Yard Work: Working for green at the offseason finish line

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.

Nicole McFadyen may be focused on infield dirt and grass, but she's not functioning in a vacuum. Orioles opening day is three days away, and she's feeling the pressure to produce the most perfectly manicured diamond and greenest grass possible, no small accomplishment considering the historically challenging winter weather that has become an impediment into what the calendar insists is spring.

The weather forecast? She has a PC on her desk behind the right field corner that keeps her connected to the latest predictions, and she can look out the window behind her desk to see exactly what the weather is.

But as the March 31 opener approaches, don't mention prognostications. She doesn't want to hear about them, no matter how much sun, warmth and mild temperatures they may contain.

"Don't even speak it, please," warns McFadyen, the head groundskeeper at Camden Yards, good-naturedly cutting off a question in midstream. "I don't want to know. It'll probably change. It's changing every day. ... What they say will be the weather today for ... (Monday) probably won't be the weather on Monday."

Fans clamoring for the return of Orioles baseball probably approach the weather for Monday's opener against the World Series champion Red Sox a bit differently than McFadyen. They worry about whether they'll need to layer to weather changing conditions for a day they may start off quaffing brews in the square in front of Pickles Pub and end in the afternoon shadows at the ballpark, or whether it will be warm enough for shorts and t-shirts, perhaps a light jacket to ward off a cool, March breeze.

McFadyen is more concerned about one thing: green, the hue the lush Kentucky bluegrass is supposed to take for the big unveiling of another major league season in Charm City.

If only it were that easy.

Considering how the weather gods have conspired against her in the days preceding the opener, the field at Camden Yards looks pretty damn good.

That St. Patrick's Day snowstorm that dumped six inches of wet snow on Baltimore didn't do too much to get in the way of the last two major offseason projects at the ballpark. Aeration got under way as scheduled on March 14, and the infield was laser-graded that same afternoon; the laser process was supposed to be performed the previous day, but the contractor was working on the Triple-A Lehigh Valley IronPigs' field and snow in Allentown, Pa., delaying the completion of that work.

"(Aeration) allows oxygen to get into the soil, therefore roots can take that oxygen and exchange it," she explains. "It's like you being under water - you can only stay down for so long before coming up for air. The grass needs oxygen to start the production of the whole food process and get ready for generation."

The grass also needs abundant sunlight, warmer temperatures and light winds - all conditions that have been in short supply in the week leading up to the opener.

"Last winter, people asked me how the warm winter would affect the turf," she recalls. "Now I'm curious about what the cold, cold winter will do. It's the cold soil temperature. We've had 20s almost every night starting in December, and that's a long time. That's rare here."

A week before the day she's had circled on her calendar for months, the field temperature - the reading two inches above those blades straining for warmth and nourishment - was 12 degrees. McFadyen says she needs ground temperatures of 55 degrees for growth to occur as it should, and so far, she's still waiting for those perfect conditions to materialize.

Actually, she's been waiting for a while. Though there have been breaks in the chill, they haven't been substantial enough. This winter's rolling forecasts of polar vortex cold and wind, followed by snow and ice, followed by chilly and wet conditions, haven't created the ideal environment. In other words, it hasn't been a typical Baltimore winter and she's playing catch-up.

"I can try to keep cutting all that dormant grass off to expose the new green," McFadyen says. "It's starting the process to grow. There's a lot of lush green out there. But there's these brown tips on it. ... You can cut that off and expose the green, but you risk that turning brown, too. So I have to be really careful."

The mowers were out early this week, and helped some.

"If we had to play today, we could 100 percent play," she said Tuesday morning. "The only thing that is a thorn in my side right now is that the grass is not actively growing. It feels like dormant grass. It's just too cold."

What McFadyen needs are a couple of days of sunshine. Now that we're into Daylight Savings Time, the days are longer and the angle of the sun as it hits the field can do wonders to revive dormant blades. Warmer temperatures would be best, but she'll settle for sun over sun and warmth.

The rays peeked out late Wednesday afternoon, and reappeared Thursday, offsetting the negatives that came with Tuesday's snow (this marks the second consecutive year of measurable snow on March 25, but McFadyen was on maternity leave this time last year, awaiting the birth of her son). But the short-range forecast calls for rain to move into the mid-Atlantic on Friday and stay through Saturday, with temperatures rising into the 50s by the weekend. Come Sunday, she's got to have the field ready for the Orioles and Red Sox to work out before Monday's game.

"Agronomically, we're doing everything we're supposed to do," she says. "But Mother Nature needs to really come out and we need full sun. ... Everything's in full sun for the majority of the day. So I need full sun and slightly warmer night temperatures. I need it to be 36 to 40 (degrees) at night, not 20. That's the only thing that's nagging me right now, not having the grass as green as I'd like it."

There is one fallback option that she'd rather not explore: masking the field with an organic green pigment that will make it appear greener than it really is.

"I'm between the rock and a hard place," she admits. "I have the tools available to do it, but I think it's a pride thing."

But even that process can't be undertaken until winds die down. Those breezes might also get in the way of scheduled application of micronutrients to the field.

Pesky thing, that weather.

The cold, snow and ice allowed the grounds crew to focus its attentions on "inside work" in February and early March, and everything was completed on schedule. When the weather broke - well, "broke" may not be the right choice of words - McFadyen and her grounds crew were able to get outside and train their efforts there.

The infield has been tarped to protect the laser grading, though the grounds crew has been spending some time, when conditions allow, raking and tweaking the infield. Patriotic bunting has been hung along the façade of the front row of the field boxes and Maryland Stadium Authority personnel are doing some last-minute work - installing advertising banners on the outfield walls, wrapping flagpoles on the flag court in protective padding, cleaning Eutaw Street, power washing seats and walkways in the seating bowl - to prep the stadium for another opening day sellout crowd.

On Thursday afternoon, perhaps in an effort to counteract predicted rain Friday and Saturday, McFadyen and the grounds crew began plotting out the colorful Major League Baseball opening day logo behind home plate. She'll wait as long as possible for the final colors to be placed on the logo, just so it'll look as vibrant as possible for Monday's pregame ceremonies.

McFadyen is keeping one eye on her to-do list and another on the weather conditions - the ones she can see and feel, not the ones that pop up on Weather Bug on smart phones or The Weather Channel on the in-house television system at Camden Yards. Whatever Mother Nature brings, come 2:30 p.m. Monday, McFadyen will take a break from obsessing over the greenness of the grass to trot out to the first base line during pregame introductions of key Orioles staff.

It'll be a chance for the fans at Camden Yards to show their appreciation to someone who spends virtually every waking moment thinking about how to make the field at her workplace look as beautiful as it can - not just on opening day, but every day of the baseball season.

"I'm expected to have it perfect, and right now, it's not ideal," McFadyen says, nodding to the patch of outfield outside her office window. "I'm not a perfectionist, by any means, but I try to get as close to it as possible."

Then, with a smile, she asks: "Full sun, light winds, a little warmer night temperatures. I'm not asking for much, right?"

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