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The Mississippi woman who designs MLB parks

By Dale McKee

The Mississippi woman who designs MLB parks

You may not be familiar with Janet Marie Smith, but she is in the business of connecting baseball parks to their urban surroundings.

Her dad, Thomas H. Smith, was born in Union, grew up in Laurel and graduated from high school in Ellisville. Her mom, Nell Smith, was from Rockport in Copiah County while her parental grandparents Clarence and Desma Smith lived in Richter.

Smith’s dad, a Jackson architect, was also a big baseball fan. Both of those loves were handed down to his daughter. “Dad was a big baseball fan who loved Joe DiMaggio and the Yankees,” said Smith.

Smith’s resume reads like the back of a baseball card of a major league all-star. She has worked in Baltimore, Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles, preserving each team’s history, along with creating new fan experiences and settings that are respectful to the histories of the cities and teams.

She is the most famous ballpark architect today. It was her work on Camden Yards in Baltimore that propelled the 1981 Mississippi State University architecture graduate to fame. Her vision directed all the seats in Camden Yards to face home plate, widened the concourses and located concession stands where the fans could keep up with the games while they were in line. She included past memories from the Orioles’ former home of Memorial Stadium. She brought the right field foul pole, home plate and a “Welcome Fans” sign to Camden Yards.

“Baltimore had beautiful historic buildings to save,” Smith said. “The best of the buildings was the 1899 Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) Warehouse. It is the longest building east of the Mississippi River and the largest brick building on the East Coast and had been abandoned for over 20 years. Today, the Orioles use it for team offices, team spaces, private clubs and restaurants and is open year-round,” Smith said. The warehouse turned out to be the signature of the new Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

“The desire in the building of Camden Yards was to respect the urban environment that we were in, and if you think about it, it was the first ballpark that was built in an urban setting in 70 years. It brings three million people a year into the downtown. We studied the older ballparks that had character and charm. In the end, we wanted to create a traditional ballpark with modern amenities. We did not want to do a full throwback, but we did want it to be as cherished as Fenway Park or Wrigley Field,” she said.

Writer and baseball enthusiast George Will said the three most important things that have happened in baseball since World War II were Jackie Robinson taking the field in 1947, free agency being enacted in 1975 and Camden Yards being built in 1992.

What is flattering to Smith is that so many other teams chose urban settings for their ballparks. Today, 26 of the 30 teams now have parks in urban areas.

What followed Camden Yards was the conversion of Atlanta’s Olympic Stadium into Turner Field, home of the Braves. In 2002, the Boston Red Sox hired Smith to save Fenway Park. The iconic park needed a serious remodel. She added suites and added seats on top of the famous “Green Monster,” widened the concourses and made concession stand improvements. Smith, who also has a master’s degree in Urban Planning from City College in New York, just finished a $300 million remodel of Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.

Today, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Famer lives in Baltimore with her husband and three children.

“My goal was never to work in baseball. I was aiming to change a city,” Smith said.

 

Dale McKee is a Waynesboro native who has been writing sports in Mississippi since 1973. Contact him at ddmckee18@yahoo.com.

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