Orioles groundskeeper Nicole Sherry stood on the raked, compact dirt in front of the home dugout at Camden Yards. Her feet were near, but not quite on, the grass. That was on purpose.

For the first time in 23 years, Oriole Park has brand-new turf. And the surface doesn’t need to absorb any unnecessary footprints.

As the Orioles’ home opener against the New York Yankees approached last week, Baltimore’s most famous lawn was literally still putting down new roots. The blades of grass above ground had some growing to do too. “We need more sun, a little bit more warmth,” Sherry said, though overall she was happy with how the field looked, given the circumstances.

In December, every grassy inch of the roughly 120,000 square feet of playing surface was ripped out — and 1,500 tons of sand below it was replaced — in the field’s first major overhaul since 2000. Then fresh-cut sod from a New Jersey farm, a mix of three cutting-edge varieties of Kentucky bluegrass engineered to resist heat, drought, and disease, was laid on the new sand bed.

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Voilà. The idea is that you never notice the difference and simply stare at the pristine green field as accustomed. (And, indeed, you might not see anything different, if not for reading this story.)

A year after the Orioles’ left field wall remodel stirred debate about changing anything substantial in one of baseball and Baltimore’s revered venues, the results of the team’s major construction project this offseason are likely to be seen or discussed by observers. But it is nonetheless significant for the viewing— and player experience.

After close to 2,000 games, batting practices, general foot traffic and two decades of dead-root buildup in the sand below the turf, a field renovation “was needed,” said Sherry, who is starting her 17th season as the O’s head groundskeeper and has worked for the team for 20 years overall. “The playability of the surface is number one, and the better that we’re getting as a team, they deserve the quality surface.”

Plans had been in the works for three years but were delayed because of the pandemic until this November. If you happened to stroll through Camden Yards at any point during the night three weeks this winter you would have seen the trucks hauling material in and out, and the new grass from Tuckahoe Turf Farms in Hammonton, New Jersey, going down in pieces and strips over what looked like a baseball field-shaped sandbox. Workers removed five inches of sand covering the dimensions of the field and five new inches were added back before the field was made whole again on Dec. 19, Sherry said. After that, the grounds crew waited and hoped for the weather to get colder.

This idea might land counterintuitively to amateur lawn growers, but the knowledge gap is precisely what separates neophytes from experts like Sherry, who is one of only two female head groundskeepers in Major League Baseball’s 120-year history and as different from the image portrayed by Bill Murray’s groundskeeper character in “Caddyshack,” for example, as possible. The effusive New Castle, Delaware, native, who now lives in Eldersburg, earned an agriculture degree from Delaware Tech in 2000. She became the Orioles’ assistant head groundskeeper for three seasons then worked for three years for the Trenton (N.J.) Thunder in the minor leagues before taking over the head job with the Orioles in November 2006, and she’s kind enough to educate even the most inexperienced gardener.

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It turns out, sustained cold and freezing temperatures may be uncomfortable for humans and nature alike (at least on the surface), but frigid conditions are essential for connecting a fresh layer of sod with the layer of sand below it. In particular, Kentucky bluegrass is a “cool season grass,” Sherry said. It does well in the spring and fall and can hold up through intense heat of the Baltimore summer, too, with the correct care. Amid this renovation, though, for roots to grow the preferred 8 to 10 inches deep to be able to “withstand the athletes that play on the field,” Sherry said, the grass needed to go dormant. And it only does that when in survival mode when temperatures get too cold.

A view of Oriole Park at Camden Yards’ playing field, which received brand-new turf for the first time in 23 years, is seen during a media preview on Wednesday, March 29. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“We did need it to get a little bit colder to make that grass go into dormancy so it could push a good root system,” Sherry said. “It finally did in the middle of January. We’re right where we need to be.”

Here’s some more horticulture nerdiness. Each year other roots also die as part of the “normal life cycle,” Sherry said, “which builds up organic matter,” below the surface. That impedes drainage, kind of like bits of food getting caught in a kitchen sink drain strainer. The field renovation replaced nearly half of the 12 inches of sand that has laid below the turf. “Having brand new sand with no organic matter, it’s like pouring water on a beach right now,” Sherry said.

A “percolation” test two weeks ago showed the new turf-and-sand combination could drain 44 inches of water within an hour, up from the 16 inches of water per hour before the renovation. That could make for shorter rain delays, though those mostly hinge on the texture of the compact infield dirt, which doesn’t drain nearly as well as grass. That’s why, when a game is postponed for rain, the O’s 30-person grounds crew pulls a 170-foot, 2,000-pound tarp over the field as fast as possible. (In advance of the home opener — which was postponed due to forecasted rain on Thursday — they’ve had two tarp-pulling practices.)

Since the infield gets the most traffic and every player touches it at some point, Sherry said her crew works mostly there. This offseason, they had a big project there too. Because of the larger, 18-square-foot bases implemented by Major League Baseball to encourage baserunning and limit injuries, the anchors beneath them needed to be moved slightly and new concrete footings poured to align the bases properly. “It was a little bit of work,” Sherry said.

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Once the games get going, Sherry and her crew will have close eyes on the grass between the bases and all over the field. For instance, on a morning last week when local news media were led on a tour of Oriole Park’s new offerings for ticket-holders—like revamped concessions including a crab dip pretzel bowl; a reimagined team store; the SuperBook Sports Bar replacing Dempsey’s on Eutaw Street; and a family-friendly picnic area on the club level — two members of the O’s grounds crew carefully inspected and carefully tended to the seams between rows of sod in right field.

A view of Oriole Park at Camden Yards’ playing field, which received brand-new turf for the first time in 23 years, is seen during a media preview on Wednesday, March 29. (Ulysses Muñoz/The Baltimore Banner)

“It’s going to be really needy,” Sherry said. “It’s a brand new root zone, brand new turf. It’s going to need everything that we have to get it to be stable and healthy throughout the whole season.”

But she’s not worried at all about its appearance to fans and other visitors, or its performance for players. “We have it under control, and it’s going to be great,” Sherry said. “This isn’t even half of what it’s going look like as we get longer into the spring.” Nature just needs to run its course, and deliver more sun and warmer temperatures, hopefully sooner than later.

The tomatoes might come back

One other note from the O’s turf management department: The bullpen tomato plants that appeared near the pitcher’s entrance in left-centerfield might make a comeback this summer, Sherry said.

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Last season, for the 30th-anniversary celebration of Camden Yards, Sherry decided to honor former O’s head groundskeeper Pat Santarone and Orioles manager Earl Weaver, who used to have an annual competition at Memorial Stadium in the 1970s and through Weaver’s final season as manager in 1982 to see who could grow the best beefsteak and heirloom tomatoes.

“I’d like to do it, but it is kind of a challenge. The yield on them last year …” Sherry said, her voice trailing off indicating disappointment. “I learned the hotter and sandier the soil, the better, so maybe.” If anything, look for tomato plants near the entrance to the O’s bullpen in June or late May at the earliest.

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