by Josh Reilly
July 15, 2007
Home Run Hero
On July 17, 1977, in his very first MLB at-bat, Criscione stepped to the plate and proceeded to line out to second to end a 3-2 Baltimore Oriole loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.
His second chance ended in the same way - a game-ending groundout in a 1-0 extra-inning loss to the Texas Rangers.
But it was for what happened on his third try for which Criscione, a 1969 Dunkirk High graduate, will always be remembered.
It happened on July 25, 1977, nearly 30 years ago. Facing Brewer reliever Sam Hinds in the bottom of the 11th at Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, Criscione smashed a fly ball over the left-field fence, giving the Orioles a dramatic 4-3 win and - at the time - sole possession of first place in the American League East Division.
"It's the little kid's dream come true," said Criscione, now living in Fredonia, during a recent interview. "How often have you ever played sandlot ball and said, 'Bottom of the ninth inning. Two outs. Bases loaded. Runners are going and you hit a home run."
"That's something that you always dream about. You couldn't have scripted it any better."
Toiling in his eighth season in minor league ball, Criscione got his big break on July 8, 1977.
Actually, it was Rick Dempsey who received the break, when he got hit by a pitch from New York Yankee left-hander Don Gullett. The HBP resulted in a broken hand for Dempsey and a call-up for Criscione.
"(Rochester manager) Ken Boyer is the one who told me I was going up," Criscione said. "We were in Toledo, Ohio, playing against the Twins' farm team and I heard Boyer's name called over the PA system. I was getting a little nervous because my wife was due with our first child.
"Nothing was said. We played the game and then when we came into the clubhouse, Boyer called me into his office and said, 'Well, you probably know already.' I said, 'Know what?' And he said, 'Dempsey got hurt tonight, so you'll probably be going up.' And I kind of was in shock."
Later that night, it was confirmed. Criscione was headed for the bigs to play for manager Earl Weaver.
"It was the farthest thing from my mind - getting called up," Criscione said. "I was excited. I just couldn't believe it. It was finally happening that someone was going to take a chance with me.
"The crazy thing - my mom and dad were already on the road to Toledo. They drove through Canada and show up and my roommate ends up telling them that I'm in the big leagues, because I can't get in touch with anybody."
After arriving in Baltimore, Criscione checked into the same hotel that the Yankees were staying in. He also shared the hotel with NBC broadcaster Howard Cosell, who was in town for MLB's version of the Monday Night Baseball.
"I remember seeing him in the lobby," Criscione said of Cosell. "I introduced myself to him."
After Baltimore wrapped up a four-game home series with the Yanks, it had a pair of three-game series against the Rangers and Brewers. It was not until the final contest of the Brewers' series that Criscione played in his first MLB game.
He entered in the bottom of the eighth and caught two different pitchers - starter Dennis Martinez and reliever Tippy Martinez.
In the top of the ninth, the Orioles tried to rally from a 3-0 deficit, pushing two runs across before Milwaukee closer Bill Castro got Criscione to line out with runners on first and second.
"I can remember running to home plate for my first at-bat," Criscione said. "I was so excited. I couldn't wait to get there. The nice thing, I was hitting against a pitcher I had seen before in the minor leagues. It was exciting. A lot of players that were there I had played against through the years.
"I had waited so long. It's really the same thing as what you do every day, but just a little more. You're in a big stadium. You get big crowds. It's just something you dream about your whole life."
After the game, Criscione hopped a plane to Rochester while the rest of the Orioles went back to Baltimore. On July 21, when he was supposed to play for the O's against their Class AAA affiliate, the Rochester Red Wings, in an exhibition game, his first child - daughter Keri - was born.
Three days later, Criscione received his first start against the Brewers and caught for starter Rudy May. Offensively, he went 2-for-3, which included his first MLB hit, and added a key sacrifice bunt.
"I ended up getting three standing ovations that day," Criscione said. "People were great. My first hit - people went nuts."
Leading off the fourth and sixth innings, he collected singles off Milwaukee starter Jerry Augustine. He was stranded both times.
In the eighth, Oriole third baseman Doug DeCinces doubled and pinch-hitter Pat Kelly reached on an error. Criscione moved them to second and third with a sacifice bunt. Center fielder Elliott Maddox followed with a sacrifice fly, plating DeCinces with the go-ahead run, and Baltimore held on for a 4-3 win.
The next day was the day that Criscione hit the famous home run - his only round-tripper. Baltimore's starting catcher that day, Dave Skaggs, had been pinch-hit for in the ninth inning and the O's tied the game to force extras.
Criscione caught starter Dennis Martinez's 10th inning and then worked with reliever Tippy Martinex in the 11th.
After Brooks Robinson led off the bottom of the 11th with a groundout, Criscione followed with the game-winning blast.
"I knew (the ball) was gone right away," Criscione said. "I hit it good. I knew I hit it good - I was running so damn fast that I almost missed first base; I was smokin'. I was on my way to second and said to myself, 'This is going to be over before I get a chance to enjoy it,' so I kind of slowed up.
"The best part about it was my brother Pete, his wife and their kids were in the stands. They saw it happen."
Those back-to-back days were what Criscione termed "the highlight of his career."
"I was basically a role player and I just happened to come through," he said. "My team-mates went crazy like anybody else. They were excited."
However, despite Criscione's success, Oriole management felt they should add a veteran backstop to the roster and on July 27, just two days after the homer, Baltimore purchased Ken Rudolph from the San Francisco Giants.
With Skaggs and Rudolph on the roster and Dempsey returning in the coming days, Criscione was the odd man out. He was sent back down to Rochester on Aug. 8.
"I thought I had done a good job," Criscione said. "And everybody had seemed to think I did a good job. I never got called back up and then in the minors, they were grooming another kid that had come through the organization."
Criscione finished out the '77 season in Rochester and played the entire '78 season there before deciding to walk away from professional baseball.
"We had just had our baby," he said. "And I had bought a house here. I had gotten a job at Ralston Purina and decided to stay here."
Today, he works for INX, an ink company in Dunkirk.
From 1980-2002, Criscione coached at Fredonia State along with Dale Till. During his last three years with the program, Criscione was the head coach.
Despite his love for the game, he grew tired of fitting coaching into his schedule along with a full-time job and his family.
"With Dale, it was easier to do," Criscione said. "He'd be able to do all the paper work I would do a lot of coaching."
As far as he is concerned, he had already accomplished what he'd set out to do.
"It was my goal my whole life," he said. "That I was going to make it to the big leagues, even though everybody said my size was going to hold me back. You just go after it. That's all."