SARASOTA, Fla. -- At long last, the Orioles have a home to roost during Spring Training that's sure to be the envy of the Grapefruit League.
The culmination of 23,000 hours of hard labor and months of planning and execution reached a peak Monday at noon ET during the Ed Smith Stadium topping-out ceremony.
Roughly 150 workers celebrated the ceremonial placing of the final piece of steel onto the frame of the completely revamped facility with a barbecue and cake-cutting picnic beside left field.
"It's bigger, but there's no mistaking that this is Spring Training," said Orioles vice president of planning and development Janet Marie Smith. "We didn't want to lose the casualness that marks Spring Training and really makes it a draw apart from the 162-game [schedule] in the Major League season. We hope that it will feel larger and more gracious, but we also hope that it will feel like the intimate park that it started out as."
Now that the skeleton is finished, Smith estimated the $31 million renovation project is now about 45 percent complete and right on schedule for its projected Feb. 15, 2011, completion date, and will welcome Orioles fans with open arms come the team's first game March 1.
And baseball fans will have much to celebrate. Smith not only was in charge of designing Camden Yards, but also oversaw renovations to Boston's Fenway Park. She brought a little bit of everything to Sarasota with her.
Smith and her team have taken great care to sprinkle touches of Baltimore throughout the park, from the signage to the decor, to bring a true Camden Yards experience to southwest Florida. They've also observed the rich architectural history of Sarasota, readily apparent in the great arches that welcome fans, the barrel-tile roof and buff-colored stucco exterior walls.
In addition to all of the eye-grabbing cosmetic touches, the Orioles kept their fans in mind when designing the new digs. Through several public meetings and community groups, developers learned the main complaint from park-goers was lack of an area to escape the Florida sun. And so?
The new theme is: Shade, shade, shade. While still leaving plenty of places to bask in the rays, construction has brought an indoor team store, an air-conditioned sit-down deli and an eight-foot extension to the roof to shade the entire infield section.
No more missing the on-field action to grab snacks: Where once there was an open cement concessions area far from the action now stands a two-story concourse around the field which blocks the sun and also still allows a panoramic view of the field.
Office areas and the press box have been completely gutted and redone. Luxury suites were added. The outfield fences will be seven feet to mimic Camden Yards. The bullpens were moved closer to the crowds, down the first- and third-base lines. A very generous milling-about area in the outfield was added. Four elevator towers were installed. Wheelchair sections were added. Seats were removed and will be replaced with refurbished seats from Camden Yards.
That's not all of the Camden tradition to be transplanted, either: Come spring, Boog's Barbecue will be slinging the same delicious meats it does at the park in Baltimore. And yes, fan favorite John "Boog" Powell, the Orioles-first-baseman-turned-owner-and-proprietor plans to serve it up, just like at home.
A new LED scoreboard with high-definition video is on its way. The home-plate concessions area has doubled. TVs will be installed around the concourses. A grand entryway -- complete with two stairways and possibly a baseball bat chandelier -- was constructed. The list goes on and on.
"We had a lot to work with, too," Smith said. "The structure lent itself very naturally for design, and we've reused the entire structure in one way or another. ... It's everything you've seen over the past two decades here, we even tried to save our trees outside on 12th Street.
"Ed Smith Stadium has served Sarasota well for 20 years; we're just delighted to be able to keep as much as we have."
And yet, the old Ed Smith Stadium is nearly unrecognizable with all of the updates. Fans of the former president of the Sarasota sports committee, after whom the stadium is named, can rest easy in knowing the building will retain its name.
In fact, the black block letters bearing the stadium's name at the entrance were still visible Monday, albeit under a load of scaffolding. Sarasota County project manager Carolyn Eastwood said the original letters will be saved for display.
"Sarasota does have a wonderful tradition, and we tried to honor that," said Smith, who has endured weekly commutes from Maryland to oversee the mammoth project.
Monday was just a tease of things to come: The outer structure is complete but still a "very active" construction site mandating all those who enter the premises to wear protective hard hats and watch their step. The project is right on schedule for the Orioles' arrival in February, though, and stepping across the street to take in the grand new structure in its entirety is already enough to conjure up the sights and smells of the Grapefruit League.
While there are no promises who'll make the Baltimore roster come spring 2011, one thing is for sure: Fans headed to Sarasota will now be able to cheer on Baltimore in style.
Dawn Klemish is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.