Heather Nabozny remembers fondly, and anxiously, when Major League Baseball’s Detroit Tigers called. The Tigers wanted to know if Nabozny, the head groundskeeper for the West Michigan Whitecaps, a minor league team in the Tigers’ system, was available.
“My general manager pulled me in his office and said, ‘Heather, the Tigers are looking for a new groundskeeper,’ ” Nabozny says. “I told him, ‘Well, I don’t know anybody.’ He said, ‘Heather, they want to talk to you!’ I said, ‘Oh, really?’ I think I turned three shades of white.”
Nabozny, 28 at the time, had been head groundskeeper for the Whitecaps for 5.5 years. The Tigers, one of the American League’s eight charter franchises, needed a new head groundskeeper and had its people visit the Whitecaps’ facility in Comstock Park, Mich., to study the field. They liked what they saw and wanted to interview Nabozny for the job.
Nabozny was shocked that the Tigers were interested in her.
“I’m sure that being a woman was part of the reason for that,” she admits.
This month, Nabozny begins her 14th season as head groundskeeper of Comerica Park in downtown Detroit. She became MLB’s first female head groundskeeper after accepting the post in 1999.
Men dominate the sports field industry. The Sports Turf Managers Association (STMA) estimates that only about 3 percent of its 2,600 members are women. In that realm, and considering that there are only 30 head groundskeeper jobs in major league baseball, Nabozny’s feat could be considered a professional breakthrough for women. However, she says, “I don’t really think of it as breaking down a big barrier. I just think of it as my job.”
In 2007, Nabozny received company in her ranks when Nicole McFadyen was appointed head groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles. McFadyen says it was an honor to get the job, but says, “I would love to be considered the head groundskeeper and not have the female thing behind it, but it’s something that I’m definitely proud of.”
So, why is sports field management regarded as a gig strictly for guys? Kim Heck, CEO of the STMA, says men have populated the profession over the years because of their love of sports.
“More females are now in sports, but I don’t know that the industry had been doing a very good job of reaching out and actively bringing them into the industry,” Heck says. “I think we’re doing a much better job of that now.”
Since the job includes physical labor, people stereotypically think that men should hold the position. Nabozny and McFadyen admit that it’s a shock for some people to see them at work. People expect to see men, even though most people don’t know what a head groundskeeper actually does.
Heather Nabozny was the first female head groundskeeper in the history of Major League Baseball.
“We are technically behind the scenes,” McFadyen says. “The average person doesn’t pay much attention to what we do.”
The media did, however, when the Tigers hired Nabozny.
“At one point, our media relations person said there were more requests for interviews with me than with the players. It was nonstop,” she says.
However, Nabozny was more concerned with getting her job done. “I felt like I was under a microscope because there was so much media attention,” she recalls. “That first year was tough.”
If people are inspired by her story, that’s cool with her, Nabozny says, especially in a world rich with bad news. “It makes me happy that I can be some inspiration for women that want to go into this field,” she adds.
The 35-year-old McFadyen admits that she gets tired of being known as a woman in a man’s field. “It’s a little embarrassing to hear it all the time,” she says. “Why do I have to be a woman head groundskeeper? Why can’t I just be a groundskeeper?”
McFadyen understands why people want to make something out of it.
“It’s 2013, and there are only two women [in MLB] who have had this title,” she says. “To some extent, it’s great. But to really pound it into the ground is wrong.”
Called up from the minors
Nabozny grew up in Milford, Mich., just northwest of Detroit. Her father started his own lawn care company as a side business while working for Ford Motor Co.
Nicole McFadyen says she would love just to be considered the head groundskeeper and “not have the female thing behind it.” That said, she’s proud of her accomplishment.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BALTIMORE ORIOLES.
Nabozny started working for him in 1988, which sparked her interest in turfgrass management. However, after graduating from high school, Nabozny went to college to study social work. She didn’t really know what she wanted to do for a living until she heard about Michigan State University’s turfgrass program.
“Bing! – a lightbulb went off in my head,” Nabozny says.
She transferred to MSU and graduated with a degree in turfgrass management.
“If I hadn’t worked for my dad, I’m sure I never would’ve thought about doing what I’m doing,” Nabozny adds.
McFadyen grew up in New Castle, Del., about an hour from Baltimore. She was introduced to Oriole Park at Camden Yards while a student at Delaware Technical Community College. Her class toured the field to get a close-up look at Camden Yards’ irrigation system.
