Tigers' head groundskeeper is ready for Opening Day

After injuring her leg last season, Heather Nabozny is back to full health

Tigers' head groundskeeper is ready for Opening Day

DETROIT -- Heather Nabozny has always taken pride in staying behind the scenes with the Tigers. She took a smaller amount of pride in her health, having never fractured anything despite being an avid skiier.

The Tigers head groundskeeper never figured those two random facts would ever collide. She has seen plenty of players injured on her field at Comerica Park. On a stormy September evening, with an unwieldy tarp, it was her turn.

"It's crazy," Nabozny said. "I never get injured [while] skiing. I used to run all the time. I rode horses. I've had many spills in my day and I just never hurt myself."

She can talk about it now, even chuckle. She'll do her job on Opening Day like nothing happened. She has just about full range of motion where her patella tendon ruptured, just under her kneecap. When it happened, though, it was bizarre, for her and for those who saw it.

The setup was, to pardon the pun, a perfect storm. The Tigers were three innings into a series opener against the Giants last Sept. 5 when a severe thunderstorm suddenly brought a downpour and dangerous winds approaching 70 mph.

The grounds crew quickly put the tarp on. It was keeping the tarp there that was the challenge.

"I was trying to run to get to the corner before it blew up," she said, "so I was running on the tarp just to keep every bit of it down. I always tell my crew: Never stand on the tarp, always hold it, because it will blow out underneath you. But the wind was so bad."

One grounds crew member was briefly caught underneath the tarp. Another was laying down on one end to hold it down. Nabozny had a foot on the first-base side, but was no match when another gust got under it.

Out went the tarp underneath her.

"When I did it, it didn't really hurt," she said. "It just kind of felt like I landed on it, and then I looked down and thought my kneecap was higher than it should be. So I pushed it back down and tried to get up and then I couldn't.

"So when I got up, [the leg] was straight. And then I tried to take a step, and it was boom."

Most fans had scrambled for cover and didn't see the slip, only the result. The rest of the grounds crew noticed. So did Tigers athletic trainers Matt Rankin and Chris McDonald.

Normally during a rain delay, Nabozny is communicating with meteorologists, umpires, managers, Tigers president/general manager Dave Dombrowski and ballpark operations director Mike Healy. With a September game carrying postseason implications, the pressure was moreso.

Instead, Nabozny was on her way for an MRI exam. Her staff, led by assistant Gail DeGennaro, had to not only pick up her roles, but ready the field for a game that had to be completed.

"Luckily, I've had some guys on my crew who have been around a little while," Nabozny said.

The game went on. Her challenge was just starting. She needed surgery, followed by rest off her feet. For the first time since Comerica Park opened in 2000, she was a spectator, watching from home on television.

"You know how baseball is. You're busy, all the time," she said. "I was actually in my bedroom for a week. I felt like that movie "Misery." When I actually got to smell the outside, it was great.

"Watching it on TV, that was the weirdest thing ever. I always water [the field], and to see someone else do it, they did a great job but it was unnerving. I just felt like I should be there."

Recovery was supposed to last 6-8 weeks. She was at the ballpark in three, helping prepare the field for the postseason. Her part of the bargain was that she wouldn't be doing any work herself, supervising from a golf cart behind the plate with her leg in a brace.

Had the Tigers lasted longer in the postseason, it would've been a story. Instead, she ended up winterizing the field by mid-October. A letter from the Commissioner's office, and emails from fellow groundskeepers, were enough for her.

When Opening Day festivities begin on Monday, it'll be as if nothing happened. And Nabozny will be back in the background.

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. Read Beck's Blog and follow him on Twitter @beckjason. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.