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Braves hold 'topping out' ceremony as SunTrust Park takes shape

June 14, 2016

Driving past SunTrust Park, where construction cranes tower over the structure and dump trucks come and go from the park's outfield entrance area, there's a leafy oddity attached to a steel beam, 155 feet above the park's yet-to-be completed playing surface.

A small white ash tree was recently mounted atop the 33-foot long, 1,422-pound beam before it was lifted into place as part of a "topping out" ceremony, a construction tradition symbolizing that the final and highest beam of a building project has been put in place.

"It's a major milestone in the building process of this ballpark," Braves chairman and CEO Terry McGuirk said in front of a gathering of construction workers, media members and state and county officials.

"I'm happy to report that construction is on time and on budget."

Typically, an evergreen tree is used in a topping out ceremony, which has roots dating back 1,500 years to stonemasons and Egyptian pyramids. The tree is meant to appease the "tree gods" displaced during construction, according to Marc Dyer, senior project manager for Hirschfield Industries, the contractor in charge of SunTrust Park's steel construction.

Instead, the Braves chose a white ash, a tree used to make the wooden bats favored by most Major League Baseball players.

"I love it," Derek Schiller, Braves president of business operations, said of the tree choice. "It's a great tie-in with a baseball stadium. I think it's a perfect fit."

The 12x12-inch beam, which also has an American flag mounted on it -- an American Ironworkers tradition dating back to the 1930s -- marks a significant milestone in the construction of SunTrust Park as the Braves prepare to move into their new home for the start of the 2017 season. The final beam puts a cap on the approximately 6,800 tons of steel used on the project. Laid end-to-end, the steel would stretch for 50 miles.

But it's the tree that will generate most of the interest when passersby stare up at the stadium's steel skeleton as construction continues over the next nine months.

"These ceremonies are very emotional in some ways," Schiller said. "So when you get a chance to explain a bit about the history and then make it your own (with the ash tree), it creates an even bigger opportunity to understand what the project means to all of us from the Braves, the construction workers and hopefully the entire community."

Dyer, who has been part of several topping out ceremonies while working on other stadium projects, including New York's Citi Field and Gillette Stadium in Massachusetts, was a bit surprised when he first saw the tree chosen for the beam.

"That kind of caught me off guard," Dyer said. "As soon as I walked up to the beam, I said 'That's the wrong tree'. Then they told me that it was because of the bats, and I understood. It makes sense. Traditionally, it's an evergreen, but they've used eggs, they've used chicken blood, they've used multiple offerings to appease whatever spirit they are trying to appease."

Schiller and McGuirk, who were joined on-site by other Braves officials, including vice chairman John Schuerholz and Mike Plant, the team's president of development, praised the teamwork between Dyer's Hirschfield crew and the general contactors of American Builders 2017 for keeping the stadium on schedule.

"The construction process for us has been very well-oiled and streamlined from the very beginning," Schiller said. "There aren't really a whole lot of egos involved on these construction teams. It's the reason why we're on time and on budget."

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