Alumna Tends Turf for Little Leaguers
by Tom Wilson, writer/editor-PCToday. Photos as credited.
Cheryl L. Miller has a baseline seat for one of the most-watched – and certainly one of the best-loved – sporting events of each year.
But the maintenance/turf manager for the Little League World Series seldom sees the soaring homers and defensive gems that are the stuff of ESPN highlights.
“Whether I’m watching baseball, football, the Kentucky Derby … I’m looking at the grass,” says Miller, whose roundabout journey to Little League includes a 2004 landscape/nursery technology degree from Pennsylvania College of Technology. “Someone will tell me, ‘Hey, the fields looked great on TV!’ and I’ll say, ‘Are you looking at the same fields I’m looking at?’”
"I don't believe in luck, but this is the best luck I've had in my life."
Miller tends to Howard J. Lamade Stadium and its newer sister venue, Volunteer Stadium, with a parent’s instinct, vigilance, critical eye and tough love. In fact, she describes her annual routine in decidedly maternal terms: dotingly “waking up” the fields every spring and “putting them to bed” after the boys and girls of summer head back to the reality of home and school.
“She is one of the unsung heroes of the Little League employee family and gets very little public acknowledgment for the important responsibilities she has,” says Stephen D. Keener, president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball and Softball. “I certainly appreciate her good work and knowing that the annual Little League World Series participants will be playing on well-manicured and safe fields.”
With a global following and start-to-finish television coverage, the series brings 16 teams to South Williamsport each August in a 32-game tournament that narrows to a one-game final between the U.S. and international champions. As the competition heats up and the bracket is winnowed toward a Sunday showdown live on ABC-TV, Miller can’t help but feel the pressure.
“I think about it a lot,” she admits. “Everyone is watching, major-league athletes are watching, my peers are watching. The world’s going to see these fields, and they need to be perfect.”
For Miller, however, the series already has begun long before the first pitch is thrown. In April, she starts to fertilize the fields – not just the two stadiums, but also subsidiary areas used by summer visitors, the Penn College baseball team and others. Insecticides are applied, surfaces raked, top dressing applied to the infield, bases installed, and home plate and the pitcher’s mound rebuilt.
“Basically, we’re getting things aired out and dried out and ready to play. It’s a lot of TLC,” she says of her summer-long regimen of thrice-weekly mowing, regular fertilization and fungus control – all at the whim of an often inhospitable and wholly unpredictable Mother Nature.
Summer brings the Urban Initiative Jamboree, which allows inner-city youngsters to experience Little League Baseball over a bucolic Memorial Day weekend, and five weeks of baseball camps.
“Those fields get used all day, every single day – Friday, Saturday and Sunday – and we need to keep them looking their best,” Miller says. “If it rains, we’ll come in at 7 a.m. to clean up the puddles. Those kids are there to play baseball, to play games in front of their parents, and we’ll even do night work to make that happen.”
The Cavalry Arrives
For most of the year, she does it all with only a handful of employees (and workers referred by Lycoming County judges to fulfill community-service obligations). But when the series arrives in mid-August, she welcomes an all-star lineup of industry heavy-hitters from the Keystone Athletic Field Managers Association. Led by Jeffrey T. Fowler, a Penn State Cooperative Extension turfgrass educator from western Pennsylvania who has traveled to the series for a dozen or so years, the group comprises the state chapter of the National Sports Turf Managers Association.
Fowler said both organizations are very proud of Miller’s dedicated maintenance work at the Little League complex. He also applauded her continuing education in the field, enrolling in Penn State’s World Campus toward a bachelor’s degree in turfgrass science.
“Whenever someone compliments our volunteers, I say, ‘Thanks, but we’re only here for 17 days a year,’” Fowler said. “We come and help where we can to do those little things that make all the difference in the world when it comes to TV time. But I give kudos to Cheryl Miller, who does a fabulous job of spraying, fertilizing and mowing the rest of the year – when the cameras aren’t on.”
The 10 days of the series are a maelstrom of mowing, watering, fertilizing, edging and treatment by groundskeepers, who need to compromise with network crews setting up for their packed broadcast schedule and to accommodate each team’s batting practice on the unfamiliar fields of northcentral Pennsylvania.
“Since Little League moved the fences back from 200 to 225 feet, it’s so much different than what these kids are used to,” Miller said. “So every team is allowed one practice in each of the two stadiums so they can get accustomed to the field. The grass really starts flying; the series hasn’t even started yet, and those fields are getting so beat up already!”
