The Detroit Tigers' Heather Nabozny is the first female head groundskeeper in the history of major league baseball, according to a survey of major league teams.
Nabozny, 40, cut her chops with the West Michigan Whitecaps near Grand Rapids, where she worked from 1994 until joining the Tigers in 1999. Her first season was the last for Tiger Stadium.
In January Nabozny was inducted into the West Michigan Whitecaps Hall of Fame.
The seeds were planted for her groundbreaking career in 1980, when Nabozny's father Louis started the Turf Bird lawn care business in Milford, Michigan, where Nabozny was born. He is a Ford Motor Company retiree, where he spent 30 years in manual labor and on the assembly line.
During the summer Nabozny worked for her father's lawn care company while attending Northern Michigan University. He also sent employees to continuing education classes. "I went to Michigan State and heard about their turf management program," she said in a January interview. "I never thought you could go to school for that. I like to be outside, I like to work with my hands and you have something to show for it."
She dabbled with baseball and softball fields at Michigan State but worked more on football and soccer fields. After her 1993 graduation (her degree is in turf management), an advisor connected Nabozny with the Toronto Blue Jays, and she became their spring training groundskeeper in 1993 and 1994 in Dunedin, Fla.
But Nabozny missed her native Michigan. She was hired by West Michigan over a phone call. "There weren't many women groundskeepers in the minor leagues then," Nabozny said. "The [Milwaukee] Brewers had an assistant female groundskeeper and she also worked for the Whitecaps. She took my job when I left. Another girl was out in Nebraska. There are more now."
A major league groundskeeper is a year-round job. In January Nabozny was hiring two interns, working on the 2011 budget and going over her pool of a 45-person tarp crew.
In the Midwest League where West Michigan (a Tigers affiliate) plays, sometimes it is common for smaller-staffed teams to recruit fans to pull out the tarp during a storm.
"It can get dangerous," she said. "If you get a lot of wind or people trip, the tarp can ripple up under your feet. When there are fifteen people pulling that tarp, they don't see you go down underneath. We had a situation at West Michigan where we actually had to cut out some ushers that were helping."
Nabozny now lives in Royal Oak and, of course, has a well-maintained lawn. "No garden," she said. "My dog eats everything. If I grow tomatoes, she eats those."
But dreams still grow tall on the fields of West Michigan.