Yard Work: Getting Camden Yards ready for its long, winter nap

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.

By the time you’re polishing off the last of the Thanksgiving leftovers - add a smear of dressing and a dollop of cranberry sauce to that last, lonely slice of turkey as a sandwich stretcher, it’s a winner - the field at Camden Yards will be just about ready for its long, winter nap.

Head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen has been playing beat-the-clock over the past couple of weeks, trying to check off items on her offseason to-do list before her grounds crew shrinks from nine people to three. The changing weather complicates her machinations, too - for instance, she can’t spray fungicides when winds are blowing at 15 mph or more. There’s less daylight, of course, and temperatures are dropping, forcing members of the grounds crew to test the limits of layering.

“You’re of the mindset that you’re working on grass and it should be warmer. But it’s damp and it’s cold and it’s windy,” says McFadyen. “It just wears on you. It may be a sunny, gorgeous day, but if you look at the field, you can see there’s only peeks of sunshine from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., and by 3 p.m., it’s all shaded. When it’s in the shade and it’s windy, it’s colder, and it just makes you tired quicker. I think you have to psyche yourself up: If we get this done now, we don’t have to worry about it anytime in the near future. So you’re able to get out there and get it done.”

On a day where temps are peaking in the upper 40s, McFadyen is already bundled up - a t-shirt starts the layering, following by a pullover, a windbreaker and a heavier jacket. When necessary, she’ll strap on some overalls. But it’s clear the Indian summer days - remember temps reaching into the upper 70s in mid-November? - are a thing of the past.

McFadyen has just finished a private tour of the field for 20 members of the Guilford Garden Club of Ridgewood, Md., with her honorarium a donation to Grind Out Hunger, a Santa Cruz, Calif.-based charity that fights childhood hunger and malnutrition by utilizing the fundraising talents skateboarders, snowborders, surfers and musicians. Only in the offseason, when things start to calm down, are visits like this possible, and the group attentively listens to the head groundskeeper, peppering her with interesting questions.

Just a few days before, the infield was abuzz with the kind of activity that more closely resembles the wheel play during an in-game sacrifice bunt attempt with runners on base. Crew members were working on the mound and home plate areas, putting the finishing touches on end-of-year maintenance before sealing them under circular tarps held in place with sandbags. Around the infield, where dirt meets grass, other grounds crew workers were cutting a swath of turf a yard wide, the final stage of postseason repairs to areas that are most vulnerable to heavy use. They’ve been seeded or re-sodded and are regularly watered. Old chunks of turf were carted off in a convoy of carts.

Grass cutting has dwindled to about once a week, because McFadyen doesn’t want to trick the grass into unnecessarily growing. As long as the temperatures continue to level out at seasonal norms, that is.

“You want there to be a benefit (to cutting),” she explains. “If you’re cutting something off, that plant is still growing, so the genetic response would be to grow better. So I want to do that as long as I can to get a good stand through wintertime. Then, hopefully in March, it’ll come back better.”

That’s not the only grass that’s being tended to. Beyond the center field wall, at the base of the batter’s eye, lies one of the more unique aspects of Camden Yards, a sod farm that helps McFadyen and company keep readily available patches to repair the occasional dead spot or divot.

“Other clubs have them, but not like we have,” she says. “They might have something on-site where they pull from (a patch) between their bullpen mound and plate. But not like us. I think Pat Santarone and Paul Zwaska, who came over from Memorial Stadium, really expressed the need for that.”

Santarone was the beloved head groundskeeper and tomato-grower (who competed with former O’s manager Earl Weaver for the most productive plants) at Memorial Stadium and Zwaska one of his disciples, following the Orioles from their 33rd Street roost and eventually taking over the top role at Camden Yards. They pushed for the inclusion of the turf farm, and about 1,200 square feet of turf was recently trucked in from the Tuckahoe Turf Farms in Hammonton, N.J., then carted beyond the center field wall, where it was carefully unrolled by hand and installed. By next spring, you won’t see the difference in the lush, green color of the durable Kentucky bluegrass.

Having the turf farm at her disposal makes life easier for McFadyen and the grounds crew when repairs are necessary during the season.

“Think about it: Where am I going to go to get it? I’m either going to have to go pull it from the bullpen or if that wasn’t an option, where would you get it from?” she says. “You’d have to call a local grower and our grass is very particular - where it is and what it’s grown on. You can’t just go to Home Depot and buy a pallet of sod. It’s not that kind of lawn. ... It has to be the right blend. We have to have it all be the same genetic components of the (existing) sod. So having a sod farm definitely helps. Do a lot of ballparks have them? No. But they make their own. If they don’t have one readily available, they’ll piece it together somehow.”

Along with the work in the turf farm, there are some minor repairs taking place on the field. Work in the bullpens is nearing an end. In the right field corner, near McFadyen’s office, workers are putting the finishing touches on a project. Remember the heavy summer deluges which caused unusual flooding in that area? They’re re-grading the warning track area, raising it to create more efficient draining. You won’t notice the difference until next season, when the small lake that formed next to right fielder Nick Markakis fails to materialize in heavy downpours.

By the beginning of December, when McFadyen and her two assistant groundskeepers are left to keep Camden Yards moving forward in time for the March 31 season opener against the Red Sox, the work will move mostly inside. If something on the field needs to be tweaked or finished, it’ll get done, but McFadyen has other offseason duties that require her full attention.

And she’s barely two months into her six-month winter break. Which isn’t really a break at all.

“Really, there is no offseason,” she says. “There is time away from baseball, but there is no offseason. ... There’s a lot I do in winter, even if I’m not physically outside at all times. I have to put together my budget, I have to order all my supplies, I need to hire a brand-new crew every year. These guys are leaving, now I have to start thinking that we open March 31. That pushes us back a whole week from what we normally do. Can I bring them in a week earlier? It’s a lot.”

Bet you didn’t know: In the grounds crew’s area behind the right-field corner, there’s a locker that also made the trek from Memorial Stadium to Camden Yards. It’s purported to be one used by both former Baltimore Colts quarterback and NFL Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas and ex-Orioles catcher and 1983 World Series Most Valuable player (and current MASN analyst) Rick Dempsey.

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