Yard Work: Plan the work, work the plan, leave nothing to chance

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.

Making a list and checking it twice? How about three, four or five times? While jolly ol' St. Nick may be recuperating from a one-night trip around the world that would make FedEx green with envy, head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen has reached the point in the offseason where she buries herself in calculations, budgets, requisition forms and all manner of behind-the-scenes work - all in the name of making sure Camden Yards can withstand the rigors of the 2014 baseball season.

"I try to be 10 steps ahead at all times," McFadyen says. "I'm planning for worst-case scenarios. I want to be ahead of the game so if something happens, I can be prepared enough and adjust and not have to worry."

That early December snowstorm, she adds, was good for the field. We'll explore more about how the white stuff positively affects the green blades next month; for now, the focus is on looking forward - not just to opening day 2014, but to spring rains, summer heat and any other weather extreme the Orioles grounds crew may encounter next year.

Fertilizer to help grass grow, drying compound to soak up the liquid sunshine that inevitably interrupts games, warning track material to replace what naturally erodes away over the course of a season, dirt and clay - these are a few of McFadyen's favorite things. Well, at least things that she's poring over in the doldrums of winter.

"All of that stuff is on a list on my desk with a list of phone numbers and quantities," she says. "All I have to do is make the phone call."

Right now, she's calculating how much of each she needs to start - or in some cases, get her through - the 2014 campaign. You know your trip to the big box store, the one where you fill a cart with a couple of bags of whatever you need and proceed to the self-checkout line and then to your car? There isn't a passenger vehicle large enough to transport the quantities necessary to feed, care for and repair that patch of dirt and green the former B&O Warehouse towers over.

"You never know what kind of conditions you're going to be playing in," McFadyen explains. "It's never perfect when you play the game of baseball. You have to be prepared for a worst-case scenario - like if we play a 10-game homestand and seven of those games are in rain. You need to have that supply on hand to repair what the rain takes away. I have to maintain the surface to the highest degree with whatever Mother Nature throws our way, and that's a hard thing to predict. You start with enough - and you have good support on call so if you run out, for whatever reason, you have more the next day."

There's minimal upkeep necessary on the dirt and clay - the areas where the players stand that aren't green in color - but they do need to be replaced and repaired over the course of the six-month season. But when it comes to the kitty litter-like drying agent that's spread on the infield, pitcher's mound and batter's box to soak up precipitation, there's no such thing as too much planning.

McFadyen will start next season with six pallets of drying agent - that's 40 50-lb. bags on each pallet, a ton of the stuff. If that seems like a lot, well, it isn't. One of those pop-up thunderstorms that Baltimore is famous for could mean the grounds crew spreads about two tons of the drying compound.

"We could easily in one rain game go through two pallets, possibly three," McFadyen says. "Worst-case scenario, possibly four. I always start out with six pallets because of the threat that we could get a four- or five-tonner."

Makes brushing a puddle off your sidewalk seem a little pedestrian, doesn't it?

Most fans only see the grounds crew furiously spreading the drying agent, while McFadyen confers with the umpiring crew chief, who assures that the field is playable following a rain delay. They don't see the action on the field the next morning, when crew members scrape the remnants of the compound to get back down to the infield dirt. Some of the used drying agent is discarded, but some is kept in reserve in case it's needed down the road. You can never be too prepared, McFadyen cautions.

"I'm going to have a backup for a backup - and then maybe another backup," she chuckles. "Mother Nature doesn't care. She's throwing the kitchen sink at you. That's why I plan for the season and adjust accordingly."

Long before players show up for batting practice or bullpen sessions, McFadyen and assistant groundskeepers Nick Rozdilski and Thomas Kirsch are also surveying the lush Kentucky bluegrass to make sure it doesn't need a dose of chemicals to prevent any invasive growth that might threaten its hearty stalks. Those chemicals are ordered now so they'll be available at a moment's notice once the season starts. All three hold pesticide applicator licenses issued by Maryland Department of Agriculture and they have to take classes and tests in order to maintain this certification. But you can't apply pesticides any time you want; weather and wind conditions have to be taken into consideration, as well as whether the field might be needed for some other event or activity.

"The bluegrass we use is monoculture," McFadyen says. "It's one specific grass. It's not bluegrass and rye, or bluegrass and fescue. It's just bluegrass and it's more susceptible to diseases. So I have to spray to prevent these diseases. If I don't and we get disease, I could risk annihilation of the whole field in one day. I need to give aid to grass to build up its immunity (to disease)."

Clay needs to be ordered, too - McFadyen likes to start with four pallets of the stuff and go from there. It's a wonder there's enough room for the grounds crew to maneuver beneath the flag court in right field with all the supplies stocked and stored there. But calculating how much of what she needs isn't the only thing keeping McFadyen, Rozdilski and Kirsch busy this time of year.

They've been working hard, repairing nets on the batting cage that's toted out for batting practice every home game during the season (and occasionally on off-days). Soon, they'll move to the indoor tunnel near the home clubhouse, doing the same for the nets that facilitate hitting during the winter for players who want to keep those skills sharp.

McFadyen has been sending job postings throughout the turf industry to restock her grounds crew for the coming season, and she's been in contact with the folks who service the 10-piece fleet of equipment necessary to keep Camden Yards looking good come baseball season. Riding mowers need to be serviced - reels sharpened, hydraulics checked, fittings lubricated - while spark plugs need to be replaced on the walk-behind mowers her crew will use in tighter quarters. The spray rig, 2 1/2-ton roller, tractors for hauling - all need to be tended to before they're being used on a daily basis.

"If I'm out a mower and it's proper growing time, ... I'm baling hay if I miss a day of cutting," McFadyen says. "I am one field, and I don't have a lot of equipment, but it needs to be serviced. Think about golf courses gearing up to handle all their golfers. All the type of equipment I use here is the same that big facilities, like golf courses, would use. If I wait, or procrastinate, I'm getting pushed back. If I do it in January, I'm the priority and they can save February and March for the golf course industry. Now is their slow time. The service department is slow right now, so I'm able to get my equipment in, serviced and out before other people's."

Just like you turn off your exterior water spigots after draining the lines, McFadyen has overseen something similar at Camden Yards. Main lines are checked and shut off, air is forced through the underground irrigation system to rid it of any lingering water. No one wants water in pipes to freeze, causing them to break. Sprinkler heads are checked before the system goes dormant; they'll be rechecked once the weather warms in spring.

The field may be asleep, but things are humming along to make sure Camden Yards comes alive, right on schedule. Maybe even a little ahead of schedule, considering the earlier March 31 opening day means McFadyen is constantly reworking her schedule. By mid-February, she's hoping to start some of the on-field activities that usually don't begin until the calendar turns to March.

Plan the work, work the plan and leave nothing to chance.

"Playing catch-up is non-existent in this line of work," McFadyen says.

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