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'She's from another planet': Trailblazing stadium planner Janet Marie Smith's fingerprints are all over MLB

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LOS ANGELES – Janet Marie Smith’s ability to plan and implement the design of ballparks or the renovations of very, very old ballparks is uncanny. Or some might say, otherworldly.

“The first thing you need to know about Janet is that she’s from another planet,” says Larry Lucchino.

Lucchino, the former president of the Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox, knows Smith as well as anyone, as he brought her on board at all of his stops – including his current role as chairman of the board of the minor league Worcester Red Sox in Massachusetts.

“She can sleep for just four or five hours per night,” he says. “And she has a tolerance for travel that people from this planet don’t have. It’s positively alien.”

Those traits made it possible for her fingerprints to be all over Oriole Park at Camden Yards in Baltimore, Turner Field in Atlanta and the massive renovations at Fenway Park in Boston and Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. And she accomplished this while dealing with the male-dominated worlds of architecture and construction.

Lucchino first became aware of Smith in 1989 while he was president of the Orioles. The front office was consumed with the planning of the ballpark that would become Camden Yards. His head of human resources brought him a stack of letters to sign. They were all rejections of aspiring job applicants.

One jumped out at him.

“I can’t stand all these other folks, but this woman is an architect by training, an urban planner and has a graduate degree,” he told his HR head. “I’m drowning in all of this Camden Yards stuff right now, and those are the areas where we need help. Invite her in.”

When she arrived for the interview, Lucchino wouldn’t permit her to sit down until she answered one question: “Which league has the designated hitter?”

Recognizing that the query was a bit sexist, she shot back, “I’m offended by the question.” She quickly added that she loves baseball.

“So we sat down and here we are. It was the best free agent signing the Orioles had in 1989,” quips Lucchino.

Thus began the career of one of the most accomplished ballpark specialists the sport has ever seen.

Janet Marie Smith at Fenway Park in 2004.
Janet Marie Smith at Fenway Park in 2004.

Orchestra conductor

Exactly what is Smith’s role for a major league team? Club presidents who have employed her speak of her expertise in business, architecture, construction, urban planning, baseball history and more. She describes her job as being like the director of a movie or an orchestra conductor.

“As a conductor, she knows the role of every single instrument,” Stan Kasten, president and CEO of the Dodgers, tells USA TODAY Sports. “That’s what makes her so good at what she does.”

The Jackson, Mississippi, native graduated from Mississippi State’s School of Architecture before obtaining a master’s degree in urban planning at City College of New York. Baltimore was a city she studied while working on her degrees. “I was interested in the way Baltimore had reinvented itself with the waterfront Harbor Place and festival market,” Smith recalls.

While Smith was disappointed when she read that the Orioles wanted to leave venerable Memorial Stadium for a new facility downtown, she says, “I had this eureka moment that, wow, Baltimore is reinventing itself again. It was the first time a baseball team had gone into the heart of a city in generations. ... I felt I could bring something to that.”

Once Lucchino brought Smith to Baltimore, she began learning the Orioles organization and meeting with architects and contractors. Joe Spear, founder of HOK, now called Populous, recalls those meetings 30 years ago. “She impressed me as confident, smart and talented,” he says. “She is a real baseball fan, and as such, she understood the sport in a genuine fashion, not just academically or from a business standpoint.”

Adds Lucchino, “We basically put her in charge. She gave life to our concepts.”

As Camden Yards opened to rave reviews in 1992, executives from other MLB teams wanted to see it for themselves. One given a tour by Smith was Kasten, then the president of the Braves. “It was obvious she had a command of both the game and the business. She had a real passion for it,” he recalls.

Soon, Kasten hired Smith to work on transitioning the main stadium in Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics into the ballpark that became Turner Field.

Because he was also the president of the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, he made her responsible for the design and construction of Philips Arena, now called State Farm Arena. It opened in 1999. “It turned out fantastic, because it was a unique design that brought the upper deck 60 feet closer than in any other modern arena,” he says.

