WASHINGTON — If you’ve been to Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the Battle of the Beltways — or, for that matter, any other Orioles games recently — you may have noticed something unusual.
Show up early enough, and you’ll see the grounds crew tending to one of the most well-conditioned surfaces in baseball, led by their head groundskeeper. But as one of just two female heads groundskeepers in Major League Baseball — Detroit’s Heather Nabozny was the first — Nicole McFadyen is toeing a road less traveled.
In a sport where front offices have traditionally been dominated by men, there has been a slow but steady rise in the percentage of female employees: A full 30 percent of the combined, listed front office employees of the Baltimore Orioles (55 of 158) and Washington Nationals (83 of 302) is now female.
That integration has not filtered down to the field in the same numbers yet.
“To me, it’s not a big deal,” McFadyen says of her rare stature. “If women and young girls see that and realize it’s something they can do, that’s great. But it’s more important to know that we study turfgrass science in school. Ninety percent of my crew has a turfgrass science degree.”
Perhaps our entire view of groundskeepers is antiquated. Such a degree is almost essential for anyone who wants to work as a Major League groundskeeper today, and is offered at major schools such as Clemson, North Carolina State, Penn State and Texas A&M.
McFadyen’s duties extend beyond managing the playing surface, to trying to predict storms like a meteorologist, and keeping her crew safe when extreme weather — such as the 2012 derecho — arrives.
“The derecho came through a couple of seasons ago, just as we were finishing up with our fireworks postgame cleanup,” she recounts. “That’s something I never want to see face-to-face again.”
McFadyen earned her degree from the University of Delaware and scored an internship with the Orioles in 2001. She went on to work for a golf course — a common landing place in her field — for a few years before getting back into baseball as head groundskeeper for the Trenton Thunder, the Double-A affiliate of the New York Yankees in Trenton, New Jersey.
Rick Brenner, the general manager in Trenton at the time who now holds the same position for the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, has the highest praise for McFadyen, and is not at all surprised at her success.
“Nicole is one of the best in the business,” says Brenner. “She’s a consummate professional that is in love with her craft. She’s a superstar.”
Thanks to her success in Trenton, McFadyen was hired back on by the Orioles in 2006 and ascended to her current role in 2007. While she’s paid her dues to get where she is, she never considered her current position beyond her reach.
“I didn’t expect to get a job in the major leagues — didn’t go to school for it,” she explains. “But I was young; I was in school. I didn’t think of anything as being unrealistic.”
Her current crew of 26 includes three other women — one full-time employee and a pair of part-timers. While she doesn’t see herself as a pioneer, she understands the value of her position as someone others can aspire to.
“Being a female out there gets everybody used to seeing that women can do anything,” she says. “I’m not sure why it’s taken to 2014 to get there.”
It may be shocking to realize that Oriole Park, which opened in 1992, is the 10th -oldest venue in the Major Leagues. Better than two-thirds of the big leagues sports newer ballparks, yet Camden Yards looks nearly new. There’s only so much that can be done to maintain the look of the structure itself, but a lush, green field goes a long way to help the cause.
Athlon Sports recently rated Camden the sixth-best ballpark in the major leagues. While that ranking includes many factors, aesthetics are a leading component.
“What you see looks perfect; what I see doesn’t,” says McFayden when complimented on her work. “It’s hard work, a lot of dedication driving your crew to do the best they can on any given day. I love my job, and I learn something new on the job. At the end of the day, I’m just proud that the Orioles got to play on a great surface.”
Her hard work may just open up doors for the next wave of determined young women, who now have living proof that there’s a place for them in the big leagues as well.