Covering the bases

Orioles' grounds crew undertakes field training to keep everything beneath its feet in game shape

April 04, 2009|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,

As she talks to a visitor, Nicole Sherry reaches down, picks up a speck of something alien nestled between the blades of grass and jams it into her pocket, not missing a beat in the conversation.

When you're the head groundskeeper at Camden Yards and Monday's Opening Day is going to be nationally televised, it's the little things - as much as the big things - that count.

That's why on a recent day more winter than spring, Sherry has her 18-man crew out in force for a little spring training of its own, starting with the 1-ton plastic jelly roll known as the tarpaulin.

Tarps save games, but only if they're deployed in the moments at the start of a downpour. Sherry's crew is stopwatch-quick - 90 seconds from start to finish. Ditto its work dragging the infield between innings to smooth lumps.

Still, practice makes perfect.

"I'm lucky, most of my guys are veterans. There's only two new guys, so that makes it easy on me. But after seven months off, they get kind of lazy," says Sherry, who is beginning her third season as Baltimore's "Queen of Green."

So the crew pushes and pulls the massive tarp all over the outfield as crew chief Rob Doetsch barks commands.

"It's crazy and it's fun when it rains," says Dorian Green, 17, of Baltimore. "But that's when we get to do our job and show our stuff."

Once the crew wrestles the tarp back onto its metal roller, it practices its infield choreography with the 35-pound mesh draggers.

Watch it on TV or from Section 330 and it looks simple. In fact some teams, such as the Chicago White Sox, raise money for charity by allowing fans to buy a spot on the dragging crew.

But see it from the ground, especially in its ragged preseason form, and you realize how delicate an operation it is. Drag too fast, flop the screen as you run or stop in mid-pull and you leave mounds of dressing that create a bad hop. The guy on the outside - No. 1 - runs 455 feet. The guy closest to the mound - No. 5 - runs 355 feet.

"Two and three, you need to be going at a pretty good clip," counsels Doetsch, a veteran of 17 seasons. "Four and five, don't panic, you'll catch up."

Doetsch pulls the mesh to demonstrate a point and mixes and matches crew members, looking for the right combination.

"It's Opening Day, it's ESPN, it's the Yankees series. Fans are going to be coming out of the woodwork. It's going to be cold," Sherry yells. "You're in bright, construction-cone orange. You run on the field. Everybody notices. That's why I'm on you. Are you guys ready?"

Some are and some aren't. Once the season starts, they'll need to sidestep infielders taking grounders and finish in under 90 seconds to match TV commercial breaks. So they practice some more.

Sherry says if players approach her about an infield problem, she puts it at the top of her to-do list. "But I don't go to them because I don't want to put any doubts in their minds," she says.

This season, the grounds crew has a new field to fuss over. The Orioles replace the sod about every five years to keep it playing well and looking good.

It took two weeks to take up the old grass and lay down a new green carpet over a bed of sand. Now it's up to Sherry's full-time crew to nurture it, and if that means getting down on all fours to pick out detritus and wash away the goop, well, that's part of the game.

In an unfortunate coincidence, what's bad for the grass is good for the ballplayers, with sunflower seeds and sports drinks topping the list.

"The sodium in the sports drinks burns the grass and unless we hand-pick the seeds, the salt builds up and causes the same problem," Sherry says. "Too much of anything can kill you."

Once the season begins, the groundskeeper settles into her Camden Yards office with the picture-window view of the outfield. As for her own green, green grass of home?

"It's concrete," she says, responding to the question with a smile. "I see enough grass all day. I don't want to go home to deal with it."




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