The definitive image of baseball from this time last year was that of the empty stadium, a ghostly green cathedral, lacking not only its fans, but also the players and workers. For the first time in the history of organized baseball, the calendar changed to Opening Day and no one could set foot in a stadium.
Good-almost. There was a group of people who had yet to visit the stadium. It is the same group that has to be there during the off season, in any weather, early in the morning and later in the evening. It was the gardeners.
“The grass doesn’t know anything,” says Baltimore Orioles lead outfielder Nicole Sherry. “It was still growing. You still needed to keep it. “
Gardener work doesn’t just require tending the field on game days. It’s a year-round concert with a very particular schedule: the offseason begins with aggressive maintenance work, which is then lightened up a bit before the field has to gradually prepare for the season, like a pitcher increasing his pitches earlier. Opening Day. . But unlike the players who were able to modify their training schedules when baseball closed, there was nothing to be done for the grass, which begins its growing season in the spring. The field had to be taken care of.
So in that initial stretch of the pandemic, when no one was going to the stadium, or going anywhere, Sherry would go to Camden Yards every three days. She took care of the field alone. A job that is normally a group endeavor (usually supervising a team of about two dozen people) had turned lonely. Mowing the lawn alone took her four and a half hours. (On the days between his visits, his two assistant outfielders came to the field separately for additional maintenance, with one person checking the stadium every day.) It was “unsettling,” says Sherry, and it was unlike anything she had done before. After 14 seasons as the Orioles’ main outfielder, 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 begins her fifteenth season, she is excited to return to a situation that is somewhat more normal. Just as the players look forward to their chance to get back in front of the fans, she too is eager to prepare the field for them; Ground maintenance can be as much about making the field comfortable to play as it is about making it something for the crowd. to admire.
“There is a time in spring, it’s like a change,” she says. “When you really start to get excited about getting that field ready, because you know baseball is right around the corner, and there is a lot of anxiety before Opening Day to make sure everything is perfect for our players and perfect for our fans. “
While MLB outfielders have the same education as their football or soccer counterparts (Sherry majored in turf management as part of an agriculture degree), there are a number of subtleties that make ground maintenance of baseball is a particular challenge. An NFL outfielder doesn’t have to keep up with players’ individual field preferences, but baseball’s position means Sherry has to know which pitchers like the mound to be completely dry, which infield players appreciate a little moisture underneath them and how you might have to change your game plan to account for a last minute scratch.
After all, there’s a reason former MLB owner and promoter Bill Veeck said a good outfielder could be as valuable as a .300 hitter. This is the most literal of the advantages of the local field. “It can only be done up to a point,” says Sherry. “But, you know, there are little things.”
Sherry, one of two women to ever serve as MLB’s head outfielder and the first woman to serve on the board of directors of the Sports Turf Driving Association, would not do it any other way. He has worked in golf course management in the past, but baseball, with all its quirks, is exactly where he wants to be.
With her 25-person field team, Sherry is like a captain, managing a roster of people with specific roles. She will make them do exercises; You won’t be able to unroll that tarp in the rain without practicing first. It weighs 2,000 pounds and should be set in 90 seconds. That means the practices are not exactly funny, and Sherry could schedule them, like any good coach, when her team least expects it: “Sometimes I do impromptu practice right after a game, when it’s a nice day and everyone is really relaxed, canvas practice!”
Like many managers, he got his job in the big leagues working in the minors, and has seen the gig shift 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 big part of the job: soil temperature, water content, field observation data. Your work may seem the same day to day and year to year, just like the schedule can blur for teams, but the action is a little different each time. (What’s the weather like? What areas of the field are wearing out the most? The off-season maintenance checklist “varies all the time,” he says, based on the details of what happened that year.)
And, of course, you are well aware of the fact that you win, lose, or rain. Adjusting to the weather is the hardest part of your job – you constantly monitor at least one of the three radars you keep on your phone for any changes.
All of that stayed the same even in a shortened season by COVID. (Despite the challenges of operating a team with appropriate social distancing.) But in a sport where stadiums offer such a strong sense of place, each identifiable by its unique dimensions and mythology, the field is for fans and players alike. . Being able to set the stage for a (limited) crowd on Opening Day, then, is looking forward to getting your job back where it should be.
“It’s a great time,” says Sherry, “for that first game to have the perfect product.”
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.