BALTIMORE — There are days when Nicole Sherry finds herself thinking, ever so briefly, about a different life path.
Maybe it happens when temperatures reach 100 degrees in Baltimore, and Sherry is in the middle of an extra-long work week. Hot and muggy conditions can lead one's mind to wander, if just for a moment, about being any place else in the world.
Sherry's mind takes her to Maui, where she sees an image of herself cutting grass overlooking the Pacific Ocean, being responsible for a well-manicured golf course.
Those moments are fleeting, however, for Sherry seems quite content with her current gig as head groundskeeper for the Orioles — one of 30 such jobs in Major League Baseball, and she's just the second female in MLB history to hold one.
In fact, the 39-year-old Eldersburg resident said before a recent home game at Camden Yards: "This is my dream job."
An intro to grass
Growing up in New Castle, Delaware, gave Sherry the chance to see people working and living off the land, so it seemed only natural she'd one day become intrigued by agriculture. When a woman from the University of Delaware came to her high school on a Career Day and talked to her class about a new type of Styrofoam that was biodegradable, Sherry said she was hooked.
"I always had a fascination with plants, but I always wanted to have an impact on the environment as well," she said. "That kind of sparked my interest in looking into ag and seeing what was offered in classes, what kind of careers there might be."
Sherry attended Delaware Technical Community College for two years, then went to the University of Delaware to complete a bachelor's degree in general agriculture. Along the way she took her first turf management class, and Sherry said she learned to appreciate the science behind grass and its life cycle. That led to classes for landscape design and irrigation, Sherry said.
Her irrigation class took a field trip one day across state lines, from Delaware to Baltimore so the students could see Camden Yards' state-of-the-art water system. When the tour was finished, Sherry said she asked for a business card from Paul Zwaska, the Orioles' head groundskeeper at the time.
About two years later, while Sherry was working at a golf course in Ocean View, Delaware, she came home to see her father watching a Phillies-Braves game on TV. Growing up near Philadelphia meant Philly sports in her house, and Sherry said she had never seen grass on a baseball diamond until she walked into Camden Yards. She saw it again in Atlanta, and was "blown away."
"I was looking at the game with him and I understood what it took to make that field look the way it did," Sherry said. "I was like, 'Oh, I have the head groundskeeper of the Orioles' business card.' Called him up. A new person took over at that time and I said, 'I met with Paul Zwaska a while ago for a field trip. I'm working at a golf course now, I want to see the baseball side of it. Do you have an internships available?'
"And he said, 'Can you be here in two weeks?'"
Starting a baseball career
Sherry left the golf course and became an Orioles intern in July of 2001 (her highlight, she said, was being there for Cal Ripken's final games with the team before retiring at the end of that season). She found a place to live thanks to one of her brothers, who attended UMBC, and survived making 120-mile round trips to finish her college course load while working on the grounds crew at Camden Yards.
Sherry stayed with the Orioles as an assistant for a few more years, but her drive to become a head groundskeeper was growing. Sherry knew in order to have any chance for a big league job, she'd have to prove herself in the minors.
She reached out to teams across the country and got an offer from the Trenton Thunder, a Double-A affiliate of the Yankees. The ballpark reminded her of a "mini-Camden Yards" with its bluegrass surface, and in 2004 Sherry became the first female head groundskeeper in Eastern League history.
"I figured that would be a great career path," Sherry said. "Maybe in the future I could be with the Yankees or somewhere else in Major League Baseball."
Sherry twice finished runner-up as the league's top groundskeeper. As for her grounds crew, well...
"It was just me. You don't have a staff," Sherry said. "When I got there the field was OK, it needed some ... TLC. It needed some attention to detail. And I think that I did a great job of turning it around. It was hard."
Sherry said she started the job in February, 2004 — the Thunder's first game was set for April 6.
"I had less than a month-and-a-half to get everything ready and turned around for the spring," she said. "It makes you realize what you have in the major leagues. ... There were times where I called my dad to come up and help me because I didn't have anybody else."
Sherry said she eventually cobbled together a small grounds crew and worked in Trenton for three seasons. But the daily grind of the minor leagues wore on her — she can still recall the smell of the oil-based paint needed to re-coat all of the stadium's railings in Trenton — and Sherry said she considered getting back into golf course management.
"My chances of getting [to] the major leagues were, like, a 1-percent chance," she said. "I had to be realistic."
Sherry found a website with golf course job postings and spotted that job in Maui. She applied, and the superintendent of the Hawaii course hailed from Princeton, N.J., not too far from Trenton. He was making a trip home for a family function and set up an interview with Sherry. A week later, a second interview took place.
