IN THE BALLPARK
by Joe Mock
All rights reserved
Without a doubt, the best-known architect/urban planner in the baseball world is Janet Marie Smith. Her fingerprints are all over Camden Yards, Turner Field, the renovations at Fenway Park and Dodger Stadium, and the rebuilding of Ed Smith Stadium. And it’s the newly researched title of most-liked-spring-training park that led to me interview her about the showplace in Sarasota.
But Ed Smith was far from a showplace back in 2009. In fact, at age 20, most folks figured that its role as a spring-training venue for a big-league club was over. But after the Orioles learned that they couldn’t expand and renovate their spring home in Fort Lauderdale due to its proximity to a small airport, the team set its sights on Sarasota. And they brought in Janet Marie to help oversee the overhaul of Sarasota’s past-its-prime ballpark.
Here is our conversation with her. I think it should be required reading for anyone who wants to pursue a career in sports architecture, since no one has a better understanding of how a stadium needs to be compatible with its surroundings than Janet Marie:
TELL ME ABOUT YOUR INVOLVEMENT IN THE REBUILDING OF ED SMITH STADIUM
What was interesting to me is that I’d seen the place when I was working for the Red Sox, which is where I was before I came to work for Peter Angelos (owner of the Orioles). Sarasota is such an unbelievable place, just a magical part of Florida. Everybody (all of the teams) wanted to go to Sarasota, but the Red Sox looked at Ed Smith Stadium and said, golly, there have already been two teams that have left here, and however many others had kicked the tires, they were like “I’m just not feeling it.”
So when Peter Angelos asked me to look at it, he said “Look at Sarasota. It’s such a great place, and we have the chance to keep the Minor League (training) at Twin Lakes and do something with Ed Smith Stadium.” I just thought, “How fabulous.” I love the opportunity to find ways of taking the old and making it new again, whether you’re speaking about the B&O Warehouse at Oriole Park at Camden Yards, or the renovation of Fenway Park, and I’ve always felt that Americans are so quick to discard things when they stop meeting current market standards, without really thinking about the sustainability and the opportunity we have with creative designs to come up with ways of re-using things that haven’t outlived their physical life, even though they may have outlived their place in the marketplace. I think Ed Smith fell into that category. So many places had surpassed it in terms of the aesthetics and curb appeal, and in the amenities that it had to offer, although there was nothing wrong with the concrete structure holding up these 9,000 seats.
So it was a really special challenge and opportunity to take the convictions that you could turn it into something, and to work with the design team that was able to do that. Peter Angelos himself had very strong feelings about making it feel like Florida. I think we were really lucky that the architectural firm we hired, David M. Schwarz & Associates out of Washington, who had combined forces with Gary Hoyt’s office in Sarasota, was someone who really understood this whole idea of curb appeal, and how to create both a sense of place and opportunity for fans to have a memorable experience, but also an architectural style that resonates with what you would expect to see in a post-card view of spring training in Florida.
SHORTLY AFTER WORK WAS COMPLETED ON ED SMITH STADIUM, YOU WERE QUOTED IN AN ARTICLE IN THE BALTIMORE SUN SAYING “I THINK WHAT WE DID IN SARASOTA WAS A MAGICAL TRANSFORMATION.” CAN YOU ELABORATE ON THAT?
I thought it was magical because no one thought it could be done. I know that from having worked for other clubs and hearing what people had to say. They used to say “Too bad it’s in Sarasota. It’s such a great place. It’s just a mile from the best beaches in Florida.” Unlike the home cities of other teams, it has everything (from) opera to the circus. It’s got a main street with a fabulous array of food and an array of great live music. As a design-and-construction team, we were always blown away by how great of a dinner we could get by just rolling onto Main Street.
So I think it was magical in that respect. It was transformative because we did take this very pedestrian park that had been built around 1990, about the time that the White Sox were working on New Comiskey. (Ed Smith) really debuted before the dawn of this new era in baseball parks …
WITH CAMDEN YARDS IN BALTIMORE, YOU HELPED USHER IN THAT ERA.
Thank you for that. That was Larry Lucchino’s goal (he was President of the Orioles when Camden Yards was built). That’s stuck with me for all these years. How do you create a place that’s memorable? How do you create a place that celebrates the best of baseball, with its timeless quality? The fact that it has no clock. The fact that its outfield dimensions are different. The fact that the length of the game, and the pregame and postgame, provides the opportunity for fans to just wander around and take in the game from a variety of different places.