Smith also found time to do consulting on Petco Park for her former boss Lucchino, who in 1995 had become president of the Padres.

In 2002, Lucchino set his sights on Boston, where he was part of a group trying to purchase the Red Sox. While the other potential owners wanted to build a new stadium for the team, Lucchino was adamant that Fenway be retained and modernized. When his group was installed as owners, he put Smith in charge of updating Fenway without destroying its sense of history and charm.

“Janet and I spent 10 years working on the ‘annual renovation’ of Fenway,” he said. “There was a compatibility between us and I trusted her completely.”

From 2009 to 2012, Smith was back with the Orioles, working under owner Peter Angelos. While she was in charge of the architectural changes to prepare Camden Yards for its 20th anniversary season, a bigger responsibility was renovating their spring training facilities in Florida in Sarasota, including Ed Smith Stadium, where the exhibition games are played.

“That was a fantastic project,” she recalls. “I loved working on that little Ed Smith Stadium, which had not much charm to it but it had good bones. That was a really joyous success to me.”

In 2018, a data-mining firm determined that fans ranked the rebuilt park in Sarasota highest of all 23 spring training stadiums.

The new front door

Kasten was part of the Guggenheim Baseball Management group that purchased the Dodgers in 2012. He wasted no time in asking Smith to assess Dodger Stadium to see what improvements could be made quickly. She pinpointed $100 million worth of renovations that could be done in that first offseason.

Also during her second stint with Kasten, she was responsible for the modernization of Campo Las Palmas in the Dominican Republic, which in 1987 had been the first facility built there by an MLB team.

She continued to oversee smaller renovations in Dodger Stadium, culminating in a major reimagining of the space beyond the outfield pavilion seats that opened this season. The Centerfield Plaza, which Kasten refers to as “Dodger Stadium’s new front door,” provides a major new entry point to the ballpark close to most of the parking. In addition to new food, drink and entertainment options, there are new escalators, elevators and bridges that facilitate not only greater access to the pavilion seats, but also new ways for fans to make a 360-degree trek around the stadium.

Kasten was adamant that the view beyond the outfield of Dodger Stadium not be diminished by all the changes: “The beauty of the new plaza is what it has added for the fans, and we haven’t touched the postcard (view). That has been an article of faith for both Janet and me.”

Says Smith, “In many ways, baseball parks like Fenway and Dodger Stadium that are privately owned still present us with a public responsibility. It’s no accident that we hosted elections, COVID testing and vaccinations here. We feel we have a role to serve in the community that’s more than just a home for baseball.”

On the way to giving birth

Kasten likes to joke that “I have been with Janet through the birth of all three of her children.” Not literally of course, but she was working for Kasten each time she gave birth. “She was always working. I mean on the way to the hospital and in the hospital.”

Even though she was often responsible for projects far away from her family’s home in Baltimore, she and husband Bart Harvey “worked really hard to make certain that we always had a parent at home.” She would often work at a project Tuesday through Thursday, then fly home to be there Friday until early Tuesday. “That allowed me to be the carpool mom on Mondays and Fridays,” she says.

Being the only woman in the meetings with construction supers and architects never held her back. “I never thought her gender mattered, because she had drive and passion for the project,” says Spear. “That’s what had an impact on Camden Yards and on her career.”

“She was able to talk to everybody, whether that was because she was a female or was from the South or was just a very nice person,” adds Lucchino, who brought Smith into his latest venture, Polar Park, the new stadium for the Worcester Red Sox of the Triple-A East League.

That makes four times he’s hired the Mississippian who was almost rejected by his Orioles in 1989.

One thing Lucchino has learned about Smith: She certainly knows that it’s the American League that has the designated hitter.

Mock covers sports facilities for USA TODAY Sports.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Janet Marie Smith continues to break barriers as Dodgers executive