Sherry said the superintendent from Hawaii offered her the job.
The next day, she said, the Orioles called — they had been following her minor-league career, she said, and wanted to interview her for their opening for head groundskeeper.
Sherry made the trip to Baltimore for a pair of interviews. Now she faced a crossroad.
"Here I had Maui in one hand, the Orioles and a dream job [in the other]," Sherry said. "Cutting grass at the Pacific Ocean, paradise. And then I had the Trenton Thunder, which I was very content with. I had nothing to lose."
The majors were calling, and Sherry answered — she became the Orioles' head groundskeeper in November 2006.
A long day's work
A normal day for Sherry has her arriving at the ballpark before 9:30 a.m., when she meets her grounds crew members and begins tending to the field. An opposing team's players usually come out for early work around 2 p.m., which means Sherry and her crew have batting practice cages and equipment set up by 1:30.
The Orioles' early work usually starts by 3:30 their normal BP session at 4:30. The visiting team takes its cuts after that, and when they're finished Sherry & Co. are back on the field so it can be "dressed" in time for the first pitch.
Dressing includes everything from dragging the dirt along the warning track and in the infield — Sherry hops on a red Toro tractor while crew members work on baselines and position spots on the field — to watering the grass and creating the batter's boxes and foul lines.
During the game, Sherry watches the action from her office, which is on ground level behind the wall in right field. She can see the field through a window, but Sherry said she focuses on the office TV so she can better track the plays and make sure the field is holding up.
Then there's the weather. Sherry said she scans radar on two monitors that sit on her desk, and she's quick to communicate with the umpires in case of a Mother Nature emergency. And don't forget her 20-man tarp crew, which arrives to the ballpark around 5 p.m.
When the game ends, Sherry said she and her crew need up to 90 minutes to make sure the field is in good shape before the next day. Then it's home to Eldersburg, where Sherry lives with her son, Tyson.
But so much for a good night's sleep.
"I try to get in bed by 1:30 in the morning. And then I'm up — I have a 4-year-old, so he's my alarm clock," Sherry said. "I want to sacrifice my sleep to be with him. That's what I do. It takes a while to get adjusted. In February I start training to go to bed late. I'll force myself to stay up until midnight and then increase it."
It's all part of a work ethic that the grounds crew members can emulate. Tom Kirsch has been one of Sherry's assistants for several years, and the Virginia native said it's because of her that the crew works in such unison.
"I started as an intern here with Nicole, so most of what I know now I picked up from her," Kirsch said. "Work ethic, time management stuff, things like that. ... We learned from her."
'You're really humbled'
More than a decade has passed since Sherry took the job, and she can't think of too many times in which she second-guessed her choice. Oh sure, there are the 10-game homestands in the middle of summer, like the one the Orioles are finishing today. When the grounds crew averages a 13- or 14-hour work day, the weeks feel much longer.
Throw in stifling conditions — Sherry said the heat index on the field easily surpasses 100 degrees on many a sticky Baltimore night — and the constant threat of a thunderstorm, and the thought of living in Maui has to seem inviting.
Sherry doesn't let it get to her.
"With the hours that we put in every day and the type of conditions you have to keep a field alive ... yeah, every day I'm thankful and grateful that I have an opportunity to show our fans this place," she said. "You're really humbled."
There are accolades received, such as the Mary Pickersgill Award for Women's Leadership in Business she earned in 2016 from the Star-Spangled Banner Flag House in Baltimore. Then there are honors handed out from inside the game, keepsakes like the photo of Trenton's field hanging in Sherry's office (signed by the Thunder's players and staff from that 2004 season).
Trenton found another way to recognize Sherry before she left by creating a bobblehead, as a promotional giveaway, of Sherry perched on a tractor.
Appreciated, yes. But for Sherry, there's not many accomplishments bigger than looking out onto the field in front of a packed house at Camden Yards.
"I get butterflies," she said. "Every time you walk off of that field and you're getting ready for a game, you know that you've put in 100 percent and it's up to them now to win. You kind of help out. To be able to keep that plant alive and healthy for the athletes that are out there ... I think that's the challenge that keeps me going."
A challenge that keeps her on the job almost every single day of the year, which means a top-notch groundskeeper can barely find the time to keep her own yard maintained.
"It's struggling right now in the heat," Sherry said. "I still cut my own grass. It pains me to think that I would have to hire somebody to help me. I enjoy that. But I don't want to dedicate my life at home to [that], there are more important things.
"So it's not the best, but that's OK," Sherry continued, with Camden Yards' baseball diamond behind her, visible through her office window. "This is my yard."
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