Once play begins, the pace only quickens, and the weather can only scuttle the best-laid plans. Too much heat and humidity, you get disease in the outfield. Too much rain, and you get drainage problems that can threaten to knock the series off schedule.
“We’ve had years when we’re pounded by rain, and the fields are very close to unplayable,” she said. “We do the best that we can to keep things on track. We have kids missing school to play here, parents missing work to travel here. There’s no ‘Oh, we’ll just play tomorrow.’ They came to play ball, and it’s up to us to get those kids back out there.”
After the champion is crowned and August turns to autumn, attention shifts to year-end maintenance. Equipment is put into storage, supplies are ordered for the following season, muddy ruts are repaired in parking areas, and Miller adds to her arsenal by attending professional-development events. She and her crew move indoors to paint dormitories in International Grove or whatever else needs to be done before “spring fever” heralds the return of baseball season.
Trial and Travel
Had she not heeded her inner voice along the way, Miller might be doing something totally different with her time.
A 1998 graduate of South Williamsport Area Junior-Senior High School, less than a mile west of Little League Headquarters, Miller first enrolled at Penn College with an eye toward business management or “something with computers.” She soon realized that choice wasn’t for her and decided to “give the real world a try,” bouncing from odd jobs to temporary-employment agencies to factories, which quickly convinced her to return to higher education.
She moved into a recreation management major at Lock Haven University, but grew weary of the commute and nostalgic for the outdoors closer to home. With the help of a great-aunt who worked in the Little League kitchen, Miller took a data-entry position but often caught herself staring out the window watching the crew mow the fields. She joined the maintenance team part time in 2001, but her wanderlust returned. She enrolled in New England’s private Suffolk University, flying to Boston with nothing but a suitcase, with her parents shipping her other belongings for what amounted to only one semester. Miller soon had an epiphany that led to her return.
“I was sitting in Fenway Park, watching the field crew at a Red Sox game, and I told my friends, ‘I do that. That’s what I do at home.’ I’d been coming back every summer, but I decided then and there, ‘I’m going to go back.’”
Looking to combine her part-time work at Little League with her passion for being outdoors, she opted for Penn College’s School of Natural Resources Management and the company of horticulture faculty members who inspire her to this day: Carl J. Bower Jr., Michael A. Dincher, Dennis P. Skinner and, most of all, Richard J. Weilminster.
“People would say, ‘Oh, he’s so tough,’” she says with appreciation. “If you did what he asked you to do, if you listened and worked and paid attention, you could learn so much. I still remember things he told me in class. I’ll see a tree or a plant and I can identify it right away, thanks to Mr. Weilminster.”
Weilminster has since retired, but he hasn’t forgotten Miller, either.
“I truly love Penn College and the students that I had during my career,” says the 1986 recipient of the Master Teacher Award. “Cheryl was always dedicated and worked diligently to become the best she could be; she was always a very good student. There are so many wonderful stories about (our) grads out there. They are inspiring and a wonderful part of the legacy of Penn College.”
Miller’s itch to travel returned after graduation. She took jobs in Baltimore, doing landscaping work in a large private retirement community before moving on to a position as plant health-care technician. She liked the variety, and gained valuable experience with both residential and commercial clients. Still, she maintained regular contact with Little League and, on one visit home, she asked if any full-time work was available.
“They offered me the maintenance/turf manager position, and it was like I never left,” she says. “This is where I was supposed to be the whole time. They’re really a family to me. I don’t believe in luck, but this is the best luck I’ve had in my life.”
As for her own legacy, Miller lets her work – and her admirers – speak for her. She shares a recent e-mail that Little League received from a spectator at the 2009 World Series, commending the field crew’s cheerfulness and professionalism in the midst of frustrating rain delays.
“He said he’d been coming here for four or five years, but that this year was extraordinary,” Miller related. “He said, ‘I got tired just watching the ground crew.’ He’d been to professional stadiums, he said, and he thought that we did the most wonderful job he’d seen.”
Miller has learned any number of tricks in her near-decade at Little League: How to combine a mower and a roller to make that striped field pattern so familiar to TV viewers, finessing the grass to get that just-right look when the sunlight hits the alternating bands of green. That the beaten-down hill behind the outfield – summer home to youngsters wearing a dirt path on cardboard toboggans – will bounce back to life on its own, thanks to natural springs that flow underground.
The 29-year-old saves her best advice for students, though.
“If you only want to make money, you probably should find another career,” Miller annually tells a facilities management class at Lock Haven, where the salary question inevitably comes up. “But if you love seeing your hard work pay off, if you love sitting back and proudly looking at the results, this is the job for you.” ■
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