by Carson Carey
August 20, 2009
32 Years Later, Fredonia's Dave Criscione Remembers Major League Blast
Well, the little leaguer kept playing baseball as he grew older, and 14 years later, on July 25, 1977, those skills had carried Criscione all the way to the major leagues, as a catcher for the Baltimore Orioles. He was stepping to bat in the bottom of the 11th inning of a 3-3 game.
Criscione didn't know it quite yet as he dug his feet into the batter's box, but he was about to hit his first - as well as only - major league home run.
Of course, the road to that about-to-be glorious at-bat had not been quick and easy. When he was called up from the Orioles Triple-A team, the Rochester Red Wings, in early July of '77, Criscione had been kicking around the minor leagues for almost seven seasons. It was a span that included three seasons at Triple-A Spokane/Sacramento (affiliated with the Texas Rangers) and the beginning of another at Triple-A Rochester, just one step from the majors. Each of those years he began the season with the major league club in spring training. However, he never made the final roster. One spring training with the Rangers, his major league dreams were tickled to an agonizing degree when he was cut on the very last day. "I thought I was going to make it that year, because I thought the team was going to carry three catchers," recalled Criscione. "But then they decided to go with two catchers and another utility player, so that left me as the guy out."
Before reaching Triple-A, Criscione also spent several years playing Single-A and Double-A ball in a variety of leagues. Life in the lower minor leagues, still no cake-walk today, was especially challenging in the 1970s, when salaries were quite low and the players were forced to find other employment during the off-season to make ends meet.
"We didn't make much money then," Criscione said. "The season would end and I would immediately start looking for a job. I worked in a laundry, I worked at the Vineyard Motel, I worked for a lumber yard. Every year I came back here, until I was married, and lived in Fredonia... It was never easy finding a job either, because nobody wants to hire you for just part of the year."
Yet, in spite of the lack of luxuries, Dave Criscione enjoyed minor league life - traveling on busses between small cities, goofing around with teammates, figuring out how to spend the $1.50 in meal-money the players were allotted. He also got to go out on the baseball diamond nearly every day and play the sport he loved.
"It was nice, because I played in a lot of different cities," he said. "I played up and down the East Coast at the beginning of my career, then the middle of my career I spent out west - Spokane, Tacoma, Seattle, Salt Lake, Albuquerque, Tucson, and Phoenix. I was young and the traveling was fun."
As the years passed and Criscione moved closer to the major leagues, it became clear that making the majors was not just a pipe dream. He was a good hitter, particularly for a catcher and often displayed a power stroke. In a full season at Triple-A in 1976, he batted .293, hit 15 home runs, and drove in 62 runs.
Following that '76 season, he was traded to the Orioles organization, and through the first half 1977 at Rochester he put up similar numbers.
Then, just before the '77 All-star break, it finally happened. Rick Dempsey, the Orioles starting catcher, had been hit by a pitch and broken his hand and the team needed another player. It was a funny situation, because Criscione's wife, Marj, was due to deliver the couple's first child at any time. When Rochester manager Kenny Boyer was paged over the loudspeaker at the beginning of a game to inform him about the call-up, Criscione thought it was going to be to say that Marj was in labor. Instead, the news was that Criscione was heading to the majors.
He traveled to Baltimore and was put up in a hotel there - the same hotel where the Orioles' opponents, the Yankees, and also broadcasting legend Howard Cosell were staying. Cosell was calling that night's game. While Criscione was hanging around the lobby, he spotted Cosell and introduced himself.
"It was raining out, so I said to him 'I hope it doesn't rain, because I'd like to get the game in.' Cosell looked at me and said 'I hope to heck it does rain, because I'd like the night off.'"
Criscione did not enter that night's game, and, in fact, did not enter a game for a while. It was not until July 17 that he made his major league debut, which included his first plate appearance. On July 24 he got his first start and also collected his first and second base hits - both singles. The crowd cheered wildly for him.
Then, one day later, on July 25, the moment that every little leaguer dreams about arrived. The contest against the Milwaukee Brewers was tied 3-3 and Criscione entered the game in the 10th inning as a defensive replacement. It was still tied 3-3 when he came to bat in the bottom of the 11th.
There was one out and no men on. With a 1-1 count, Milwaukee relief pitcher Sam Hinds would up and delivered. Crack! Criscione blasted the pitch to left field. He knew it was gone from the moment it jumped off his bat. The ball cleared the left-field wall and his teammates mobbed him at home plate.
"It was great. I was flying," said Criscione. "My feet never touched the ground. I knew it was gone when I hit it, but I ran the bases so fast because I was so excited."
The home run actually bought Criscione a little more time in the major leagues. He was supposed to be sent back down to the minors after the game. Management, however, couldn't bring themselves to do it following the walk-off home run that put the Orioles into second place. So he stuck around with the big league club for a couple more weeks and put in a few more plate appearances. Then, in mid-August he was sent down again to Triple-A.
Dave Criscione never again reached the major leagues. He left professional baseball a couple years later, took up permanent residence in Fredonia, and went about working a regular job and raising a family.
For that one night in July, however, on an Orioles team filled with Hall-of-Famers Brooks Robinson and Eddie Murray, the kid from Dunkirk, who terrorized pitchers in Little League, was a big league hero.