Jackson’s Smith: A true baseball hero – Jackson Clarion Ledger
She has never hit a curveball or stolen a base. Never made a diving catch or turned a double play.
But Janet Marie Smith, who grew up in Jackson and is a proud member of Callaway High Schoolâs Class of 1975,Â earned two World Series rings as a senior vice president for planning and development with the Boston Red Sox in 2004 and 2007.
And she may have hit the most important home run, figuratively speaking, in franchise history by rescuing 103-year-old Fenway Park from demolition.
âIt was like resurrecting a corpse that had already turned blue,â laughs Smith, 57, who earned an architecture degree from Mississippi State in 1981 and a Masterâs in urban planning from City College of New York in 1984. âEvery year, the Red Sox wanted a new ballpark. And who could blame them? Every city was getting one.â
She saved it by reminding team officials and fans what was wonderful about it, while making âthe not so sexy changes that were crucial,â she says. Doubling the size of the restrooms. Expanding concourses. Updating concession stands to where fans could buy freshly-cooked food.
Whoâs to say those championship teams, fueled by the 37,000-plus fans who packed the place every night, would have played with the same grit and confidence in a shiny new home?Â Whoâs to say the 2004 Red Sox would have somehow rallied to win two extra-inning games anywhere except ghostly Fenway to extend the American League Championship Series and eventually dispose of the hated New York Yankees?
Without question, Fenway had a hand in the magic that delivered Bostonâs first World Series title in 86 years.
That alone makes Janet Marie Smith a baseball hero.
But hereâs the thing: She already was one.
Smith calls it âmy baby.â
She is referring to Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the Baltimore Oriolesâ home since 1992. It wasÂ the first ballpark built in a cityâs downtown district since the Brooklyn Dodgersâ Ebbets Field in 1913.
Camden Yards has served as a model for nearly every Major League park built since its debut.
It embraced the cityâs culture with a view of the neighborhood beyond the outfield walls, broke the cycle of the round, cookie-cutter stadiums built to serve pro baseball and football teams, and provided older nostalgic fans with a trip back in time while connecting younger fansÂ with an urban environment.
This was the sort of ballpark in which Babe Ruth would have launched home runs during an era when baseball was Americaâs game and no other sport was a close second.
On Opening Day 2012, when the Orioles were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Camden Yards, manager Buck Showalter told ESPN writer Tim Kurkijan: âIt has never tried to be something that it’s not. There was nothing fake about it. There are no hills in center field. They didn’t copy anyone. As soon as you walked in, it had that cathedral feeling. You thought immediately, ‘This place will stand the test of time.â â
When asked how she came to lead the development of the park, Smith shakes her head and says, âI got so lucky.â
Always a fan of the game, Smith wanted to see the Orioles play in 1988 â not because they were a great team but because they were on the way to losing 107 games. Plus, she had never visited Baltimore and wanted to explore it.
She attended a game at Memorial Stadium. While talking with fans seated beside her, Smith learned the Orioles were making plans to build a new ballpark downtown.
âIt took me a few days but I suddenly realized that was the project Iâd been looking for,â she says. âIf the Orioles were going to move downtown, I felt like it would be a great way to use what I had studied â architecture and urban planning.â
She wrote Orioles president Larry Lucchino a letter and followed with âa couple of phone calls â¦ OK, maybe 20,â she laughs. âBut we talked, and he kept saying âDonât use the âsâ word â stadium. I want a real ballpark.â And I thinkÂ he could tell that I âgot it.â I understood what he wanted.â
In 1989, Lucchino hired Smith as the projectâs architectural consultant. She led an effort to incorporate the old with the new and hopefully building a park that would become as cherished as Fenway Park and Chicagoâs Wrigley Field some day. Home plate from Memorial Stadium was installed at Camden Yards. So was the right field foul pole.
One question loomed? What should they do with the vacant brick warehouse, once owned by B&O railroad, that towered above the right field fence, 500 feet from home plate? Some wanted to tear it down.
Smith fought to keep it.
