social distancing notwithstanding.) But in a sport where stadiums offer such a strong sense of place, each one identifiable by its unique dimensions and mythology, the field is for the fans as much as for the players. To be able to prepare the grounds for a (limited) crowd on Opening Day, then, is to feel like having the job back where it should be.
“It’s a big moment,” Sherry says, “for that first game to have the perfect product.”