Saturday, July 4, 2015

Dave Criscione and the Best Two Weeks Ever

Sometimes you stumble across a great story when you're not looking. Such was the case with Dave Criscione, a guy who had a very brief major league career--but made the most of it. He played for the Baltimore Orioles from July 17-31, 1977 and ended his time with a career .333 Major League average and had the one shining moment every kid in America dreams of. I had the good fortune to talk to Dave about his time in the majors in 2012.

Born and raised in Dunkirk, a small New York town on Lake Erie, Criscione was a high school legend and signed with the old Washington Senators in 1969 after being drafted in the 5th round. He then began a minor league odyssey as a catcher that took him to such exotic places as Geneva, New York, Anderson, South Carolina, Burlington, South Carolina and Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He eventually worked his way up to Spokane and Sacramento of the PCL, but was unable to move any higher.

Although he had some very good years hitting in the minor leagues, he seemed destined to never get a chance at the bigs--most likely because he bore very little physical resemblance to a major leaguer. The 5-8, 200 pound Criscione was once described as a "beer can in a baseball uniform." Baseball executives, hung up on conformity, never gave him a chance. After seven years in the Texas/Washington minor league system, he was traded to Baltimore in December of 1976 and assigned to AAA Rochester.

In July of 1977, Criscione was playing in his fifth season at AAA, wondering if he would ever get a sniff at the majors. He was a guy who saw himself rapidly getting older, working in a dog food factory in the offseason, with a pregnant wife, wondering how he would pay the bills for a growing family on a minor league salary. It was just a matter of time before he would be forced to call off his baseball career and return to the real world.

The Rochester team had finished a game in Toledo hours earlier and the players were lounging in their hotel rooms when Rochester manager Ken Boyer called Criscione to his room at 11 PM. Boyer delivered the news Dave had waited for his whole life: he was going to the show.

Baltimore catcher Rick Dempsey had been hit by a Don Gullett pitch and fractured a finger. Criscione was being summoned to Baltimore to back up catcher Dave Skaggs. He was told to pack his bags--he was leaving for Baltimore at 6 AM.

These were tense days in Baltimore. The Orioles were in the midst of a tight pennant race at the time--battling the Yankees and Red Sox neck and neck. Criscione arrived in Baltimore to what seemed like a dream world--and a great dream at that. He was put up in the same hotel the Yankees were staying. He watched the famous major leaguers, as well as Howard Cosell, in town to do the Monday Night Game on TV, stroll through the lobby. Dave reported to Memorial Stadium where he was assigned a locker next to Baltimore icon and future Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. The forty year old Robinson, playing in his last season, dividing his time between bullpen coach, pinch-hitter and cheerleader, immediately called Dave by his name, welcomed him to the team and made him feel like he belonged.

It was clearly understood that Criscione's stay would be a short one. While a lot of guys in that situation have languished on the bench or made a few forgettable appearances, Criscione made the most of his chance.

After watching his first game in a major league uniform, Dave left with the Orioles for a six-day road trip to Texas and Milwaukee. He sat through the series in Texas, then was given his first chance. Facing the Brewers, he lined out to the second baseman in his only at bat. Before the team made their way back to Baltimore, Dave made a quick side-trip to Rochester to see his wife, who went into labor and delivered their first child.

Back in Baltimore, the new dad was given his first start in the second game of a double header against the Brewers.

The first time up, he singled up the middle for his first major league hit. Brewer third baseman Sal Bando called for the ball and passed it to the Oriole dugout. Dave was amazed when the hometown crowd gave him a standing ovation. He wasn't sure what to do. First base coach Jim Frey told him, "You better tip your hat or they'll never stop."

After the game, Brooks Robinson joked that the ovation was so loud that it woke him up and he almost fell off his perch in the bullpen.

Dave later got another hit and received another standing ovation. In his last at bat, the game was tied with a runner on second and he dutifully laid down a bunt and sacrificed the runner from second to third (the runner would score moments later on a fly ball). As he was returning to the dugout, he received another standing ovation. The Orioles won the game 4-3.

For those keeping score at home, that's 2 hits in 3 at bats, with a sacrifice and 3 standing ovations.

The next day, Dave's older brother and his wife were in Baltimore and in the stands, having driven all night from upstate New York, realizing that there might not be much more time to catch his major league act. It was a damp, rainy night and only about 8,000 living souls stayed for the game.

 Late in the tied game, Oriole manager Earl Weaver used a pinch hitter for catcher Skaggs. When the inning ended with the game still tied, Weaver pointed a gnarly finger in Dave's direction and once again the spotlight shone on him.

Dave walked to the plate with one out in the bottom of the 11th inning. He caught a fastball and hit it into the left field seats. A walk-off home run. He ran at a full sprint almost to second before slowing down to enjoy the moment.

After shaking hands with third base coach Cal Ripken, Jr., he ecstatically jumped the last few steps to home plate where he was mobbed by happy teammates, including Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray and Earl Weaver.

The game put the Orioles in first place.

Dave's brother joined him in the clubhouse and was entertained by Brooks Robinson while waiting for Dave to finish with the crowd of reporters surrounding his locker. Brooks remarked loudly,  "He's been here for ten days and he's already got more reporters that I had in twenty years."

Dave was a major celebrity in Baltimore. "It was Italian Festival downtown that week," he later said. "I could have been mayor."

The next morning the team left for a 13-day west coast trip. Dave soon learned that the Orioles had made a deal for experienced catcher Ken Rudolf; his major league days were numbered. He played in two more games, going 0-for-3, and was soon back in Rochester, never to wear a major league uniform again.

He played one more season in Rochester before retiring. After baseball, Criscione returned to his hometown. He coached college baseball at nearby Fredonia State for over 20 years as well as worked as a quality control lab supervisor.

Dave has never forgotten the reception he received from Baltimore fans. He still receives letters from fans who remember his shining moment. And the balls he hit for his first major league base hit and the home run still reside in a special place of honor in his home.

The major league career of Dave Criscione was a long time coming and it was very short; but it was an oh-so-sweet tasting cup of coffee. It consisted of 7 games and 9 at bats--with 3 hits for a cool .333 career batting average.

And one very, very big home run.

Throw in a baby girl and there you have it--the best two weeks ever.

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