I really loved that we had the chance to take that little park and instead of discarding it, we started over. Reusing all that was still there from 1989 and cladding it – no, wait, I don’t mean to say “clad,” because that suggests that it was a just a facelift. If you’ve been there, then you know that now the concourses are 35 feet wide and are beautiful with the arches. The graphic design team (was great) that worked with us to create murals and bobbleheads and pygmy palm trees so that when you had your picture made, the palm tree was right there next to your face, so it was clear you were in Florida.
We really tried to think of everything in our approach to the totality of how the park would be put together. One of the contributions made by John Angelos (Executive VP of the Orioles) was pushing to have a new kind of seating, a (air) conditioned space where you could buy two or four seats, and yet there’s 60 people in the space in kind of a club within a club. It’s such a nice addition to the mix of things that are there in the stadium.
THAT MAKES SENSE SINCE THE ATMOSPHERE AT A SPRING TRAINING GAME IS DIFFERENT THAN A REGULAR-SEASON GAME.
Yes, it’s so relaxed. And that’s one of the enjoyable things about working on that project. We were able to think about the fan behavior in a very different way than you do (for a regular-season game). On one hand, it’s much more casual, but on the other hand, for a lot of fans, that’s their destination. It’s such a wonderful, approachable part of baseball, because the fans are able to engage with the team and the players at such an intimate level.
THE RESEARCH SHOWED THAT FANS AT SPRING-TRAINING GAMES ARE SIX TIMES MORE LIKELY TO MENTION OBTAINING AUTOGRAPHS THAN THEY ARE WHEN THEY ARE POSTING ABOUT REGULAR-SEASON GAMES.
That has to do with the intimacy. Not only do you have a venue that is 8,000 (seats) not 40,000, but you also have an attitude about the game, and a pattern about the players’ schedules that allows them to be relaxed as well.
DURING MY INTERVIEW WITH JOHN ANGELOS, HE MENTIONED PLANS TO CONSTRUCT A “PLAYERS GARDEN,” WHERE SOCIAL EVENTS COULD BE HELD, AND WHERE FANS AND PLAYERS COULD INTERACT. YOU PROBABLY WOULDN’T DO THAT AT A REGULAR-SEASON PARK.
You probably wouldn’t, and it’s not just because of the scale (the difference in size of the two parks). Think about the regimen in a player’s day from April through October. Their schedule that’s posted in the clubhouse is down to the minute. NASA doesn’t have anything on them!
In spring training, they have an elongated day. They work hard, but there is time scripted into their schedule that allows them to be more relaxed. Everything they do is to allow them to prepare for the season, whether it’s practicing on the fields, working out in the clubhouse or playing the (exhibition) games, and it is more relaxed than during the regular season when it’s all about winning.
AND MOST FANS WHO’VE ATTENDED AN EXHIBITION GAME COULDN’T TELL YOU WHO WON OR WHAT THE SCORE WAS.
That’s right. It really doesn’t matter. And the manager might have a zillion different pitchers because he’s using them in a very different way than during the season.
I think the other thing that is really notable about why Ed Smith Stadium rose to the top of the online reviews is that when fans are writing about Major League (regular season) parks, they are writing about the ones they love. And while many baseball fans find the pilgrimage of going from park to park to be a (important) personal journey, unless they have tremendous time and money to see all the (regular-season) parks, you’re generally talking about fans who haven’t seen even half of them.
In spring training (though), it’s part of a fan’s weekly ritual to go from park to park. The parks are close to one another so the players can hop on a bus and go play a game. Well, fans can do the same thing. So because of their robust sampling, they can compare one spring-training facility to another, while doing it in real time. It’s not like they’re only going to one a year. They’re going to five or six in a week. That gives them a more even playing field in making comparisons.
WHICH IS MORE CHALLENGING – COMING UP WITH A DESIGN FOR THE RENOVATION OF AN EXISTING PARK OR DESIGNING ONE WITH A BLANK SLATE, STARTING WITH NOTHING BUT AN EMPTY LOT?
I don’t know if I’m the one to ask, because I don’t think I’ve ever had a blank slate. Part of that is because of my attitude that what makes a place special is how it resonates with its surroundings. Even with a place that some people might argue was “new” like Camden Yards, to me the city gave me so many clues. Take the (B&O) warehouse. It dictated so much of what we were doing.
