For right field, play to all fields

Camden Yards: There's nothing green about new groundkeeper Dave Nahila, and the O's prefer it that way.

Opening Night

April 04, 2004|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

Players may consider the Camden Yards field their domain, but they're only borrowing it from Dave Nahila.

The new head groundskeeper spends hours each day fussing over every inch of the 100,000-square-foot surface - left field to right, backstop to warning track - looking for imperfections in turf and soil.

He and his staff have surveyed, fertilized, seeded, aerated, lined and raked the field to a fare-thee-well. They have ripped down the ragged ivy in center field and even cleaned behind the massive green pads that protect leaping outfielders from harm.

FOR THE RECORD - An article in Sunday's Opening Night special section misspelled the name of the Orioles' new groundskeeper. He is Dave Nehila.

"We have to have it ready for Opening Day. ... There aren't any extensions or do-overs," Nahila said.

Time and weather have not been on his side. Nahila didn't begin his job until March 1, and, since then, warm, sunny days have been as fleeting as last year's winning streaks.

Still, Nahila isn't too worried.

"Al Capitos left things in fine shape," Nahila said of his predecessor, who is grounds manager at the Johns Hopkins University. "I'm just taking over his operation and running with it."

Nahila is a turf builder, putting in 10 years on the golf courses at Caves Valley and Hunt Valley before joining the staff of Growing Solutions Inc., a White Marsh company that handles athletic fields for schools and park and recreation programs.

"I know my grass," he said, as he settled into his field-level office in the right-field corner with a commanding view of the diamond. "But there's going to be a learning curve on dirt."

To fill the deficiency, the Orioles brought in former head groundskeeper Paul Zwaska, who last month conducted a tutorial for Nahila and his crew.

Zwaska spent 16 years with the Orioles, first at Memorial Stadium under the tomato-growing guru Pat Santarone and then as the boss, at both the old ballpark and Camden Yards.

"Will he have a couple of rough spots? Sure. But will it be a problem? Probably not," said Zwaska, as he stood on home plate, squinting through a surveying instrument to ensure the foul line was straight.

The toughest part of the learning curve, Zwaska said, will be "perfecting the dirt work and learning what the stress of weather does to the field. Turf can take pressure at certain times of the year, but from mid-June through August, bluegrass is really having a tough time just trying to stay alive."

Nahila commands an arsenal of 84 sprinklers, which can pump 18 gallons a minute onto the field. In the spring, water is applied for longer periods of time. At the peak of summer, the sprinklers provide more frequent bursts of moisture.

The drainage system, installed in November 2000, is considered top-drawer, capable of keeping the field playable under all but the most severe conditions.

On the field, Nahila has a full-time staff of four and a woman who supervises the flower landscaping around the ballpark. When conditions go from sun to rain, Nahila calls on a 17-man tarp crew, the majority of whom are old hands at rolling out the 2,600-pound nylon cover.

But there are other facets of the job that require his attention - everything from monitoring the array of weather equipment in his office to selecting the type of shoes his team wears (old-fashioned Chuck Taylors were too flimsy and deck shoes provided all the traction of four bald tires on ice).

Nahila, who had done some work at the ballpark in his previous job, was interviewed three times for the job. The process was intense because so many Orioles executives, including the head of ballpark operations and avid gardener Roger Hayden, have a deep interest in how the field is maintained.

"Even CFO Bob Ames has a microbiology degree," Nahila said. "I don't think you could fool them even if you wanted to. All I wanted was the opportunity to interview. Then I thought I could sell myself."

Nahila, 37, grew up in Bel Air playing baseball and soccer. At Towson University, where he was a varsity soccer player, he got a degree in psychology. Afterward, he had a change of heart and career direction and returned to school, graduating from the University of Maryland with a horticulture degree in turf grass management.

Tonight, the boy who grew up idolizing Brooks Robinson will make his major league debut in front of his wife, Jennifer; son, Zachary 3 1/2 ; daughter, Madeline, 5 months; his parents; and in-laws.

"Getting this job has been surreal," he said. "It still hasn't hit me. I'm sure it will be real when I run on the field and there are 49,000 people watching."

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