Welcome to Off the Roster, a series profiling people who don’t play pro ball, but who are inexorably connected to the sport, either personally or professionally.
First up is Baltimore Orioles Head Groundskeeper Nicole Sherry, who has been in the job since 2007. She is the second female head groundskeeper in MLB history.
I caught up with Nicole to talk about her career, science, and what it’s like to have 48,000 people watching you do your job.
How did you get into groundskeeping? When did you decide it was what you wanted to do?
Well, I played softball in college, but before that, when I went into school, I wanted to study plant science—so agriculture. We took a field trip to Camden Yards for one of my irrigation classes, and I got the gentleman’s business card who took care of the field. Then, later, I just called him back. When I was in the golf side of the industry, I didn’t like that because it was so early in the morning. It was beautiful scenery, but I didn’t like being up that early, and I love baseball and sports. I figured out that you can study grass in sports, like baseball, and that kind of thing. That’s what drew me to contact him, and then I eventually did an internship and worked my way up to an assistant, then a minor league head groundskeeper, and then back to the big leagues as head groundskeeper here with the Orioles.
And you’re the second woman to do it…
Yes! So far, hopefully…
Do you find that there are more girls and women getting into groundskeeping?
I think it’s better exposure now than when I was coming up, because I had no idea that Heather Nabozny, the lady that takes care of the Detroit Tigers field, was the head groundskeeper for that field. I think now with me doing a little more press, [getting] a little bit more exposure, it’s getting people more interested. There are a lot of women superintendents in golf courses and a lot of women in plant science research, so more on the science side there are a ton of women.
What are some things that people might misunderstand about your job or surprise people about what you do?
The thing that surprises everybody is that it’s not just about mowing grass and raking dirt. There’s a lot of science involved, all the way from meteorology, watching the weather constantly, to entomology, studying insects and how they can be destructive or beneficial. [There are] a lot of turf diseases that you have to be kept up on [so you] know [how] to protect your field or your facility. So, [there are] a lot of sciences involved in just taking care of the field itself.
What is a major challenge you’ve faced in your career?
Well, the weather and the diseases, because a lot of the diseases that we are susceptible to can annihilate the field within a few days…[so] making sure that you’re ahead of that and protecting the field as much as possible. Not having that PhD degree, you have to rely on a lot of agronomists and a lot of scientists in my industry to make sure [you’re] getting the right kind of nutrients and the right fungicides and protection out there.
What happens during a road trip or in the off-season?
A lot of our physical labour, getting the field repaired [and] sprayed with any protection, fungicides or fertilizer application happens when the team is away, when nobody is in the ballpark. A lot of agronomic activities like aeration, making sure there’s oxygen in the soil, re-sodding any bad areas. During the game, like, getting ready for the game, is just kind of routine maintenance.
There’s kind of a performative aspect to the job, with groundskeepers being watched by the ‘audience’. How do you and your team feel about that?
Well, opening day is the most intimidating because, you know, the 48,000 fans are watching what’s going on on the field but, honestly, it becomes second nature. I don’t even feel like there’s a whole seating bowl back there of people watching what we’re doing, so we always try to tell the crew, “They don’t know what we’re doing, so even if you mess up they probably still think it’s part of the routine, so just go out there and try to do the best that you can.”
And there’s a lot of last-minute response to things, I’m sure…
In the hectic situations, we try to look as professional as possible and put together, even though the whispers we have between us are like, “Oh my gosh, we’re messing up!” So it’s fun.
What has been a career highlight for you?
The biggest highlight was watching Cal Ripken’s last game and being part of that, and the ceremony that took place after the game. Another one was the legends, I was just thinking about this the other day, being able to see all five legends honoured at our ballpark: Brooks Robinson, Eddie Murray, Frank Robinson, who unfortunately just passed, Jim Palmer and Earl Weaver. Having all those greats, watching them give their testimony to being an Oriole, was a big part of my career.
There are only 30 teams, so I imagine people in your role don’t swap jobs much. Is there a particular career goal you have or something you’re really excited about doing next?
So, honestly, I’ve reached the glass ceiling in my career, because, where are you going to go from Major League Baseball? My hope is, in the future, to maybe be a part of more STEM activities, like educating children. You can do a lot of different things in science than just laboratory work, which is important, but there are other fun jobs you can do that can get you active and [that are] a part of the sport culture. Educating kids on more science-related industries that they might not be exposed to. That’s what I’d like to get into.
You’ve worked with Discovery too…
I did! I go into classrooms and teach kids about grass and how cool it is, and what you can do in sports.
I think if I had you come into my class I would have paid more attention in science.
Yeah, I mean, really, if you knew you could do these things in science, wouldn’t you maybe have taken a different avenue and been more interested in that?
Do you have a garden at home? If so, does it feel like work to you or is it something you still enjoy doing?
I really like it. I have a yard, so I try to maintain it as best as I can. It’s not the best yard on the block, so a lot of people will give me a lot of grief about that, but my favourite thing is to plant flowers and plants and just [be] around the insects and butterflies and things like that. It’s really therapeutic to get out there and plant your own garden. So, vegetable garden, no, because I’m not good at that, but flowers and plants, yes.
We’ve got the London Series coming up. What do you think the London Series team is thinking about as they’re bringing a series to a whole new stadium and having to revamp a football pitch for baseball?
Right, I’m sure it’s been probably a huge undertaking getting that pitch transformed with dirt and clay and everything. I think it’s important for MLB to grow the game in different countries and [to get] more exposure for the game of baseball because a lot of people don’t really follow baseball in the UK, but I think it’s fun, and I think the grounds crew there is ready to go and get that field ready for play. I think the teams are probably excited to be in front of a new crowd, and to show their talents off.
Do you think your experience playing softball growing up helps you in your job?
Absolutely, yeah, because 90 percent of the game is played on the dirt surfaces, not so much [on] the grass, so understanding ball roll and how a player or an infielder fields a hop is very important in the game. Having that kind of a background, even if I wasn’t on the professional level, is definitely conducive to what I have to do every day.
Is there anything else you’re looking forward to for this season?
I’m looking forward to watching our team. I’m looking forward to watching these kids grow and make a name for themselves because right now they’re unknowns, except for a few players on our team. It’s fun to watch them, they have the heart and the hustle. Watching these guys is going to be fun.
If you’re interested in learning more about Nicole and her day-to-day work, check out this great short documentary.
This interview has been edited for clarity.