O's green realm has a new ruler

Sherry is 2nd woman in major leagues to lead grounds crew

The head groundskeeper

Orioles Home Opener

April 10, 2007|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,Sun Reporter

Nicole Sherry would rather you forget her name.

You see, if Sherry and her team are doing their jobs, no one should notice. The vibrant green outfield grass, the riot of spring color in the flowerpots, the crisp stripes of white from home plate to foul poles should all appear as if by magic.

"We're behind the scenes, and that's how I'd like to keep it," the Orioles' new head groundskeeper says.

Easier said than done this week.

As only the second woman in the major leagues to be a head groundskeeper, Sherry has been grooming her public relations image almost as much as the turf.

"I hope this is the end of it," she says, as one television station calls her a "trailblazer" to the good-natured hoots of her young crew.

Sherry's first home opener in her job runs the emotional spectrum from pride and humility to anxiety and dread.

"Every time I come to the park, I get goose bumps. It's just amazing that I'm here," the University of Delaware graduate says.

After three hours' sleep, she arrives at Camden Yards at 5:30 a.m. to mid-20s temperatures more familiar to Ravens late-season tailgaters. Top ballpark officials huddle with her 30 minutes later to discuss the day's festivities and review the weather report. Crew members start punching in just after 6:30.

From that point until pre-game host Jim Hunter clears his throat comes the kind of fussing that made longtime Memorial Stadium groundskeeper Pat Santarone famous, a tradition continued by Paul Zwaska, Al Capitos and Dave Nehila.

Zwaska sends Sherry a "good luck" bouquet for her office - once his - just below the right-field foul pole.

But when someone tells her hours before the first pitch that her labor of love looks "pretty good," it's clear the field has a new commander.

"Pretty good?" she repeats in mock indignation, waving her hand toward the field. "What are you talking about?"

Then comes her moment of truth. As the Orioles are introduced to the announced crowd of 48,159, Sherry takes the field first and stands with one foot on the first base bag. Other officials and team members line up to her left.

Even overcast skies can't hide the fact that the field is a shade of green homeowners only dream of. The fact that she and her crew are just one step shy of filling out change-of-address cards naming the ballpark home - and the fact that they worked until 7:30 p.m. on Easter - means Sherry is settling back into an anonymous life by the time the first inning is over.

It's all about grass and dirt. The grass - Kentucky bluegrass - is notoriously picky about water, heat and sunlight. The dirt is critiqued by infielders who make their living on getting a true bounce.

`Monsters'

"Grass and dirt. It's two different monsters you're trying to work with," the Delaware native says.

For Sherry, 29, this season marks a homecoming of sorts.

On a 1999 college class trip to see the Camden Yards irrigation system, she met Zwaska, who mentioned internships and gave her his business card.

For two years, Sherry worked at a golf course to gain experience but decided the hours weren't for her.

"Honestly, I did not like getting up at 5 in the morning. At 21, I wasn't ready for it," she says. "The serenity and solitude before the golfers arrive, I liked that part."

She called the Orioles and got the new groundskeeper, Capitos, who invited her to intern on his staff.

"When I started, there was no doubt, I never thought there was an issue, that women belonged in this profession," she says. "I knew this is what I wanted to do."

Sherry spent three seasons with the team, working her way up to assistant head groundskeeper. Then, in 2003, she became head groundskeeper with the Double-A Trenton Thunder, part of the New York Yankees' system, a job she held for three seasons.

"I learned everything from the Orioles, so when I went to Trenton, I took everything with me to have as professional level as I could get," she says. "I knew I had to go to the minors to prove myself."

Not yet a `goddess'

Trenton took such a shine to her that it honored her last season with a bobblehead doll. She has a ways to go, however, to surpass the other female head groundskeeper. Heather Nabozny, hired by the Detroit Tigers in 1999, has a fan club and a nickname, "Turf Goddess."

The only big difference between the major and the minor leagues, Sherry says, is the full-time TV coverage that makes everyone at home a potential critic. Well, that and the size of her full-time crew.

"I have at least 26 people here on a crew at game time. I have five full-timers. In Trenton, it was me and two guys who did basically the same thing every day," she says. "It made for very long days."

Those long days, surprisingly, extend to the offseason. After the last game is played, Sherry will begin readying the field, buying supplies and getting equipment repaired and replaced.

She hasn't had time to buy a house, and her boyfriend lives in Scranton, Pa.

"It gets the best of you at points," she says. "But when everybody leaves for the day and I'm still here and I'm alone out there on the field, that's what brings me back to reality and lets me know that this is a good thing."

candy.thomson@baltsun.com

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