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Glory days in big leagues

Region savored Criscione’s ride

Above, Dave Criscione is greeted by the Baltimore Orioles after a game-winning home run. At right is his baseball card.

Sorry, I’m late again. I made a huge mistake.

I went to the store around 3:30 p.m. near Fredonia High School and got caught in the round-a-bout traffic. That was on Oct. 7 and I finally got home on Oct. 9. They had to send a chopper to my rescue and winch me out of there like I was on a sinking ship. One of the objectives of this construction was to slow down intersection traffic. BINGO! Good job.

It’s October and, as we all know, that means it’s World Series time. Baseball is in the air and the juices are flowing like chewing tobacco sap through the veins of Dave Criscione. He is the Dunkirk High School star that went on to have a spectacular moment in a brief major league career. It was highlighted by a walk-off home run that will live on in baseball history.

Dave left Dunkirk High School in 1969 and was playing for the Washington Senators farm club in Anderson, S. C., the following year. He got a whopping $500 a month salary. Compare that to the latest contract signed by Bryce Harper. The Philadelphia Phillies put their highly analytic baseball minds together and concluded the guy is worth $26 mil a year. Every time Bryce comes to bat, he gets paid about $60,000 whether or not he even hits the ball.

In addition to the $500 a month salary, Dave got $1.50 in meal money for away games. He and his teammates would strap on the old feed bag and seek out a burger joint for 30-cent burgers.

Playing in the West Carolina league for Anderson, the fans would at times help the players survive their meager income. They would pass the hat and drop in a dollar bill for any home town player who hit a dinger. That’s a homer in baseball lingo. Sometimes Dave would get as much $25, which would buy a lot of Carrols or Red Barn burgers.

In mid-season, he left Anderson and played for the Geneva Senators. He also shared an apartment with Dunkirk’s Dave, “The Glider,” Wisniewski. He was also on the Geneva roster.

In 1971, Dave hit 25 homers and was an All-Star catcher in a return to the Anderson Senators.

In 1972, he played in Burlington, N.C., with notables Dave Parker and Mario Mendoza.

In 1973, he was on to the AAA Spokane, Washington Rangers who were part of the Texas Rangers organization. They won the league championship that year.

He stayed there for two more seasons before joining the Sacramento Solons in the AAA Pacific Coast League. It was so hot there, the teams played in shorts. He got to catch his only no-hitter thrown by Steve Dunning, who went on to play for Cleveland and Oakland.

The Solons played in Hughes Stadium which was designed as a football stadium. Left field was a 250 foot chip shot so a 50 foot net covered much of the left half of the field. Dave still managed to bang out 15 homers that season.

1975 found Dave at spring training with the Texas Rangers. The volatile manager was none other than Billy Martin. There was a game against the Yankees. Billy had a grudge against the Yankees’ Elliot Maddox. The Texas pitchers hit him twice and the nimble Maddox dodged a third attempt. In Texas’s next at bat, Yankee pitcher Mike Wallace threw a fast ball over the head of Texas Ranger Dave Nelson in retaliation. This prompted a bench-clearing brawl.

Dave was pulling bodies out of the pile when he felt a muscle-packed arm grab him around the neck. His next thought was that he was about to get pummeled, but he was wrong. A Yankee named “No Neck” Williams dragged him out of the pile saying, “Come on, get out of there. Us little guys got to stick together.”

In 1977, Dave was traded to the Baltimore Orioles and went to spring training where he was awestruck by being surrounded by many stars of the game.

He remembers wanting to get autographs one day when they went up against the Big Red Machine of Cincinnatti. Watching the likes of Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Johnny Bench, take batting practice is still vividly etched in his memory.

Following a springtime stint with the varsity, Dave was sent to Rochester to play AAA ball that season. During a road trip to Toledo, he got his big break. He was notified that Orioles catcher Rick Dempsey had been injured and he was being called up to the bigs to be a backup catcher for Dave Skaggs. His salary jumped to the major league minimum for the rest of the season at $19,000 a year. That’s about what Bryce Harper gets per swing today.

Dave quickly flew from Toledo to Baltimore. That Monday night he was in the Crossways Inn sitting on a lounge sofa chatting with the iconic broadcaster Howard Cosell.

The weather was threatening a rainout, which is what Cosell wanted. He wanted a night off. On the other hand, Dave told Howard that he wanted to get to the stadium and see his assigned locker right next to Hall of Famer Brooks Robinson. Brooks was in his final season and was a great supporter in all ways to this rookie from Dunkirk, N.Y.

In the game on July 24th against the Milwaukee Brewers, Dave got his first two major league hits, which prompted much “fandemonium.” He was becoming a favorite of the Baltimore home crowd.

Dave’s big league, lifetime moment arrived the next day against Milwaukee .The game was tied at three all in the bottom of the 11th inning. A little more than 8000 were in attendance in Baltimore. They had appreciated Dave’s efforts in previous games so they were behind him as he got to bat against relief pitcher Sam Hinds. Pete Criscione, the older brother of Dave, and his family, were in the stands having driven all day from Dunkirk to get to Baltimore. It was about to become an occasion that was more than they ever expected to witness.

On Hinds’s third pitch, the ball landed 360 feet away from home plate over the left field fence. It was a remarkable walk-off homer which put the Orioles in first place. The Baltimore bench emptied in a wild celebration as they awaited to shake the hand of this stout rookie catcher. He was described by a sports reporter as “a fire hydrant with shoes.” One of the first to shake his hand was Baltimore great Jim Palmer.

Dave said he nearly sprinted around first base and had to deliberately slow down to enjoy the incredible experience.

His brother Pete got to join him in the locker room following the game for an unforgettable bit of joyous liquid refreshment.

Unbeknownst to Dave he was scheduled to be sent back to Rochester the very next day. Due to his significant contributions to Baltimore’s pennant fight, Oriole manager Earl Weaver refused to send him back.

It was on to Yankee Stadium following The Home Run of the Century as far as Dunkirk was concerned. Now he was in Yankee Stadium. Dave had played against Dale Berra earlier in the season. The Yankee legend Yogi Berra was behind home plate during warmups so Dave and Yogi got to talk a little baseball. Yankee captain, and fellow catcher, Thurman Munson saw the two chatting and decided to join them. He sidled up to Dave, put his arm around him, and pointed out to Yogi how Dave was the shortest of the three catchers.

During the second game of the doubleheader that day, “the fire hydrant with shoes” was catching behind the plate when Thurman Munson hit his 100th career homer,

Following the Yankee series, he made a road trip to the West Coast. He then returned to Baltimore and was sent back to Rochester to finish the season.

Younger players were being brought in to the Orioles organization. Off season contract negotiations didn’t go well, so his baseball career was brought to a close. His brief stint in the majors ended with a batting average of .333. He came within a disappointing nine days of qualifying for a major league baseball pension. But the memories of those glory days and that one homer will live on forever.

Dave, his wife Marj, and their three pretty daughters established a life back in Dunkirk-Fredonia. He coached baseball for many years at Fredonia State and completed his working days after 29 years with CPS/INX in Dunkirk.

Today, he is a frequent presence on the fairways and greens of various golf courses where Dave now pounds golf balls, instead of baseballs, out of sight.

Nin Privitera is a Fredonia resident whose column appears monthly in the OBSERVER. Send comments to editorial@observertoday.com

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