Finding Home at the Ballpark
By Karon Warren | Photography by Boston Globe Stanley – Boston Globe/Stanley Grossfeld, Camden Yards – Jon Soohoo, Dodger Stadium – Jon Soohoo
Mississippi native Janet Marie Smith never envisioned a career in sports, but she’s made her mark at ballfields across the nation.
For farmer Marshall Bartlett of Como, Miss., there’s no place like home. Home Place Pastures to be precise. It’s a sprawling 1800-acre farm (500
When Janet Marie Smith graduated from Mississippi State University with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, she followed it up with a master’s degree in urban planning from City College of New York. She never imagined either degree would take her down a path that included a stop as a member of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame.
Instead, following college graduation, Smith worked in New York on projects that included the city’s Battery Park. She then headed west to Los Angeles, where she worked on Pershing Square. When looking to move back to the East Coast, she started searching for a project that would bring her back. That project turned out to be Oriole Park at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles in downtown Baltimore.
In 1989, Smith contacted Larry Lucchino, the Orioles’ president and CEO at the time, to lobby to work on the new baseball stadium. He liked her experience working in an urban setting and the insight she could bring to creating a unique ballpark that was different from the norm. As she likes to say, she landed her first job in sports because she was not working in sports.
Following her work with the Orioles, Smith would go on to work with the Boston Red Sox on Fenway Park and the Atlanta Braves when they transitioned the 1996 Olympic Stadium into Turner Field, the Braves’ former home.
Although Smith has been called a ballpark architect, she’s not fond of that description because it doesn’t really reflect what she does because she works with an extensive team of people involved in the project.
“I do think of my job often as an orchestra conductor or director at a theater because I have a clear sense of where I hope to take a project, and I hope I bring a clarity of purpose,” she says. “I think that is heightened by my training in architecture and urban design, but I’m responsible for a lot of organization, driving the project to a successful conclusion so that everyone’s role is clear and the pieces fit together. I enjoy the way it all comes together.”
Today, as the executive vice president of planning and development for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Smith has been working hard to create a stadium that’s fun to be at, not just for watching the game. She wants Dodger fans to want to spend an entire afternoon or evening at Dodger stadium, enjoying all the onsite activities and attractions. Smith says she uses her design sensibilities, love of cities, and the way fans react to a place to guide a project.
When working on a project, Smith says she wants the building to reach into the community, to feel like it physically belongs there by reflecting the community’s essence.
“The thing that is most important to me is to get the building right, have it work with the site and work in an urban setting,” she says. “I want to bring to life the things that make a place so special.”
She says there’s a combination of things she loves about working in baseball. These include the love of the game itself, the joy of seeing how fans interact with each other, how baseball transcends generations, how it brings people together from different backgrounds, being able to create a place where you can enjoy it with kindred spirits, and being able to adorn the place with the history, the relics, and the moments that remind you of why a place or team is special.
“I hope this is a hallmark of my work,” Smith says.
In 2019, in recognition of that work, the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame named Smith a member of the Class of 2020, an honor that both surprised and elated the Jackson, Miss., native.
“I am both amused and bemused and honored, because who would have ever thought since I never played any sports past those required in high school, and I didn’t start out with any particular desire to have a career that would be in sports,” she says.
At 63, you might expect Smith to start winding down her career, but she has no intentions to do so just yet. For now, she’ll continue her work on Dodger Stadium as well as a smaller project: Polar Park in Worcester, Mass., the future home of the WooSox, a Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox.
“I’ve had such a rewarding career, and all I can hope for is more of the same,” she says.