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DAN SHAUGHNESSY

New ballgame

Another season of home improvement

Worker Franklin Pimentel hoses down the Pavilion seats at Fenway Park the day before the home opener.
Worker Franklin Pimentel hoses down the Pavilion seats at Fenway Park the day before the home opener. (Globe Staff Photo / Bill Greene)

It's amazing now to think there were plans to tear the thing down.

Fenway Park was in decay, we were told. It was becoming a safety issue. The old ballyard was ready to crumble and you could only do so much with another layer of new green paint over old, chipped green paint. The ballpark was on life support and those with power of attorney were preparing to pull the plug.

Look at it now. The ancient yard today celebrates its 95th Opening Day and it never has looked better. In April 2006, Fenway Park is Baseball Oz.

This latest extreme makeover -- which began seconds after the Red Sox were swept out of the playoffs by Chicago last October -- has made Fenway the proverbial crown jewel of the major leagues. Sure, there are newer parks with more space and fan amenities, and all of them are more affordable, but no ballyard in the world offers a better mix of charm, beauty, tradition, and modern innovation.

Gone is the vile aquarium that went by the name of 600 (later 406) Club. In its place are two layers of open-air seating, both backed by cushy function room/restaurants for those who wish to come in from the cold or wind. It's as if you transported the Gillette Stadium clubhouse lounges into the back walls of olde Fenway. And like everything else that's been done in the last four years (Monster Seats, right-field pavilion), the new tiers of seats look as if they were there when the park was opened the week the Titanic sank.

It is, in a word, spectacular. And we're not just saying that because (here comes the tired disclaimer) Daddy Globe is owned by the New York Times Co., which owns 17 percent of the Boston American League baseball team.

Who gets the credit? Certainly fans can thank John W. Henry, Tom Werner, the aforementioned Times, and all the limited partners who supported this extensive and expensive renovation. Larry Lucchino, a pinata for nitwit nation, isn't likely to get many bouquets from Sox fans who still blame him for the weird (and temporary) departure of general manager Theo Epstein, but his handprints are all over the new Fenway Park. Chief architects at D'Agostino Izzo Quirk get credit, as do structural engineers from McNamara Salvia and the graphics folks at Ashton and Associates.

And then there's Janet Marie Smith, the godmother of modern baseball stadiums. She's been the one looking into the corners of old Fenway for the last four years and finding ways to make use of the limited space. She's been making millions of suggestions, spending Henry's money as if it grows on hedges.

''I have an idea a minute," she said. ''They're always trying to rein me in."

Smith is an unlikely baseball hero. A native of Jackson, Miss., she never played the game, didn't have any brothers, and her first experience at a big league ballpark was a trip to the Astrodome when she was 11. That's like finding out that Norah Jones was inspired by first listening to Barry Manilow.

The daughter of an architect, Thomas Henry Smith (''We all like three names," she said), Smith got a degree in architecture at Mississippi State (home of coach Boo Ferriss, another Mississippi gift to the Red Sox), and a degree in planning from the City College of New York. She was 31 when then-Oriole executive Lucchino got her involved in a new Baltimore ballpark project. The result was Oriole Park at Camden Yards, and some say that Camden triggered the most significant change in baseball since Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.

The new Baltimore ballpark changed everything about the way parks were built, and every ballyard constructed since 1993 has borrowed from the Camden plan. Today we have a nation of new parks featuring exposed brick and green steel beams, asymmetry, and old-timey ingredients merged with modern conveniences. And it all started in Baltimore. It all started with Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith.

Smith is shy about taking the credit, and she has remained remarkably low-profile during her stint in Boston despite her major contributions to one of our town's most beloved landmarks. She's still a Baltimore resident, raising pre-teen kids with her husband, Bart Harvey, but in her capacity as Red Sox senior vice president of planning and development, she has overseen the most dramatic changes to Fenway since Thomas A. Yawkey rebuilt the place in 1934.

''I have a great team," she said. ''Most of what I do is wave and gesture. We would not be able to do any of this if John, Tom, and Larry didn't care so much about the place. If you care about it, you can make it work. And John with Fenway is like a kid with a new set of Matchbox cars."

Henry is said to be thrilled with the latest improvements and believes he is working in the best ballpark in the land.

''It does look pretty good, doesn't it?" said Smith.

Yes, it does. This is not to forget the things that cannot be improved. The poles and obstructed views are still there. The old seats are still too small and there's no knee room for people taller than 5 feet 10 inches. Seats in Sections 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 still face the bullpens instead of the infield, and there's always going to be standing water after a drenching rain. There never will be ample parking, and even with new space found by Smith, there always will be fan congestion. Fenway has become prohibitively expensive for the common fan, but the Sox have more demand than supply and they're trying to compete with a team that doesn't blush at a $200 million player payroll.

Not that anybody cares, but the only portion of the ballpark that remains hideous is the press box, which sits atop the two new fan tiers behind home plate. Aesthetically (and perhaps practically) speaking, the new Fenway of 2006 would be best served if the press box were simply lopped off the top with a giant cleaver. There are a lot of people who would be happy if this could be done midgame.

Opening Day 2006. Red Sox-Blue Jays. 2:05 p.m. Happy 95th, Fenway. You never looked better.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. His e-mail address is dshaughnessy@globe.com. For more photos of the new and improved Fenway Park, go to boston.com/redsox

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