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Tuesday, May 22, 2012
Heather Nabozny, Nicole Sherry lead MLB crews

By Amanda Rykoff

Like the players who patrol the beautifully manicured grass and perfectly groomed infields at the major league ballparks they maintain, Heather Nabozny and Nicole Sherry paid their dues in the minors, eventually getting the call to the big leagues.

Nabozny and Sherry, the only two female head groundskeepers in major league baseball, tend to the pristine Kentucky bluegrass of Detroit's Comerica Park and Baltimore's Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Both women started their journey to the big leagues as teenagers, when they discovered their passion for working with plants and grass.

Nabozny grew up a Tigers fan in Brighton, Mich., and attended games at Tiger Stadium as a young girl with her father, who ran a lawn care company. She showed an early affinity for working outdoors with grass and dirt doing jobs with her father during the summer. Nabozny eventually enrolled in the turf-management program at Michigan State, where she discovered she could make a career out of doing what she loved.

"I don't think it is for everybody," Nabozny said. "Just like I would never be a hairstylist, everybody has their different things they like to do, and I like to work outside.

"All the other sports deal with just turf and most of my work is done on the clay. That is where 80 percent of the game is played, on the infield area, around home plate and the outfield. You only have three outfielders out there and they do not tear things up too much. So a lot of it is taking care of the dirt. There is a little bit of science in it but there is also a little bit of art. It keeps it interesting."

Nabozny joined the Tigers in 1999, Detroit's final season at Tiger Stadium, becoming the first female head groundskeeper in the majors after working as the head groundskeeper for the West Michigan Whitecaps, the Tigers' Class A affiliate.

Scott Lane, the Whitecaps' president, said Nabozny's work at the minor league level caught the eye of the Tigers' major league staff.

"Randy Smith was general manager at the time for the Tigers. Steve Lubratich [now the Indians' director of player personnel] was their director of player development, so he was kind of a head guy at the minor leagues," Lane said. "They are up in the owner's suite level, and they are sitting there talking. Randy looks at Steve and says, 'Why doesn't our field at Tiger Stadium look this good?' And he said, 'I don't know. Maybe it's the groundskeeper.' Shortly thereafter, they offered her the position."

Internship yields job

At around the same time as Nabozny broke through as the major league's first female head groundskeeper, Sherry was studying agriculture at Delaware. She had demonstrated an interest in agriculture and plant science in high school and admired the patterns in the grass when watching Phillies' road games on television with her father -- the Phillies then played at The Vet, which had AstroTurf. Through a serendipitous turn of events, she landed an internship with the Orioles.

"Our irrigation class at Delaware took a field trip to Camden Yards to look at their irrigation system," Sherry said. "[Two years later] I still had the head groundskeeper's business card. So I just called him up and said, 'I am interested in pursuing something like this. Do you have any jobs open?' And they did, so I made the move to Baltimore right then and there."

After the internship, Sherry joined the Orioles full time as an assistant groundskeeper in 2002. She left Baltimore in 2004 to become the head groundskeeper for the Trenton Thunder, the Yankees' Double-A affiliate.

"A lot of people said, 'You're crazy. Why are you leaving a major league job to go to a minor league job?'" Sherry said. "It was to see if this is really a career path that I personally wanted to take. ... I really wanted to see if I could take what I learned here at Camden Yards, take it to Trenton, which was a great opportunity. I wanted to see if that was something that I could do on my own, to see if I could get back to the major leagues and provide a good playing field for the Orioles."

During her two years in Trenton, Sherry transformed the Thunder's field from one of the worst to one of the best in the Eastern League and became a fan favorite along the way.

Brad Taylor, currently the president of the Bowling Green Hot Rods (the Class A affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays), was the assistant general manager for the Thunder at the time.

"We had a better looking stage than anybody else. And that was because of Nicole's hard work," Taylor said. "I've never been anywhere where a groundskeeper had celebrity status like Nicole. She was engaging with fans, she would take time to talk to them before the game, along with seats in the front row, season-ticket holders got to know her. She would mix and mingle with people when she had a break. I think people certainly related to her and her work ethic."

Sherry's popularity in Trenton reached such unprecedented levels, the team wanted a creative way to honor her for being, not only the first female head groundskeeper in the Eastern League, but also a fan favorite. They created a Nicole Sherry bobblehead doll. Fans lined up for hours before a game to get the figurine of the groundskeeper on a tractor.

"That was such an awkward day," Sherry said. "It was flattering, but to have a little miniature statue of yourself is a little weird, in my opinion. But it was cool, and it was a great idea."

Just a few months after being honored with her own bobblehead, Sherry left the Thunder to rejoin the Orioles as their head groundskeeper for the 2007 season.

Nabozny also became a fan favorite while with the Whitecaps, where she is one of only a few non-players to be enshrined in the team's Hall of Fame. Over the past 12 seasons, she's been a role model for the Tigers. She became the first female head groundskeeper for an All-Star Game (2005) and the World Series (2006).

"We have ballplayers that have played for the Whitecaps and have gone on to the major leagues," Lane said. "There is a sense of pride. Well, the same thing holds true for Heather. The fact that she is the Tigers' groundskeeper, our fans go to Tigers games and they will look up the ballplayers, but just as important, they will always reach out to Heather and wave when she is on the field. She is a true big leaguer."

Lots of work

Nabozny and Sherry put in long days, fighting the wear and tear of baseball games and Mother Nature. Weather is the common enemy of the baseball groundskeeper, no matter the field or the conditions. Tracking storm activity in the area is as much a part of the job as mowing the grass and packing the infield dirt.

"I only had one meteorology class in school," Sherry said. "But I feel like I could be a meteorologist in my next career.

"It is very challenging, it is very exhausting. It is very stressful, because in the end, Mother Nature always wins. So trying to stay a little bit ahead of her is really challenging."

On a typical game day, both women arrive at the ballpark by 9 a.m. Nabozny, Sherry and their respective crews cut the grass, work on the infield skin, undertake mound and home plate maintenance, make sure the dirt is ready and watered sufficiently, maintain the warning track, dugouts and bullpen area and put down the lines. It takes a lot of work to make the field look great and play perfectly. And a road trip doesn't mean it's time for a mini-vacation.

"We do a lot of our heavy maintenance -- resodding any areas that are worn out, or position areas that may have a little bit of wear and tear on them, fertilizing, chemical applications -- when the team is away," Sherry said.

The groundskeepers might make a few adjustments to the field which impact game strategy (raising the height of the infield grass to slow the ball or adding more water to the infield to slow speedy players on the opposing team). Occasionally, a player will make a special request.

"Everybody is different, but Brandon Inge used to give me feedback all the time," Nabozny said of the former Tigers third baseman, who is now with Oakland. "I can see how the ball is playing but he just liked it really soft, which meant a lot of water. I'd have to tell him sometimes 'Brandon, I cannot water it too much because then someone running around third base can slip!'"

Off the field, Nabozny enjoys taking her Harley-Davidson out for long rides and spending time with her two dogs, Dottie and Sampson. Dottie, a bullmastiff, accompanies Nabozny to the ballpark, where she's right at home. It's not a surprise since her show name is Queen of Diamonds and her house name comes from Dottie Hinson in "A League of Their Own."

Sherry has a wacky sense of humor and enjoys playing "Guitar Hero" and catching up on funny movies in her precious spare time. There's one thing Sherry does not do in her free time -- maintain a lawn at her home in downtown Baltimore.

"I live in the city. I would love to one day have a yard to take care of," Sherry said. "But we spend more than 100 hours a week working on this one, so the last thing I want to do when I get home is take care of any grass."