Orioles player was a big hit with team, fans in July 1977


I REACHED Dave Criscione by telephone at his home in western New York on Thursday, which happened to be the 25th anniversary of the greatest day of his life. He didn't seem to be making much of a fuss about it.

No commemorations were planned. No champagne. The only thing Criscione had on the agenda was a fishing trip to Canada with his older brother, Pete, who happens to be one of the 8,000 or so human beings who actually witnessed Dave Criscione's moment of glory late on a damp Monday night in Baltimore in 1977.

Baseball trivia: Dave Criscione once played for the Orioles. If you blinked during the 1977 season, you might have missed him.

But he was somehow memorable, a no-name who did the unexpected for a team that no one expected to be a contender for the American League pennant.

Criscione was a stout 5-foot-8 catcher. A sportswriter described him, in full catcher's gear, as "a fire hydrant with shoes."

The Ted Williams-managed Washington Senators drafted him out of high school in Dunkirk, N.Y., in 1970, but he played for neither the Senators nor the team they became after the 1971 season, the Texas Rangers. For several years, Criscione played baseball in minor-league towns, ending up in the Orioles farm system at Rochester. He worked in a dog food factory in the off-seasons.

Then, in July 1977, New York Yankee pitcher Don Gullett struck Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey with a pitch on the left forefinger, fracturing it. Dave Skaggs became the starting catcher. The Orioles called Criscione to Baltimore to serve as Skaggs' backup. At Memorial Stadium, he was assigned a locker next to Brooks Robinson, who was in his last season.

Criscione was with the team about a month and his wife gave birth to the first of their three daughters during that time.

He played in seven games. In nine at-bats, Criscione had three hits, all of them in Baltimore in a series against the Milwaukee Brewers.

"I got my first hit [on July 24] and the fans at Memorial Stadium gave me a standing ovation, I'll never forget it," Criscione recalled. "Then, later in the same game, I got another hit and another standing ovation, and our first-base coach Jim Frey came over to me and said, 'You better tip your hat or they'll never stop.' Then, later, it was a tie game and we had a runner on second, and I sacrificed him over to third, and I got another standing ovation."

The Orioles were for a time in first place in the American League East Division, neck and neck with the Red Sox and Yankees. The era of "Orioles Magic" had not yet dawned; the team finished second in the standings, but 14th in the stands. Not surprisingly, there were only 8,219 fans at Memorial Stadium on Monday night, July 25, when the gods touched Criscione.

The game was a close one. Eddie Murray, on his way to becoming the American League's Rookie of the Year, had hit a home run in the sixth inning, and third baseman Doug DeCinces had hit one in the fifth. Ken Singleton had recorded his 1,000th career hit. The Orioles had a 2-1 lead going into the ninth inning.

But a two-run homer by a second baseman (and future Oriole) named Lenn Sakata, fresh from the Pacific Coast League, gave Milwaukee a 3-2 lead.

In the bottom of the ninth, the Orioles tied the game, sending it into extra innings.

It was the 11th inning when Dave Criscione got a chance to bat against the Brewers' fourth pitcher, Sam Hinds. Somewhere up in the stands was Criscione's brother, Pete, Pete's wife and their two children. They had packed into a camper and left Dunkirk at 3 a.m. to see the game in Baltimore, Pete understanding that Dave's time in the bigs would be limited.

As Criscione stood in the on-deck circle, pitcher Rudy May yelled, "You know what we need, baby."

Hinds' first pitch was low for a ball. His second pitch was a slider, and Criscione sent it foul behind home plate. Hinds' third pitch must have been a strike, if you go by the original account of the game in The Sun, which reported the count going to one ball, two strikes. Criscione has a different story. He believes the count was 1-1 when Hinds delivered a high fast ball that Criscione delivered to the left-field seats 360 feet away.

"I knew it was gone from the second I hit it," Criscione wrote in an e-mail last year to longtime Orioles fan Ken Gelula, who was there that night. "But I ran so fast that before I knew it I was at second base. I slowed down just long enough to shake hands with Cal Ripken Sr., our third base coach."

There was a mob scene at home plate, and a big celebration in the Orioles clubhouse, Criscione's brother and his family included. Brooks Robinson handed Pete Criscione a beer. It was all a dream come true - hitting a home run to win a game in the bigs. "I hope I never wake up," Dave Criscione said that night.

Reality set in a short time later. Dempsey returned to the Orioles lineup in early August and Criscione returned to the minor leagues. He was out of professional baseball by 1979. He returned to his hometown, found a job, raised his family and coached the baseball team at his college alma mater, Fredonia State. He just retired from that post, after 22 years.

"Baltimore really changed my life, not only for what I did in the short time on the field, but by the way the fans and players treated me while I was there," Criscione said. "Those memories mean more than anything money could ever bring to my family and me."

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