Jackson native Janet Marie Smith, a Mississippi State-educated architect, designed Camden Yards in Baltimore, renovated Fenway Park in Boston and most recently has renovated Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. Her hardhat is in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown, and she may be, too, someday.

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Tyler: Hello, and welcome to another edition of Crooked Letter Sports with Rick and Tyler Cleveland. Dad, today, we’re going to talk about sports venues, and I have a special guest from Mississippi who has left a lasting impact on some of our favorite venues in the whole county. 

Rick: Yeah, Janet Marie Smith. Jackson native. Went to high school at Callaway. Studied architecture at Mississippi State, and has changed the way America builds stadiums. Her first big project was Camden Yards in Baltimore, which is generally recognized as one of the best ballparks ever built. And then she’s credited with saving Fenway Park in Boston with her renovation of it. She built… redesigned Olympic Stadium into Turner Field in Atlanta.

And now she has been tasked with renovating Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, which is hard to believe now. It’s the third oldest stadium in baseball. 

Tyler: Yeah, it doesn’t look as old now. Now that she’s been through with it. 

Rick: I’ve been to, gosh, I guess 20, 25 Major League parks, and the setting for Dodger Stadium in LA is the most gorgeous of any of them. It’s just different, you know, it’s just unbelievable with the mountains behind it, and it’s set in a ravine. You got the skyline of the city. It’s just an amazing ballpark.

And what she’s done is blend what it was and modernized it and brought it into the 21st century. 

Tyler: You think that’s your favorite park in the Major Leagues? 

Rick: You know, Tyler it certainly would be on my top five. I think you and I visited Wrigley Field together two or three times.

And I’ve been a lot more than that. And I think it would still be my favorite ballpark.

Tyler: I would think Fenway would be up there for you. You’ve been up there and done the tour in the bowels before. 

Rick: Yeah. And that was thanks to Janet Marie. And, of course, Mississippi’s own Boo Farriss that set that up for me, but they’re all great ballparks, and she’s had a hand in it.

That’s amazing that, this woman from Jackson, Mississippi has changed the way that we do ballparks. 

Tyler: I’ve always had that affinity for Wrigley, but I might have to change my mind after going out to LA and seeing what she’s done out there. We gotta hook that up.

Rick: Yeah. Well, you are headed out there.

I’ve been to been to Dodger Stadium a couple of times, but I’m looking forward to going again and seeing what she’s done with it. And with that, let’s just get into the interview with Janet Marie. 

We’re joined now by Janet Marie Smith, Jackson native, Callaway graduate, Mississippi State graduate, who has made a huge difference in Major League Baseball and going into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame here later this month or next month.

And Janet Marie, it’s a big day at Dodger Stadium, as we talked this morning. 

Janet: It is, it’s been… I guess the fall of 2019 before you’ve had a full house at Dodger Stadium. And with a capacity of 56,000, all these COVID rules, it really made it seem like we were just rattling around an empty house.

So, after doing a hundred million dollar project in 2020, we just can’t wait to welcome fans back and see the energy in Dodger Stadium again.

Rick: Tell us what you have done at Dodgers Stadium. 

Janet: Well, when the Guggenheim partnership bought the club in 2012, they set out to renovate this 1962 mid-century modern building and provide it with the fan amenities that newer clubs had.

And so we’ve kind of systematically gone, not necessarily level by level, but sort of hit the hot spots to try and add the kind of extra room concessions, restrooms, kids’ play areas, circulation — just sort of the basics, but really dial it up. I mean, Dodger Stadium is the third oldest park in the Major Leagues, and it’s carved into the hillside of Chavez Ravine. And the Southern California climate and all the landscaping just make it super special.

So, we really wanted to make certain that what we were doing with this latest project was kind of the jewel in the crown. And so we spent the off-season after 2019, plus the hiccup that was 2020, on the construction of this big, large two-and-a-half acre Plaza in center field and connected all the other areas that we had improved over the years.

Put in elevators, escalators, bridges — just did a whole 360 around Dodger Stadium, so that when fans come in tonight, they’ll be greeted by a Jackie Robinson sculpture at our front door and progress into an area thats got kids’ play areas, batting and pitching cages, unique foods, sort of picnic-like atmosphere and a renovated outfield seating.

Rick: It was already, to me, the greatest setting for a ballpark in baseball, and I just can’t wait to get out there and see what you’ve done to it. 

