BP balls

Southington fan collected autographs in spring training

Bernie Zickefoose, 84, of Southington, holds a baseball autographed by former Indians pitcher and 2008 American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee. Zickefoose has collected about 150 autographed baseballs, most during spring training in Florida.

SOUTHINGTON — Bernie Zickefoose’s collection of baseballs autographed by Cleveland Indians began as a happy circumstance born from an unfortunate one.

The year was 1995, and Bernie and his wife, Anna, traveled to Florida to help his ailing sister-in-law. His in-laws lived near Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven, where the Cleveland Indians camped for spring training from 1993 to 2008.

“One day, me and my brother-in-law went to watch spring training. I had a ball and we just kept going back,” Zickefoose, 84, said.

Zickefoose has followed the Indians since 1950. “I was a Pirates fan. But when I moved up here from West Virginia, I figured I ought to watch the Indians.”

The relaxed atmosphere of spring training allowed for plenty of interaction between players and fans. The coziness of the park gave plenty of opportunity for fans to snag balls that sailed over the fence during batting practice.

These are some of the about 150 autographed baseballs in the collection of Bernie Zickefoose, 84, of Southington. Most were acquired during spring training games in Florida.

Two cabinets in the Denman Tire retiree’s Warren Burton Road home are filled with autographed baseballs encased in ball-shaped protective display stands. The collection overflows onto shelves. Zickefoose ran out of the ball holders, so a couple dozen of the baseballs nest in the open air on plastic picnic cups.

“I think I have about 150 baseballs, all autographed,” he said. “They’re almost all batting practice balls, home run balls.”

He’d said he’d stand outside the fence with wearing his baseball mitt. “I caught some. But most came down before I got to them,” Zickefoose said.

He and Anna, now approaching their 66th wedding anniversary, bought a mobile home in Florida and Zickefoose became a regular at spring training. He said two or three days a week, he’d go to Chain of Lakes Park about 9 a.m. to watch the players run through drills, then head back in the afternoon to watch the 1 p.m. games.

“(Omar) Vizquel and (Jim) Thome are my all-time favorites,” he said.

Both were wonderful, friendly guys, and Thome was an outdoorsman like he himself was, Zickefoose said.

Two of the baseballs in his collection are from the 1997 Major League Baseball All-Star Game, which was played in Cleveland. The baseballs are signed by Thome and Sandy Alomar Jr., both all stars for Cleveland that year.

The only autograph he has by a current Indian is from right-fielder Lonnie Chisenhall, who signed “evidently at a Scrappers game.” Zickefoose said he used to attend plenty of Mahoning Valley Scrappers games at Eastwood Field in Niles.

Nearly 20 Indians on the World Series roster played once on the Indians’ Single A minor league affiliate.

Zickefoose keeps a loose-leaf notebook binder full of nine-pocket sleeves stocked with Scrappers baseball cards, many of them signed. The top of row of page marked “1999” includes future Indians stars Victor Martinez and C.C. Sabathia.

Another notebook binder holds autographed 8-by-10 photos of players, most of them signed at Winter Haven.

Zickefoose said he doesn’t get to very many games anymore, either in Cleveland or Niles. He was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, which makes walking in a crowded ball park a challenge. Using a wheelchair isn’t much better, he said.

So he watches the games in his living room on a wide-screen television set into an entertainment center. More than a dozen trophies crowd the top of the entertainment center.

“I won them all playing shuffleboard,” Zickefoose said. “After the Indians left Winter Haven (they now train in Goodyear, Ariz.), I had to do something else.”

His son and daughter have come over to watch the World Series with him. He’s a bit nervous about the Tribe’s chances.

“Their pitching is hurting, that’s the problem. When you lose three out of your five starters, you’re in trouble,” Zickefoose said. “If I had to bet, I probably wouldn’t bet on Cleveland, but I sure want them to win.”