I think if you really are thinking about the architecture of a building, and how it works with the site, then it doesn’t feel like a blank slate even when it is.
Maybe that’s why I love baseball, because it’s always been a product of its surroundings and the traditions of the game. What is played during the 7th inning stretch or what foods are served are often very much a reflection of the city that the team is in. It means you have to study more. I don’t think it makes it easier. It means you have to approach it with a built-in respect of what’s there and how you can make the most of that.
Even with Ed Smith Stadium, the fact that it doesn’t have diners or little restaurants around it made us work harder to make certain that the places inside the park were worthy of one’s experience. The way the barbecue area was set up was so that it’s a visible part of what you see. Basically, the way we added concessions, rest rooms and shade to the park was to build a two-story arcade, that wraps well down the lines on both sides. And this arcade creates its won kind of spaces. The lower level is fully covered and shaded, with a nice Floridian feel to it. The upper level looks out over the field and it’s sort of breezy.
So every space there has a different feeling to it, even though I think the architecture holds together very well. The knowledge that there wasn’t going to be any wandering down to the local pub (down the street) and that you were going to need to find your experience there, led to some of the decisions we made about what to program in that space.
TALK ABOUT THE VISION THAT DAVID SCHWARZ HAD FOR ED SMITH STADIUM.
If you’re familiar with his work, then you know that he’s very much a traditionalist. He has a beautiful way of taking traditional architectural forms, but dialing them up so they really feel special. It was just a treat to get to work with his office on what might have – in less skilled hands – been a simple arcade and simple little arches, and yet the amount of thought and care that they put into the depth and kinds of materials that were chosen, the authenticity of that way that it was constructed, combined with the zeal that our contractor Hunt Construction approached the building of this. Even things like the cloth extension of the roof that adds to the shade, was not an easy thing to construct. You look at it and (think) Oh, they are just beautiful little sails hanging off the roof, but in Florida where you have to deal with hurricane-force winds and those kinds of things in your building codes, you can’t just go putting things like that out there.
So I give a lot of credit to those (like Hunt) who helped implement the vision of David and his team and the things they were looking to do there. They really did an extraordinary job there.
I think credit goes also to David’s partner Gary Hoyt, because to have a local architectural firm to work with us really made a huge difference.
I think when David was selected, it was with an acknowledgement that his work always has a beautiful quality to it. It always has curb appeal – whether he’s doing hospitals, whether he’s doing housing or whether he’s doing a baseball park. I think we felt that Ed Smith Stadium had suffered from a lack of this for so many years. And if you look at the before and after (photos), it’s just amazing. You can’t believe it’s the same building. And even if you do, you assume that it’s just had this applique put on it. And I think that’s what’s so brilliant about David’s approach to this renovation. We say it’s a “renovation,” but it was much more than that. It was a new construction tacked onto this. His approach to creating these new spaces was just phenomenal.
AND HERE IN TEXAS WHERE I LIVE, DAVID SCHWARZ DID A BEAUTIFUL JOB WITH BOTH THE MINOR LEAGUE PARK IN FRISCO AND THE RANGERS’ GLOBE LIFE PARK IN ARLINGTON.
Absolutely. He did a beautiful job. (In Arlington) he did a wonderful, traditional look, but dialed-up. You know, the longhorns on the soffit of the building, the way the stars are embedded in the steel trusses. It’s very traditional, but very dialed-up.
ANYTHING YOU’D LIKE TO ADD ABOUT ED SMITH STADIUM?
If you look at photographs, you’ll see that the landscaping on that site was just unbelievable. There were trees that had a four-foot diameter that we saved and built the building around (them). Those things add to the timeless quality of the place.
And I was so happy to hear about this (that fans ranked Ed Smith Stadium the top spring-training park) because I’m just so proud of that little park. One of the things I enjoyed most about it was that it was a scale where you could really afford to think about everything. At that size, you really can afford to consider every facet of it, and it was just so much fun to work on.
And it’s not like it was a diamond in the rough. It was never that. In its best days (before 2011), it was never a diamond. It required a total re-thinking of what it could be, to make something of it.
And I think a lot of folks thought Peter Angelos was crazy (about moving the Orioles’ spring training to Ed Smith) at first, but he was like, “You know what? It’s Sarasota. There’s no way we can’t make this fabulous.”
Part 3 features the thoughts of other important contributors to Ed Smith’s success. Click here