Janet: Well, the good news about this is that the postcard view did not change. You know, more and more teams have moved into traditional urban settings and kind of followed the model that Baltimore set when they created Oriole Park at Camden Yards

if you look across the Major Leagues at Denver, San Francisco, San Diego, Pittsburgh, the urbanity of the parks has really been something to celebrate. And it’s really amazing how baseball and cities have reunited and sort of become one. And, baseball has become a part of rejuvenating these older cities, particularly the downtown areas, but it’s meant the Dodgers Stadium, which is really a downtown park, but sits surrounded by Elysian Park, one of the largest urban parks in America, really, it just makes it seem so special with this sort of green backdrop and the San Gabriel mountains in the distance.

So we really wanted to kind of dial that up. So, the work that we did this past offseason — of course, we had a lot of emphasis on the architecture because it’s such a unique building, but our landscape architects really get top billing in terms of the way everything is integrated into the landscape, then into hardscape.

Tyler: I was going to ask you, it must be kind of an intimidating task. You said it’s the third-oldest park, and you kind of went through the same thing with Camden, but it must be kind of intimidating to take on a project like that, knowing that you have to, you know, toe that line where you’re preserving what makes the stadium great, but also renovating.

I mean, how do you approach that and what do you think about?

Janet: Well, that’s actually my favorite part, is trying to kind of get your head around the building and listen to the building. I often say, if you let the building tell you what to do, you won’t make a mistake. And I think it’s really kind of amazing how the uniqueness of the architecture really does guide you. And in this case, we didn’t mess around with the original 1962 building very much. We call it a renovation, but really a lot of what we were doing, we’re adding appendages to it and creating these landscaped areas that are attached to the entries so that you would have big new concessions and big new restaurants and these kids’ areas outboard of the original footprint. And there’s no pretending that a 1962 footprint’s going to accommodate band expectations for the 21st century.

So we didn’t even try. We just tried to add onto it in a way that was sympathetic to the architecture and the landscape. When Walter O’Malley moved the club to the west coast in the late 1950s, he was as enamored with the landscape as he was the building and the engineering aspects of Dodger Stadium.

So we’ve tried to build on that, and hopefully, if you get a chance to visit or even just to watch it on television, you’ll see that our palm trees, the three that our legendary announcer Vin Scully referred to as “the Three Sisters,” have been lovingly put back in place. And we’ve added, we like to say, a bunch of cousins, a lot more palm trees out there and lilac trees that bloom this time of year, so there’s some color into the landscape. It’s just, it’s a really phenomenal setting and very, very different for baseball. 

Rick: Janet Marie, I think a lot of our listeners would be interested to know. How does a little girl growing up in Jackson, Mississippi, get this interested in baseball, number one, and then have such an impact on the sport, the grand old game?

Janet: Well, I think Mississippi State School of Architecture deserves a lot of credit for that because I certainly ended up loving baseball as a sport because we were perched there on the edge of campus. And it was one of the few things that we could do that didn’t seem to take half a day to get to some other events.

So, we’d just roll out of the studio and watch a few innings and then go back to work. But maybe more importantly, the program that then Dean William McMahan had put together acknowledged that teaching architecture in a setting like Starkville was inherently limited. And so we spent four years in the studio on the Starkville campus. And our fifth year we spent in Jackson studying more urban issues, but maybe more importantly than that, our lecture series, our field trips really introduced us to a lot of urbanity in America. And probably the trips that we made to Boston and to New Orleans were every bit as impactful as anything I ever did in the classroom.

So really ended up graduating from school, loving cities. Loving baseball, but loving cities. And after I moved to New York and started to really see how a city of that scale worked, I think I came to appreciate baseball all the more because it is such a reflection of our culture and our traditions. And it’s a game that’s different.

Wherever it’s played, the outfield is not the same. And so particularly in a setting like Boston, where Fenway Park’s dimensions are kind of squeezed in because of the streets and blocks around it or whether you got to the majestic building of Yankee Stadium in New York. And, you know, we just talked about the sort of quirkiness of the landscape and Los Angeles.

I mean, all those things are so different from city to city. And I just got to using it, like many baseball fans do, as a way of seeing the city, you know? How many ballparks that you’ve been to. How did it change? How was the food different? And I never really thought about it as a professional pursuit until I learned that Baltimore was going to be building a new baseball park for the Orioles in downtown Baltimore.

I’d study Baltimore when I was in urban planning school in New York, after I had gotten my undergraduate degree. And I knew that they’d built an aquarium, a science center, a waterfront promenade, and really reinvented themselves after industry had moved out. I just thought, wow, there goes Baltimore again, doing something by bringing Oriole fans into downtown they’re sort of populating downtown with yet another group of people who would use the restaurants, the hotels, the light rail system, the parking lots. And so I wrote a letter to the president and CEO, and the rest is history, as they say. 

Rick: As George Will said in a column he wrote, that baseball owes a huge debt to the willowy woman from Mississippi.

That’s pretty high praise. 

