Signing Off on the Last Stadium Beam

Mark D. Lerner, a principal owner of the Nationals, and Jonathan Lerner, are among many to sign the final steel beam for the team's new stadium.
Mark D. Lerner, a principal owner of the Nationals, and Jonathan Lerner, are among many to sign the final steel beam for the team's new stadium. (Pouya Dianat - The Washington Post)
By Ashlee Clark
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007

There are 3,500 pieces of steel at the future home of the Washington Nationals. But only one is covered with artwork, notes and signatures -- the final beam to be put in place by construction workers.

Scores of workers signed the beam yesterday. Most were content to write their names, and some added the names of their unions. But one had the nerve to write "Go Pirates," in honor of a National League opponent. Another left a message in Spanish that said, "Making a Difference." Several others wrote tributes to a co-worker who died in a motorcycle accident last week.

The event, known as a topping ceremony, marked a milestone for the $611 million ballpark near the Navy Yard and South Capitol Street in Southeast Washington. The project is on schedule to meet a tight deadline and be ready for the start of the next baseball season, in April.

More than 700 workers gathered for the event, a break in their work schedules in which they were saluted and treated to a barbecue lunch.

The plans called for hoisting the piece into place at the end of festivities. But an afternoon storm dampened more than the dirt in the future field of the stadium. There was too much lightning, officials said, to safely lift the beam. Plans call for it to be raised this morning to its position above the scoreboard.

"This is the first rain delay at the new stadium," quipped D.C. council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2), one of numerous officials at the event. Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) was there, along with Stan Kasten, president of the Nationals, and representatives from Clark/Hunt/Smoot, the joint venture building the stadium.

The rain started coming down before Evans and other officials could take their turns and put their signature beside those of the many people who are building the 41,000-seat stadium. Even though few people will ever see what the signers wrote, they welcomed the chance to leave a personal mark.

"It's pretty much symbolic of history being made," said William Burnette, an electrician. "You only get to sign the beam once."

Burnette and other electricians used the opportunity to remember a co-worker who died in a motorcycle accident. They marked "RIP 'Vess' " for Sylvester Grey, who died July 1.

Ken Campbell, another electrician on the site, drew a penguin head on the beam. A co-worker had dubbed Campbell "Penguin" because he thought that the bird and Campbell had similar gaits.

For Campbell, the picture is just a reminder of the larger contribution of the people who worked on the stadium. "You can tell your kids later in life that you helped build the stadium," Campbell said.

DeBré McCrea, who is working on the construction of a stadium parking garage, said signing her name on the beam was a privilege. McCrea was an inaugural member of Washington Area Women in the Trades, a program that helps women with low incomes learn a trade. McCrea was released in January after serving 20 years in prison on a murder charge.

"To me," she said, "it's like a home run."

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