The House That Smith Built

May 16, 1993|By Peter Richmond

In "Ballpark: Camden Yards and the Building of an American Dream," author Peter Richmond takes us back to summer 1991. Construction continues on the new, yet-to-be-named stadium at the Camden Yards railroad site. As the steel rises west of the Inner Harbor, public sentiment about the stadium design is mixed.

The original plan, drawn by Kansas City architectural firm HOK, has the stadium tall, curvilinear and entirely unrelated to the surrounding cityscape. It fails to live up to the vision held by Orioles owner Eli Jacobs and President Larry Lucchino, who want an old-fashioned and inviting stadium. Architect and urban planner Janet Marie Smith is named ballclub vice president and entrusted to craft a reality from their dream.

In this article adapted from his book, Richmond, who was allowed to visit the construction site on several occasions, gives us a glimpse of the powerful personalities whose decisions sculpted the crown jewel of Baltimore's tourist attractions. We join him at the site, where Frank Robinson, the Orioles' assistant general manager who has the final word on player-related matters for the new stadium, awaits Smith, who is the voice of the Orioles' management at the design table.

At the table, blueprints spread in front of him, Frank Robinson has to smile. That's the exact literal truth: He has to smile.

Robinson would prefer not to, though. Smith has left him waiting for 40 minutes, waiting outside his car on a dusty road on the ballpark construction site.

And here, Robinson has squandered 40 dusty minutes -- a man with no hair out of place, a man whose shoes are so polished they reflect the morning sun, out here in the dust and the wind and the scraps of paper from the lunch cart blowing up in little tornadoes. For 40 minutes he has endured various workers looking for autographs, people with less than a great deal of tact ("Could I get your autograph? I couldn't get Brooks' the day he was out here"). When, finally, Smith, wearing a black-and-orange matching scarf and skirt visible at three miles, pulls up in her BMW and jumps out of the car and jams a hard hat on her head, neither exchanges glances.

But now Smith is carrying a cast-iron, ball-jointed, box seat railing, the one she has been looking for for months, and Frank Robinson has to smile. It's a slow-developing thing, that smile, but once it gets going, it gains momentum, until Robinson is shaking his head while he's smiling.

Soon the Frank Robinson dry humor -- it's his favorite mode of social interaction -- is in full stride. She holds a swatch of material that will cover the outfield fence.

"We have a beautiful Camden Green swatch here," she says. "Isn't it beautiful?"

"What if they call it Oriole Park?" Robinson asks, with a Frank Robinson smile.

"It's still Camden Green," she says, and the expression on her face begs no further discussion.

Now, when Frank has finally loosened up enough to see humor everywhere, Smith's smile is waning.

It is often difficult to tell whether Smith has heard you. As we leave to tour the construction site, Smith puts on her construction hat again, and it appears to be too small.

"Your head's gotten larger," Frank says. Smith appears not to hear.

Down in the showers, down in the still-nascent locker room, Robinson, the former player, has a chance to turn the tables. Even in its half-baked state, this is clearly a players' place. Robinson sees that the shower heads are too high up, and -- worse -- are of a design that will spray needles of water instead of gentle showers. With stunningly short words, as if he's biting off pieces of a radish, Robinson snaps, "The tile is beautiful, but the shower head is all wrong! You put that up there? We talked about this."

"I know we did," says Smith. She is not trying to get out of it and she admits making the mistake. It seems an uncharacteristic concession but it's prompted by one of the wisest philosophies she has held on to throughout the project: Always defer to a player (or former player, in this case) in baseball matters.

They poke their heads into the manager's shower stall, which is still under construction. Smith notices several numbers written on a few tiles, a couple of square inches. She wets her thumb and rubs them out. Robinson points out, with a smile, that she has erased the workman's specifications. Smith allows herself a smile at her manic attention to detail.

Above us, the field is still a parched prairie, half the seats have yet to be installed, the lights haven't gone up and there is no scoreboard, yet Smith is agonizing over 3 square inches of a manager's shower stall.

A few minutes later, in the Orioles' locker room, Smith gestures at a wall and explains that mirrors will give an open feeling to the space.

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