March 02, 2011
SARASOTA, Fla. — The tweet from @birdlandinsider on Tuesday afternoon said it best:
Overheard walking outside the ballpark: "Is this the same place where that old stadium was?" Believe it or not ... yes!
The ballpark in question was Ed Smith Stadium, which was one of the — oh, how should I put it? — least inspiring stops in the Grapefruit League as recently as last season. Built in 1989, the basic facility had seen the Chicago White Sox and Cincinnati Reds bolt for greener pastures in Arizona and both defections put Sarasota in danger of becoming extinct as a spring training mainstay.
But a $31 million renovation plan lured the Baltimore Orioles across the state from Fort Lauderdale — where the team played in an even more outdated facility — and set the stage for Tuesday, when a sellout crowd turned out for a game between the O's and Tampa Bay Rays. (The fans were treated to Baltimore's five-homer outburst against Andy Sonnanstine(notes), though given how much Rays gear was spotted in the stands, how much they truly enjoyed it is up for debate.)
Though the taxpayer-funded repairs sparked a good amount of dissent in the area and the initial facelift was completed in only eight months, there was no arguing with the results. Ed Smith Stadium now has amenities that are equal to other spring homes. In many cases, they're even better. While I would have told you to skip Sarasota as a stop in previous years, it's now something you should circle if you're doing a tour of the Gulf Coast parks.
"I think it's a real tribute," Orioles pitcher Jeremy Guthrie(notes) said of the new place. "I also understand the community did a lot to make it go through and there was opposition ... Hopefully, we can make it a fun place to come and win a lot of games."
Opening day began with local construction workers taking the field to a round of applause — though it did rain while they did so ... figures — and ended with a 12-6 O's victory as everyone walked around and checked out the stadium's new features.
I've compiled a few of my favorite aspects in a mini-photo essay below.
* * *
The renovations pushed the stadium's footprint out toward 12th Street and Tuttle Avenue, creating a wide concourse and this beautiful atrium. This chandelier of championship banners is the first thing that fans see as they walk through the gates. You can also see Rogers Hornsby's famous quote about spring training printed on the wall behind it.
* * *
Here's the same chandelier from a different view that features the O's most recent accomplishments. Hard to believe that 1996 was already 15 years ago now.
* * *
To celebrate opening day, every female fan received an orange bird of paradise flower.
* * *
I've been to almost every spring training stadium now and this might be the first indoor cafeteria that I've seen. It's a nice spot to cool down and get away from the sun. And like the other areas of the ballpark, it's decorated with plenty of cool retro O's items.
* * *
A view from behind the Orioles bullpen in right field. If you've ever been to the Cardinals and Marlins facility in Jupiter, Fla., the renovated Ed Smith Stadium reminded me of a larger version in terms of sightlines and layout.
* * *
The team's retired numbers adorn the front of the renovated press box and luxury suites. Owner Peter Angelos kept a low profile on Tuesday and watched the game from just above Jim Palmer's digits.
* * *
There's a large party area in left field that should come with batting helmets for every fan. During batting practice, new O's designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero(notes) blasted a ball off the roof of big turret on the left.
* * *
Finally, with the renovations taking place up until the last minute, I started to wonder how they got all the banners hung in time. A few minutes later, I found my answer.