Janet: High praise from someone I really admire. So, I know the book you’re quoting. It really was a really lovely compliment. And I don’t feel like I deserve the credit I often get because you don’t do these projects solo. You start out with a team that’s trusted you to do this, and I have just enormous gratitude to pay myself, to both Larry Lucchino, who first hired me, and to Stan Kasten, who I work for now, this is my second time working for Stan.

So I think you start by thanking the people who’ve given you the job and felt that they had confidence in me to put together a team. And then of course, I’ve got a huge team of people that I lead, and they are architects, landscape architects, graphic designers, and then it’s my colleagues within the organization.

You know, you just don’t cook up these ideas in a vacuum, the way these things come together include your sponsorship group, your stadium operations, your marketing team, your ticketing team, grounds crew, the baseball team itself. You know, there’s so, so many constituent groups, and last but not least the fans, you know, believe me.

You don’t go into the city of Boston and renovate Fenway Park. And I don’t care how many ballparks you worked on, you’re not the expert, right? These fans have been going for decades. It’s just been fantastic, really, learning from all the people around me.

Rick: You’re being very humble, but someone has to have the vision. And I think that’s what you’ve had, is you had the— 

Janet: Often, the vision comes from my boss. I don’t think a Larry Lucchino or a Stan Kasten or, you know, a Peter Angelos brings me in without having some idea where they want to take the building. And I think that’s really, you know, I think that’s really where it starts, is with the leadership of an organization and their willingness to put money into it because they’re not inexpensive projects either. And you have to believe that the investment and the building as an investment in your fanbase and an investment in your club and that it will have residual impact on the success of the franchise.

So I really admire the way I’ve seen that thinking come together. Camden Yards is a really good example of Larry’s pursuit of making a baseball-only park against the backdrop of a sport that was still accustomed to playing in a large multipurpose venue. And he really felt strongly about it being baseball only in a small intimate field and asymmetry in the outfield and the urbanity of the sport and sort of fast-forward to the work I’m doing now for Stan Kasten.

Stan’s said a million times, “This is the most beautiful park and Major League Baseball.” And here at Dodger Stadium, if we mess that up, we’ve totally failed. You know, he’s really carried the banner on, we gotta get out of fans standing in line trying to get concessions and trying to find their seats.

And we need to acknowledge that fans don’t sit in their seats for nine innings, and they’re looking for social areas and looking for things to do that augment the game itself. But you have to believe in those things to even think about hiring someone like me. 

Rick: You have had the opportunity to work with some of the most famous people in baseball.

I know you have told me before that Frank Robinson, you entrusted him, and you brought him in on the project at Camden Yard.

Janet: He was our manager at the Orioles when we were building Oriole Park at Camden Yards. And Frank was an incredible resource. I mentioned a moment ago that our president and CEO, Larry Lucchino, really wanted Camden Yards to be an old-fashioned ballpark and have the traits of a Forbes field or an Ebbets field or Fenway that really the place itself drew fans in.

But what better resource than Frank Robinson, who had played in those parks? And goodness knows, we could yap all day long to, you know, various groups about what our goals were. But Frank, Frank had the credibility to speak about what it meant to be in a baseball-only park and as a player, to know that park and for the energy of the fanbase to envelop you and to really change the way you approached the game.

So he was hugely important in being an advocate for that kind of architectural approach, but he was equally as important in terms of looking at it through the lens of what kind of game was going to be played there. And though he’s known for his power as a hitter, he advocated for a fair park.

He felt very strongly it should not favor hitters or pitchers, that it shouldn’t be a band box, that it really needed to be a place that played fair. And he focused on the foul territory, the fence heights. He understood the idea of it being asymmetrical because we had the B&O warehouse in right field and that that limited the way that we were approaching the shape of the playing field, as well as the seating bowl. But he really wanted this to be a fair park. And I learned so much from him, and he had such a huge role in this, but of course, he’s Frank Robinson. So he’s got so many other accolades that he’s celebrated for, including his turnaround year with the Orioles in 1989, when he took them from worst to first and was Manager of the Year.

So Camden Yards rates, you know, way down on the list of Frank Robinson accomplishments, but what a difference it made to our team to have him there to guide us. 

Tyler: And then you get to LA, and I understand your office was near Tommy Lasorda’s office. I mean, can you kind of tell us how that was and, and what your first impressions were?

Janet: Well, that was so much fun, and Tommy was generous with his time and it was so nice to be in close proximity to someone that legendary, but more importantly, he was just such a kind man. And so loved baseball, loved Dodger baseball, knew Dodger history. So, you know, I could ask him any question, whether it was a broad question like tell me what it was like when you learned that the Dodgers were leaving Brooklyn and going to LA, like, what was that like?

