Yard Work: With O's season complete, all eyes already on March 31, 2014

Camden Yards is a gem, a rare baseball cathedral that blends classic, retro style with today's version of the national pastime. But its lush outfield grass and manicured infield don't happen by accident. They're the result of a year-round effort by head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen and her talented grounds crew. Each month during this offseason, Orioles Buzz will check in with McFadyen to see what's happening on the field at Camden Yards as the grounds crew prepares for the 2014 season.

Even before the last out of the 2013 season - Jim Johnson got Boston's Will Middlebrooks to ground into an inning-ending 5-4-3 double play that preserved a 7-6 Orioles win on Sept. 29 - Orioles head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen had March 31, 2014 circled on her calendar.

That's the date the O's open the 2014 campaign with a home game against the Red Sox. That March Monday will be all-consuming for McFadyen over the next 5 1/2 months, presenting both a tangible target for her offseason work and a constant reminder of all that has to be done - and how little margin of error there is for her to accomplish what she wants.

You think it's tough to manage your own lawn? Stressed over re-seeding, cutting and trimming, fertilizing before frosty mornings become the rule rather than the exception? Watching sales circulars for the big-box home and garden centers to stock up at a reasonable price? Imagine you're responsible for a patch of genetically engineered Kentucky bluegrass, an infield that has to be kept in pristine condition to protect the high-paid players who call it home and a year-old warning track that covers 20,000 square feet. Makes your Home Depot shopping list seem a little small in comparison, doesn't it?

"The fans might think there's nothing happening, but really we're doing everything we can to get the field ready by March 1," McFadyen explains. "We want to give the field everything we can to go to sleep for the winter so when we break it out March 1, even though it might not be ready, we're ready to go for opening day. It's like a bear hibernating, or a squirrel storing nuts for the winter."

But before hibernation, there's work to be done. And McFadyen, who's been the Orioles' head groundskeeper since 2007, approaches her offseason to-do list like a grand chess master, always thinking multiple moves ahead. Will rain prevent her charges from mowing the field? She's got plenty of other projects for them to tackle. Any chance the grounds crew will zoom through its appointed tasks? She's already stacking up bags of sand and fertilizer so she'll be ready for the next assignment if it does. Her office behind the right field wall at Camden Yards has a computer monitor set to track weather radar and long-range forecasts.

Right now, she's letting the weather dictate some of the ground crew's machinations. In the two weeks or so she's had full control of the field for the offseason, temperatures have cooled off and she's had to adjust the most basic of activities: cutting the grass.

"Remember in early October where we had that stretch where it was in the 80s and 90s? We were cutting almost every day," she says. "Now we don't have to do it so often. But that's something, from my standpoint, that has to be addressed every single day. Is it worth cutting it? Can we wait another day? What do we have going on? What kind of weather? Is it going to rain?

"We continue maintaining the field at a professional level. We will continue to fertilize. We will continue to spray preventative fungicides if we have to, if the temperature is conducive. We will continue to mow the grass - it might not be every single day, maybe three times a week, depending on the growing process. We're doing a lot to prepare for March 31, even if it's on a slow progression."

To McFadyen, the vibrant green grass at Camden Yards is as viable a living, breathing thing as she is. It has to be treated just so. And after a milder-than-usual summer where grown men spent their afternoon and evenings running all over it, it needs some time to recover. The field is fully re-sodded about every eight years - it was last done in 2008 - and she wants to do everything in her power to extend its lifespan.

But while the greenness of the turf burns an indelible memory into each fan's subconscious, it's not all about the grass. The infield needs to be tended to, too, and it's actually one of the first focuses on the grounds crew's offseason plan.

At every juncture of infield dirt and grass, the grounds crew will rebuild the lip and re-sod the grass areas. It's painstaking but important work. Think about it: If the dirt and grass don't meet in exactly the right way at the right spot, that invites tricky bounces that infielders can't corral. Want to get on McFadyen's bad side? Two words - bad hop - make her wince. She realizes that what she does out of the public eye as the shadows start to grow in October will prevent errors and injuries come next season.

Then there are the worn patches - where runners round bases, where outfielders station themselves before a pitch, where fielders set up, around the plate where batters wander, around the mound where pitchers pace. Some are visible to the naked eye; others are hidden, but McFadyen knows they're there.

"You've got a guy as big as Chris Davis, turning on those areas - not once, but every at-bat," she says. "There's eight other guys on the Orioles and nine more guys on the other team doing the same thing. Where you're turning to go to second base, or around third toward home plate, those are where you take your most aggressive turns. It wears out. It can't help but wear out."

McFadyen can look at the grass and tell you things without even seeing a game. When Brian Roberts returned to the Orioles last season, so did his penchant for setting up on defense in the exact same place for almost every batter. From the stands, you can't see the small, worn-out area where the infield dirt and grass come together; walk on the field and it's as clear as day. Shortstop J.J. Hardy has slowly moved back a few inches in each of his three seasons in black and orange. The proof is right there, where infield dirt starts to lead to short left field. In-season, McFadyen wouldn't dare touch the spot - she wouldn't want to do anything to disrupt the feel a Gold Glove shortstop needs; now's the time she can touch up the worn spot to get it ready for next season's opener. Late last summer, she had to re-sod two spots frequently occupied by center fielder Adam Jones - one to the right field side of straightaway center field, the other to the left field side. You can barely tell now where old grass stops and new turf starts. Not all repairs have to wait for the offseason.

Like a cook working on a familiar recipe, McFadyen knows what's got to be done and when, just which ingredients enhance the overall flavor of a favored dish. She painstakingly schedules each activity - in two weeks, it'll be aerating the field, maybe top-dressing the infield dirt for its long winter nap - and adapts as necessary.

"I can't just fly by the seat of my pants and tell them, 'I've got this.' I have to plan it out," she says.

Weather and time sometimes conspire against her. Until Dec. 1, McFadyen has a crew of nine - herself, two assistant groundskeepers and six grounds crew members. From Dec. 1 to March 1, she leads a three-person crew. So now, the focus is on the things she needs more hands to accomplish. Last week, the crew was busy in the bullpens, hauling and cutting wood to replace the decking in front of the bullpen dugouts. It's a two-week process last done about six years ago.

By March 1, maybe earlier if the need is there, she'll have a new grounds crew to work with for the 2014 season. New members mean training, a constant process since there's frequent turnover. If she can't teach her charges the correct way to do things, there's a price to pay down the road. Again, there's little margin for error.

Even if she always has to be prepared for the worst.

"Every day I come in and I prepare for the absolute worst scenario," McFadyen says. "Even when it looks beautiful out. Remember our last homestand? It didn't rain at all. Do you know how rare that is in baseball? We played six games and had no rain. The last rain we had was Mariano Rivera's last game at Camden Yards. That's rare. Usually, there's at least a threat of rain every day."

Rain, cold, October snow or freak hurricanes like Superstorm Sandy. They're perpetually on McFadyen's radar. Remember, she's always a few moves ahead.

"In the wintertime, we're working 20 times harder in a shorter time to get everything ready," she says. "I mean, March 31 will be here before you know it."

Bet you didn't know: Members of the Orioles grounds crew don't take their shoes home with them. They stay at Camden Yards. The reason? Shoes have a nasty habit of picking up everything from invasive insects to fast-spreading scourges like dandelions and crabgrass. Sequestering the shoes prevents grounds crew members from inadvertently introducing these unwanted species to the turf they so diligently care for.

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