In 2009, Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota, Fla., appeared to be a park without a future. Over the years since the ballpark was built in 1989, the Chicago White Sox, Baltimore Orioles and Cincinnati Reds had all moved their spring-training operations out of it — the last straw for the Reds coming when local voters rejected a bond measure to rebuild the park in 2008.
At that point, no big-league team was interested in playing there. Today, it is the most popular ballpark in spring training, according to our research.
ReviewTrackers, a data-mining firm in Chicago, conducted a study for USA TODAY. It analyzed the comments in 36,000 online reviews of the 23 stadiums used for spring training, compiling the results in a report called “The Voice of the Fan.” The research found that Ed Smith Stadium is the most-liked venue for exhibition games.
“To score each spring training stadium, we track what fans say about four aspects of their experience,” says ReviewTrackers’ Max Schleicher. “We look at how they feel about the facility itself, the family friendliness, the food and drink, and the fan experience. Ed Smith does a lot of things well.”
The Orioles eventually returned to Sarasota, and this time, their spring home was a real showplace. The often-spurned ballpark was resurrected using a Florida-inspired design and Baltimore touches like crab cakes and Maryland crab soup. It was all part of a $31 million renovation that was completed in 2011.
Urban planner and architect Janet Marie Smith, whose résumé includes work on Baltimore’s Camden Yards, Atlanta’s Turner Field and Boston’s Fenway Park, represented the Orioles in discussions about how Ed Smith was to be rebuilt.
“I loved having the opportunity of taking the old and making it new again,” she says. “Americans are so quick to discard things when they stop meeting current market standards, without thinking about sustainability and using creative ways to reuse them.”
Orioles executive vice president John Angelos credits architect David Schwarz with creating a winning look for the park.
“He came up with the idea to wrap the double façade around that old stadium structure, and to go with what he called ‘Florida Picturesque,’ with kind of a turn-of-the-century look with Spanish influence.
“When you look at the before and after pictures, what he came up with is amazing.”
It has worked well for players, fans and coaches because the builders took into account all of their perspectives.
“It’s a baseball-functional facility because they did a great job of talking to the on-field personnel first and incorporating those needs with what would be best for the fans,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter told USA TODAY. “I am constantly hearing about how much (the fans) enjoy it. I know our staff here takes a lot of pride in creating a safe and enjoyable experience, especially for families.”