âSupposedly, itâs the longest building (1,116 feet) east of the Mississippi (River),â she says. âIt was part of the neighborhood, and had been since 1900 or so.â
That warehouse turned out to be the signature feature of Camden Yards. Today, it houses the teamâs executive offices and remains a target for sluggers. No batter has hit a ball off it in a game, although Ken Griffey, Jr. managed to reach it during batting practice.
From there, Smithâs career as âthe woman who designs Major League ballparksâ took off.
Atlanta Braves president Stan Kasten hired her in 1994 to lead the conversion of Atlantaâs Olympic Stadium into a baseball park that would become known as Turner Field.
After Lucchino moved to the Red Sox as president, he brought Smith to Boston in 2002 to lead the renovation of Fenway Park. She returned to Baltimore in 2009 to oversee a minor facelift of Camden Yards.
In 2012, Smith accepted the position of senior vice president for planning and development with the Los Angeles Dodgers, a position she holds today. And once again sheâs working for Kasten, president and part-owner of the Dodgers. He called Smith âmy best off-season acquisition.â
âIâve worked for four teams but was hired by two people â Larry Lucchino and Stan Kasten,â she says. âLike I said, there has been a lot of luck involved.â
As the old saying goes, luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity.
In his book âA Nice Little Place on the North Side,â saluting the Cubsâ Wrigley Field turning 100 in 2014, author and baseball historian George Will writes: âThe three most important things that have happened in baseball since the second World War was Jackie Robinson taking the field in Brooklyn in 1947, free agency arriving in 1975 and Oriole Park at Camden Yards opening in 1992 â¦ Major League Baseball owes a debt to a willowy woman from Mississippi. To those who said, âYou canât turn back the clock,â Janet Marie Smith said, âWell, weâll just see about that.â â
She chose a college â Mississippi State â before deciding on a major.
When she visited State to look at possible career paths, she visited the art department but found it âtoo passive and isolated.â She attended a statistics class at the engineering school âand left bug-eyed â¦ I knew that wasnât for me.â
Then she went to the school of architecture and âthey were building models and doing all this fun stuff. The energy in there was palpable. I was sold.â
Looking back, it wasnât all that surprising. Her father, the late Thomas Henry Smith, was a respected architect in Jackson and was among a group that helped start the architectural program at MSU.
âOf course, his career had an impact on me, but so did my mom (Nellie),â Smith says. âShe worked at (University of Mississippi Medical Center) in medical records. It was a job that requires a Masterâs degree these days. She stayed home with me and my sister (Susan) until we were well into elementary school. My father told her she didnât have to go back, but it really stuck with me when she said, âNo, I want to work.â â
Smith, who is married and the mother of three childrenÂ ranging in age from 17 to 21, loved growing up in Mississippi, and specifically Jackson. She never fails to lend her home state a hand when possible. She flew overnight from the Dominican Republic to speak Thursday to junior high and high school students at the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fameâs annual Women In Sports Day.
âAnd I love it when people ask me where Iâm from,â she says, âbecause every time I say âMississippiâ I never get a blank stare. People always have something to say â and so do I.â
In return, many Mississippians realize what an incredible ambassador she is for the state.
âJanet is pure genius when it comes to baseball stadiums,â says Ray Mabus, Secretary of the Navy, a former Mississippi governor and an avid Red Sox fan. âShe is the Picasso of the ballpark and has single handedly brought going to a ball game back to being a more personal and unique experience.â
Says Nashville attorney Marsh Nichols, a Jackson native who became close friends with Smith at MSU: âSheâs one of the most amazing people Iâve ever known. Sheâll be (in the Baseball Hall of Fame) at Cooperstown before itâs all over.â
And Malcolm White, director of Visit Mississippi and one of the stateâs most tireless promoters, says of Smith: âShe is brilliant, driven, devoted and one of our brightest stars that most sports fans do not know.
âWhen baseball fans brag about the revitalization of the great American ballparks like Camden Yards or Fenway Park, I smugly nod and say under my breath, âMississippi.â To paraphrase what Miss (Eudora) Welty used to say, Janet Marie âworks quietly underfootâ in a high stakes, multi-billion dollar industry known simply as baseball.
âShe has crafted a highly successful and creative scorecard.â
Contact Billy Watkins at (769) 257-3079 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BillyWatkins11 on Twitter.