FAIRMONT - Another baseball season has come and gone at Hands Park south of Fairmont. But on a rainy October day, Bruce Abitz already is looking forward to next season and more potential upgrades.
"The only building that remained was this concession stand," Abitz said, looking back at photos of when he acquired the park in 1992. "The park had been sold from the Hand family and we were able to purchase it back."
Abitz was determined to bring Hands Park back to its former glory days, despite an overgrown and forgotten ball field.
VIEW FROM THE TOP — Bruce Abitz looks out over the Hands Park diamond from the concession stand recently. After owning the ballpark for 20 years, the Abitz family continues to work on upgrades to the facility. (Photo by Jennifer Brookens)
"We made improvements as funding allowed," Abitz said. "We officially reopened the ball park in 1996."
Along with the renewed ball diamond, fencing and a refurbished concession stand, the former 1908 Depot building was relocated to the park.
"We needed a building where gatherings could be held," Abitz said. "Now it's air conditioned and handicapped-accessible, a great place for family reunions, for seniors to get out of the heat."
Abitz has furnished the depot with plenty of memorbilia from the Hands Park glory days.
"When the kids who play baseball come in here, their eyes just light up," Abitz said. "They see the old uniforms, photos and it ends up becoming an excellent teaching tool. They learn about all the leagues that used to play here."
But the Abitz family's expansion of the park hit a stumbling block over the past couple of years. Bruce Abitz's wife, Shelly, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. As Shelly was treated and recovering, Bruce himself was diagnosed with prostate cancer.
"We learned about two weeks before her treatment was complete that I had it," Abitz said. "I said, 'I guess it's my turn, now.'"
While both had success with treatment, the couple's finances are now eaten up with medical bills.
"Right now, any income we get just covers the out-of-pocket expense of park maintenance," Bruce Abitz said. "The park to date has no debt, and there is no charge for using the park. The donations go to maintenance and growth."
Users of the park include Fairmont Girls Fast Pitch and Fairmont Baseball, along with church groups, youth groups, family reunions, graduation parties, and two weddings.
"Since 1992, we've never had a well that was needed for watering down a dry infield or outfield, cleaning equipment, spraying weeds, or watering down new grass or sod, or if we were to install a clean and modern bathroom," Abitz said. "I've gone and put water and buckets to do the necessary work over the past 15 years. But at age 60, it takes me longer."
With 150 games played this past season, Abitz received help from family members, specifically his grandson.
"I know the third generation will continue to see that the park will serve the community," Abitz said.
But Abitz is receiving a helping hand to move the project forward again. Pat Beemer of Beemer Construction has drilled a well, with hopes of installing water infrastructure, hydrants and a modern, handicapped-accessible bathroom.
"I can't imagine what the retail cost would be for the total project," Abitz said. "The project will only go at the pace of outside funds and labor. The park has always been a faith project and will continue on that path."
Along with Beemer Drilling, Abitz also has received helping hands and plans from DeWar Electric, Hancor, the Fairmont Traveling Softball Association, Culligan Water and the Sentence to Service crew. There also are the many advertisers with their signs in the outfield.
"Why start this project now, after three years of Shelly and I fighting cancer, and a large personal debt," Bruce Abitz asks. "I still thrive on a challenge, even if it drives Shelly a little crazy. Some days it takes six hours to get the park ready for a game. But at game time, when you're tired and you look out over the playing field, the smell of popcorn in the air, music in the background, the large oak trees shading the fans, parents, grandparents cheering on these kids, I just smile and think to myself, 'It doesn't get any better than this.'
"And it makes me sad when I see someone in a wheelchair that wants to be there, but is not comfortable or needs to leave early because they can't use outhouses. ... The purpose of the field is family involvement, and I'm wanting to do whatever it takes. How will we make it happen? We asked ourselves the same thing in 1992. After we get the restrooms, we will have the basics for the park covered."
"My mission is to touch the hearts of the people that use the park as much as mine has been touched by people spending time out here," Abitz said.