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Orioles' renovated Sarasota spring training home starting to take shape

Janet Marie Smith was instrumental in the design of Camden Yards. She oversaw the improvements at Fenway Park in Boston and figured prominently in the transformation of Centennial Olympic Stadium into Turner Field, the home of the Atlanta Braves.

But her latest challenge — the $31.2 million renovation of the Orioles' spring training home at Ed Smith Stadium and Twin Lakes Park in Sarasota — has broken new ground for the renowned architect and urban planner.

"It's the first time in our career we are ordering steel the same day we are ordering concession equipment," said Smith, the Orioles' vice president of planning and development. "It's really moving fast."

On a recent Saturday at Ed Smith Stadium, construction crews worked on finishing the elevator towers and framing the concourse. Dirt and debris were piled in front of the home dugout and at various other locations throughout the stadium. Most of the faded blue seats have been removed, as have the old concession stands and one of the main ramps that provided an entrance to the stadium. New sidewalks have been poured, and the club is in the process of ordering a new scoreboard.

Still in its early stages, the construction on the stadium started in early June, and despite a couple lawsuits that temporarily held up the project, it is on pace to be mostly completed by mid-February when the Orioles report for spring training.

An overhaul of the team's minor league facility at nearby Twin Lakes Park is also expected to be done by spring. That project includes a completely renovated clubhouse, additional batting cages and a refurbishing of four of the five outfields. The infields were redone in the fall.

When both projects are complete, Orioles officials are confident that their spring training facilities, long derided for being insufficient and outdated during the team's long stay in Fort Lauderdale, will be among the major leagues' best.

"It will put us on par with other organizations in terms of field availability and operating efficiencies that we have not enjoyed in the past," said Andy MacPhail, Orioles president of baseball operations.

Very few members of the organization have been back to the Ed Smith complex since heading north in early April for the start of the season. However, it's likely that an Orioles contingent, including new manager Buck Showalter, will visit the grounds in late September when the team is in nearby St. Petersburg to face the Tampa Bay Rays in the final road series of the year. By then, significant progress will likely have been made.

Most of the players, however, will wait until mid-February to get their first glimpse. The consensus in the Orioles' clubhouse is the complex — as it was this spring — was already a huge upgrade over what the team had grudgingly gotten used to in Fort Lauderdale, and there is a general excitement about its becoming even better.

"We had a pretty crappy facility in the past, and it's been tough when you get 60, 70 guys and you have to jam them in and you're only working with three fields over in Fort Lauderdale," right fielder Nick Markakis said. "The facility that we moved into this past spring was such an upgrade. Now, with them dumping as much money in it as they did and redoing it, it's going to be awesome. It's going to be a lot easier on the players and the organization to get as much done as we can in a short time."

"This year was 10 times better than what we had in Fort Lauderdale," said center fielder Adam Jones. "So, hopefully, it will get even better and we'll have a real nice stadium to show everybody."

To that end, the Orioles hired David Schwarz Architects of Washington, and the Sarasota-based Hoyt Architects to collaborate on the project, with a challenge to "add personality" to the 20-year-old stadium, according to Smith.

The renovated Ed Smith Stadium will have a classic ballpark feel while paying homage to Sarasota's architectural history. One of the defining features will be an entrance way behind home plate that will allow fans entering the stadium to immediately get a glimpse of the whole field.

In the coming days, work will accelerate on a second-floor facade, which will feature new concession areas and bathrooms. The old Ed Smith Stadium did not have a second-floor concourse. The new structure will also have an extension on its roof and a wrap-around apron that will help address frequent complaints that the stadium doesn't have enough shaded areas.

Smith said that after completion of the concourses, the final task will be redoing the outfield areas. A picnic area will be added in left field, and a bullpen will be built down the right-field line, adjacent to a berm.

Smith expects that will all be complete when the Orioles start trickling into the complex in early to mid-February. That was in doubt earlier this year after two local citizens groups filed a lawsuit against the city and county, alleging that Sarasota officials violated Florida's "Sunshine Laws" in its negotiations with the Orioles. The lawsuit prevented the county from issuing construction bonds for the project.

In early July, a circuit judge refused to overturn the deal between Sarasota and the Orioles and authorized the county to issue the bonds for the renovation of the facility. That ruling has since been appealed, so the legal issues aren't completely "a thing of the past," according to Smith, though they have become much less of a factor.

However, the legal delays will likely result in delays to the renovation of the main clubhouse building, which includes a major and minor league locker room, a weight room, team offices and the player's dining room.

That has done little to dim the Orioles' enthusiasm.

"We're just thrilled from a baseball perspective," Smith said. "We're looking at this with the same focus that we looked at Camden Yards. … Kudos to the county for getting all this together at a fast pace and making sure we did all those things that were iffy six months ago. It's like the clouds have parted and we're on our way."

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