Later, McFadyen interned at Camden Yards. When her internship ended, she went back to school at the University of Delaware, where she had transferred to earn a degree in agriculture. While there, she received a call from the Orioles about interviewing for the assistant groundskeeper job at Camden Yards. She got the job and worked there while finishing her degree.
In 2004, McFadyen took the head groundskeeper job for the Trenton Thunder, a New York Yankees minor league affiliate in Trenton, N.J. Then in 2006, the Orioles called and asked her to interview for the head groundskeeper job at Camden Yards.
McFadyen interviewed three times before getting the job. As a minority, she admits she wondered if she was just being interviewed because of that as a matter of formality. Although she felt intimidated, McFadyen also wanted to prove she was the right person for the job.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I wasn’t worried about how I was going to be received,” says McFadyen, who was 26 when she got the position. “But if you tell me that I can’t do something, then I will show you that I can do it. That’s the way I was raised.”
Both Nabozny and McFadyen were more worried about being perceived as too young to do the job than being women.
“I just got my start in 2001, then in 2007 I was the head groundskeeper for an MLB team,” McFadyen says. “There are a lot of people who put in a lot of time before they get offered a head groundskeeper position like this.”
Nabozny says, “[As a head groundskeeper], you usually go up to Double A or Triple A first, and then to the major leagues.”
The demanding position means working many hours, but Nabozny and McFadyen knew what they were getting into. MLB head groundskeepers could live at their respective stadiums during the season. In fact, some sleep in their offices on occasion.
“We work 14 to 16-hour days, which is what we signed up for,” says McFadyen. “If you have a 10-game home stand, you’d better be ready to work 140 hours and not complain about it. Of course, everybody is tired, that’s a given.”
Despite being in charge, the two women enjoy getting their hands dirty.
Nabozny consults with an umpire on the weather. A Major League Baseball head groundskeeper does more than just oversee the field.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF THE DETROIT TIGERS, UNLESS OTHERWISE NOTED.
“I enjoy being outside; that’s why I went into this field,” says Nabozny. “I enjoy the physical work. I’m always the one that waters the infield skin.”
McFadyen didn’t set out to command the crew’s respect because she was a woman; she set out to command their respect as being a crew member.
“You have to show crew members that you’re in it with them and part of the team, too,” she says. “Getting crew members to think in a team-type situation makes all the difference in the world.”
One of the most challenging parts of the job is the weather.
Tigers Manager Jim Leyland often asks Nabozny if it’s going to rain. Her answer is important to him, because he decides whether or not to start warming up his pitcher based on her forecast.
“I can only tell him what the meteorologists tell me,” Nabozny says. “Sometimes that’s not good enough. He wants a decisive yes or no answer.”
Nabozny’s favorite part of the job is when the field comes to life in the spring, when the grass turns from brown to green, the lines are painted and the mounds are packed in such a short time.
“Everybody is like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you got the field looking that nice,’ which is very rewarding to hear,” she says.
The Tigers going to the World Series in 2006 and again last year were also a lot of fun, even though it extended her season.
“Our general manager [Dave Dombrowski] told us to sit back and enjoy what’s happening because it goes so fast,” Nabozny recalls.
They may be women in a man’s world, but neither Nabozny nor McFadyen has ever heard any talk that they’re not qualified. McFadyen says her peers and counterparts offered nothing but congratulations when she was hired, and she has received nothing but support throughout her seven- year stint with the Orioles.
“As far as people talking behind my back, that’s on them,” she says.
Nabozny has also never heard any negative talk.
“If it happens, I don’t hear it,” she says. “I don’t Google myself to see what people are saying. I’m not worried about it. If it’s out there, I don’t pay attention.”
Heck says she doesn’t look at gender as a factor in how well a groundskeeper does his or her job. “It’s not top of mind for the association or for members of the association,” she says. “It just isn’t a factor.”
McFadyen admits she was surprised to be called up to the big leagues so soon.
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE BALTIMORE ORIOLES.
As the STMA’s female CEO, Heck says she has always felt respected by the association’s male members. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been treated any differently than any other CEO of an organization,” she says.
Heck also believes more women will join the sports field industry as long as they have role models like Nabozny, McFadyen and other female groundskeepers.
Nabozny and McFadyen are good friends, and although they only see each other about once a year at an annual meeting of MLB groundskeepers, they talk on the phone often.
“Anytime I call her she calls me right back and vice versa,” Nabozny says.
They talk about the challenges on the job, from agronomy to staffing issues, but they don’t talk about working in a man’s world. After several years in their respective roles, Nabozny and McFadyen have found their place in that world.
Larry Aylward is editorial director of SportsField Management and Superintendent magazines. He can be reached at email@example.com.