Yard Work: Restocking grounds crew is an annual offseason process

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.

Imagine you run a business with a small but critically important staff that works long and unusual hours nine months a year. Imagine that what that group of people is responsible for is visible to a large audience and that investments costing millions of dollars count on your being able to credibly perform your job. Now imagine that you rarely get to keep an employee from year to year, that most of your staff turns over, that you have to reassemble and train a new group every year.

Welcome to the world of Orioles head groundskeeper Nicole McFadyen.

Each offseason, she remakes the seasonal portion of her grounds crew, the seven members who will spend their days and nights painstakingly caring for the field at Camden Yards in exchange for an hourly wage and experience they probably couldn't get elsewhere.

"We have the ability to keep a few people year after year, but it's rare," explains McFadyen in her office behind the wall in right field. "I try to find my crew through the Sports Turf Managers Association, which I belong to. I'll post the ad on there, probably starting in November, and see what kind of resumes come through."

McFadyen and her two full-time assistants work year-round, but the remainder of the grounds crew has to be vetted, interviewed and hired in the offseason. Because of the 2014 season's earlier start - the home and season opener for the Orioles is March 31 against the Red Sox - McFadyen succeeded in getting the Orioles to allow her crew to start about a week earlier than usual. In this case, that means a March 1 start date.

Over the past couple of months, McFadyen has taken phone calls, talked to candidates at meetings of turf professionals, perused resumes and settled on the seven new grounds crew members who will fill out her roster. It's the kind of work that draws little notice when it's happening, but becomes instantly visible if she doesn't make wise choices.

But it's not as easy as it sounds.

First, she's competing for a finite number of candidates who have a variety of operations vying for their services. It's not just 30 major league clubs fighting over potential grounds crew members. It's almost 300 minor league and independent league ballclubs, golf courses, football and soccer stadiums, college and university facilities, municipalities with golf courses and parks, parks and recreation departments.

"People who study turf want to get into golf course management," McFadyen explains. "There's more job opportunity and there's more science involved. You have to have a love for baseball to do this job, and not everybody has that. A lot of turf people either love the science of turf or they really like golf. You're competing with soccer, you're competing with football. It's parks and rec and research facilities. It's not just baseball you're competing with."

A lot of candidates are still in school, either studying as underclassmen or in the final weeks of working toward a degree. Not everyone is available come opening day, much less early March. This year, McFadyen and her assistants will be joined by four full-timers on March 1, with three more grounds crew members arriving a month later.

If there's work to be done, or if rain complicates the schedule, those early arrivals have to work double-time to make up for missing bodies.

"April and May are the worst if you don't have your full staff," McFadyen said. "April is typically the rainy season and we're top-heavy with our schedule this year. I'm going to depend on the tarp crew to be here on standby a lot more. I'm down a couple people and I'll need a couple of people in the wings."

A couple of the high school kids that help out on the 18-member tarp crew might be enlisted to pitch in, but for the most part, the grounds crew does whatever is necessary to get the job done. That's why McFadyen knows it takes a special person to pick up and move to Baltimore for a gig that lasts less than a year, knowing the chances of another move once that year is over are pretty favorable.

"I've been where they're at," she said. "I've started at the bottom. I know what it's like to need that internship, to get your foot in the door, to need this type of job. I've been there. So I feel like if they know me, or do some research on me, they'll really benefit from coming to work for our club."

So what's her sell? How does she attract the best candidates year after year, making sure she has the right people to keep Camden Yards green, growing and in perfect repair?

"My No. 1 would be growing Kentucky Bluegrass in a transition zone," McFadyen said. "A lot of these people will never see that in their careers. If you can grow grass here, you can grow it anywhere. That's not just me - a lot of turf professionals would tell you the same thing. If you can grow 100 percent Kentucky blue in a transition zone where it can be 115 degrees and make it look the way it does, you can grow grass anywhere."

And then there's the workload. In some places, an inexperienced worker might be tasked with one or two things - usually not that important - to do. In Baltimore, McFadyen promises to give her charges experience they might not receive elsewhere.

"They'll get to do everything here, where in some places they might have one specific job to do all season long," she says. "For me, if they think they can do game watering pregame, I'll let them have the hose. But they have to know the cost (because) it's on my shoulders at the end of the day. I'm not going to put somebody out there that's not capable. But I'll give them the opportunity to become capable, to learn what to do."

Recent snow and ice have given way to warmer temperatures and rain. Last weekend, the sun shone brightly as the field started to spring to life. McFadyen has been itching to get out and shovel off the tarps covering home plate and the mound, but wanted to make sure the ground was firm enough not to cause unnecessary damage

"I'm looking out there every minute, asking when I'm going to see my first blade of grass," she said.

Soon, she and the grounds crew will be working to prep the infield, warning track and bullpens for another season.

"It's getting the infield dirt ready to go, firm enough for these guys to make the transition from Sarasota to here," she said. "The grass will come when it's ready to; I can only do so much to force that. But the infield dirt is going to be under my control. I can get out there and try to get it to dry out."

The offseason is growing short, and March 31 is growing nearer.

"I'm pretty much ready to go," she said. "I'm gearing up. This is my season. It's starting."

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