And It was just amazing, the stories he could tell about sort of how it impacted him as a person, how America thought of it. And the historian in me just took it all in, but I could go into Tommy’s office with a photograph and say, “Tommy, who is this? I can identify three of these four players, who’s the fourth?,” and get a 30-minute story on that player and what their stats were and moments that Tommy remembered. If it was baseball-related, he had it locked in. And he did love Dodger Stadium. His moniker for it was Blue Heaven on Earth. So you’ll probably see in the photographs that that’s maybe the centerpiece of this plaza that we just opened this year.

When you’re greeted at the front door of Dodger Stadium by the Jackie Robinson sculpture, you see just beyond it a sign welcoming you to Blue Heaven on Earth. And it’s a little bit of a tribute to Tommy. 

Rick: And how about Vin Scully? Tell us a little bit about Vin. He’s the greatest, the best ever.

Janet: Oh, my gosh, I know. It’s still… It’s so interesting looking at Dodger history and looking at old video and the soundtrack is the same. The photographs may be grainy black and white photos from some of their early games in Memorial Coliseum here in Los Angeles, but the voice has clearly been Scully and it was just, I think we all recognize what a true, true legend…

That word is not an exaggeration when it comes to someone like Vin, who just retired after some 60 something years. It’s just amazing. And you go through a lot of clubs and you see a lot of Hall of Fame plaques, a lot of Ford Frick awards, MVP awards, but the amazing thing about the Dodgers is that Dodger royalty is still here at Dodger Stadium. They never left. 

Rick: Yeah, we’ve talked about Tommy Lasorda, Vin Scully, Frank Robinson. What they all share is they’re all in the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. And I don’t think there’s any doubt that you will be too, someday. 

Janet: Well, I was happy enough when they asked for my hard hat.

I thought that that’s enough. I don’t have any fantasy of anything more winding up there, but I’m so honored that when they did their Women in Baseball display a decade or so ago that they asked for that. And so, I love having that little corner to celebrate in the top, happily for me right next to their very exhibit on baseball parks. So, I don’t know that that was by design or coincidence, but it sure is fun being up there and looking at all those older parks and thinking about the evolution of the buildings we’re in. And I know when I worked on Camden Yards almost 30 years ago, now, it was kind of amazing to me to wonder if it would stand the test of time.

And fans would always say, “How do you know, how do you know?” And you don’t, right? You don’t have a crystal ball. You don’t know how a building’s going to be received, and you don’t know if it’s going to be a star for the moment and then kind of fade, fade away. And so it’s really rewarding to see that Oriole Park at Camden Yards is still celebrating its spot in baseball lore here 30 years later. And maybe the most rewarding thing is after HOK sport designed that building for the Orioles, they went on to do equally impressive buildings in Cleveland and Denver and San Diego. And maybe cities are the real beneficiary of this trend toward baseball-only parks in urban settings.

Rick: Well, Janet Marie, we could go on and on. And I know you’ve got a busy schedule today, but we’re so proud of what you’ve achieved in Mississippi. And I am so happy that you’re going into the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. 

Janet: Well, I am so proud to be from Mississippi, and I think that’s one thing that I can tell you with absolute certainty.

Anytime someone says, “where are you from?” and I answer, “Mississippi,” it sends us off on a trail of stories. So I’ve always felt so lucky to be from a state with such rich personalities and such good fodder for conversation and talk about the food, the baseball that’s hosted in Mississippi.

Everybody in baseball knows something about Dudy Noble Field at Mississippi State. So, it’s not hard to find some commonality. 

Rick: Well take care, Janet Marie. Good luck tonight! 

Janet: Thank you. Great to have 50,000 fans back in this building. 

Rick: Look forward to seeing you in Jackson later this summer. 

Janet: Thank you. Can’t wait to be there.

Tyler: And that’s it for us today. Thanks so much to Janet Marie Smith for joining us, and thanks to the good folks at Blue Sky Studios who helped produce this podcast. Be sure to follow us on social media @TylerCleveland and @rick_cleveland on Twitter. And you can always keep up to date with what’s going on in the world of Mississippi sports through Scorebook Live Mississippi and mississippitoday.org.

Dad, that was a great conversation with Janet. Just a fascinating, fascinating story she’s had. 

Rick: Yeah, she is. She’s made a difference in America’s pastime. 

Tyler: I don’t think you could give any higher praise. Be sure to check back next week. We’ll have another episode up on Thursday. You can get it at mississippiday.org or wherever you get your podcasts.

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.

Tyler Cleveland is a senior reporter for Scorebook Live and the co-host of Mississippi Today's Crooked Letter Sports Podcast.