For Orioles, overhauled spring training home is years overdue

Team set to debut overhauled Ed Smith Stadium on Tuesday

February 28, 2011|By Jeff Zrebiec, The Baltimore Sun

SARASOTA, Fla. — The architectural style is "Florida Picturesque," and the baseball amenities make Ed Smith Stadium a field of dreams, but there really is only one way to describe the dramatic restoration project that has created a beautiful new home away from home for the Orioles.

Long overdue.

Two decades after they began their quest for a new all-purpose spring training facility, the Orioles will christen Ed Smith Stadium on Tuesday afternoon against the Tampa Bay Rays in what will be a celebration for an organization that has endured substandard and outdated spring facilities for years.

"I think everyone in the organization is glad the quest is over, the odyssey is over and the foundation is now in place," said Alan Rifkin, an Orioles attorney who negotiated the deal with Sarasota along with executive vice president John Angelos. "It's moving from a facility that has seen its better days and is on its decline to one that is one of the most well-built, well-designed structures in all of spring training. It's moving up to the penthouse."

The Orioles' $31.2 million renovation of their new spring training home and the minor league complex at nearby Twin Lakes Park started in June and will continue long after the big league team heads north for the 2011 season. However, the stadium has already garnered rave reviews from players, coaches and team officials. Orioles fans and the Sarasota community, which has hosted spring training for almost 90 years, will now get their first glimpse of the overhauled 22-year-old stadium.

"In a way, it represents to us this euphoric moment of being able to turn it over to fans," said Orioles vice president of planning and development Janet Marie Smith, who has spearheaded the renovation efforts. "And yet, we also realize it represents a new beginning of evaluating how we use it and what else we may want to do to tweak it. One thing we're excited about is just architecturally, this little Ed Smith Stadium has been here for like 20 years but without any real personality. I think we're just really pleased that it's come together and people have responded so favorably to what is clearly not just a facelift, but a complete overhaul."

Rifkin and Smith led Hall of Famer and former Oriole Frank Robinson, familiar with the stadium from his playing and coaching days, on a tour of the facility late last week. According to Rifkin, Robinson said: "I've been to this ballpark before, but I don't believe I been to this ballpark."

Circuitous route to Sarasota

After training at dilapidated Fort Lauderdale Stadium for 14 years, the Orioles moved their spring operations to Sarasota last year, signing a 30-year agreement with Sarasota County. The agreement capped years of tedious and at times contentious negotiations with different spring suitors, including Vero Beach, Fort Myers and Naples.

Initially, the team pledged to keep its spring operations in Fort Lauderdale, but that plan, and an agreement on a $40 million stadium upgrade, was nixed when the Federal Aviation Administration wanted a $1.3 million annual payment from the club for the use of the land. Fort Lauderdale Stadium is adjacent to an executive airport.

When the Cincinnati Reds left Sarasota to train in Arizona and the Boston Red Sox opted to stay in Fort Myers, the Orioles, whose lease in Fort Lauderdale expired, found common ground on the Gulf Coast.

"The world works in mysterious ways," Rifkin said. "In retrospect, it's significant and productive that the FAA took the position it took and the Red Sox made the decision they made. That moment in time was simply fortuitous."

While the state of the Ed Smith facility last year was a significant upgrade over what the club had grudgingly gotten used to in Fort Lauderdale, it still had plenty of limitations. But that has mostly changed over the past nine months.

The four practice fields have been enhanced, with one carrying the same dimensions as Camden Yards and another being equipped with an AstroTurf infield to help the Orioles prepare for road games against the Rays and Toronto Blue Jays. The stadium houses the only high-definition video board in the Grapefruit League, 35-foot-wide concourses, picnic areas down the right- and left-field lines, an air-conditioned lounge and deli, a plethora of concession options and plenty of places to get out of the sun.

"It's 10 times better," Orioles center fielder Adam Jones said. "This is big league spring training. The last few years, it's been like we're playing independent ball."

Exceeding expectations

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