NEW HAVEN — The blood dripping from Tyler Criscuolo’s face drew gasps from the onlookers on that March afternoon in Lake Worth, Florida. However, the Branford native and Southern Connecticut State slugging first baseman was already thinking about the next play to be made, the next chance he would get to swing the bat.
Only a few minutes earlier Criscuolo’s double started a four-run rally for his SCSU baseball team. After colliding with teammate Mike DeMartino in the bottom half of the inning of a game against Concordia, Criscuolo wasn’t overly concerned. He’s endured aches and pains before as a baseball and hockey star at Branford High School and as member of a team that advanced to the American Legion World Series.
Give me a towel, an aspirin and let’s play ball was Criscuolo’s initial reaction. He had no thoughts that he may have played his final baseball game or have to prepare for the potential of months of medical procedures in his future.
“My first reaction was to get the blood off of me and get my bearings,” Criscuolo said. “I knew it was more than just a little snapped nose. They were telling me you have a broken nose, you were a little shaken up. I was like, ‘OK, snap it back in and I’ll see you in a couple of days.’
“They started doing the tests, they did a CT scan and everything was puffed up, swelling everywhere, so it got real pretty quick.”
The first diagnosis was a broken nose. Certainly no medical degree would be necessary to figure that part out. A CT scan began to reveal to ugly truth. This was not going to be a case of getting a few stitches and testing his pain tolerance. He was told that his season and his career were likely over as the test results started rolling in. Criscuolo was in the ICU unit at the Delray Medical Center when the bad news began to be delivered. There were 14 facial fractures, his jaw and nose would need to be rebuilt, plates would be put into his face and head and a damaged eye socket as well as a blocked tear duct added to his misery and dismay.
The story could have ended there, but it did not. After returning to Connecticut, he visited some specialists and finally received some good news. Only three weeks after Criscuolo was dealing with the possibility of never swinging a bat again he received the stunning news that he was cleared to return to the field.
“The initial thought was it was going to be a little recovery time but I’ll be back out there, but then they started laying out the season ender, career ender, you never know ...,” Criscuolo said. “A full year from now was the official diagnosis and that would bring me to the middle of the season next year and that was it, that was all she wrote.
“I came back up here, I saw a bunch of doctors and I got some good news. I went to a maxo [maxillofacial] facial doctor and he took everything off. My jaw was wired completely shut; I had stitches all over my face; there was a splint all over my nose so I had to meet with them anyways. They unwired my jaw, took everything off. He sounded promising then, but I still have to get two more surgeries, I thought they were going to have to be immediate. I went back to him a week later, he ended up telling me that everything is in place, it is healed, it is as strong as it was before and we could push back the surgeries.”
Not long after getting the news Criscuolo began placing a few calls, including one to SCSU baseball coach Tim Shea. Shea visited with Criscuolo daily when he was in the hospital and did everything he could to lift the spirits of his team’s top hitter. Not once did he envision that he would be writing Criscuolo’s name on the lineup card again this season.
“Absolutely not, we didn’t think he’d play again this year and whether or not he wanted to try to redshirt and play again in the future. It was up in the air at that point,” Shea said. “It was about getting him healthy again and feeling good again and that is why it was so shocking when he called to say that they cleared me to play.
“You have guys who have hamstrings and they are out a whole year and here’s a kid that went through major surgery, eight plates in his face and still has to go through more, but in three weeks to a month, he is back competing almost at the same level that he was before he left. It is just crazy and it speaks volumes to not only the type of athlete that he is, but the kind of person that he is.”
Shea would have a hard time tabulating just how many good wishes he has received from rival coaches and the baseball community, all hoping the best for Criscuolo. He also was grateful for the SCSU medical and training professionals to work with Criscuolo so he wouldn’t come back to the field before he was ready. While he might have been cleared medically, there was no telling the psychological impact of the injury. Would he bail out of the batter’s box on every inside pitch, or buckle too quickly on breaking balls? More time was needed. There were no such issues.
The first time he took a swing in practice Criscuolo ripped a double. The next week he was hitting fourth for the Owls against Southern New Hampshire. After grounding out in his first three trips to the plate, he was hit by a pitch to drive in a run and had a single in the 10th inning. The following day he drove in four runs as SCSU salvaged a split in a doubleheader against Stonehill.
Criscuolo drove in nine runs and had nine hits in his first seven games back. None of the hits generated more of a reaction from his teammates than his homer on Wednesday against Adelphi.
“It was miraculous,” Southern senior shortstop Jimmy Palmer said. “We didn’t think he was going to be back this season and just him coming back shows his toughness; his drive and that he wants to be out here for his team; how tough he is as a person mentally and physically.
“We were all feeling down and sorry for him. It was his last year, he was having a great year and this happens to him, it is just bad luck. Just seeing him coming out on the field and playing the way he is playing, he didn’t even miss a beat, hitting a home run. It is great. We are so happy he is back playing and the way he is playing. It is unbelievable.”
The 340-foot homer was all the more impressive considering Criscuolo estimates he has put on only about half of the 20 pounds he lost after the injury. His jaw was wired shut, resulting in a couple of weeks of a liquid diet. He still struggles to chew his food, so there’s plenty of pasta and soup in his diet these days.
Criscuolo’s return is one rather remarkable story, but it shouldn’t take away from the season that he is putting together.
Criscuolo was hitting .500 at the time of the injury. The last time a player with at least 100 plate appearances hit at least .400 for the Owls came in 2008 when Michael Diaz batted .416 and Karl Derbacher .408. It remains to be seen if Criscuolo can get to the 100 plate-appearance mark, but he improved his batting average to .426 with four hits in a doubleheader split at Le Moyne. Next up for the Owls will be a home game against rival New Haven on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. He recently joined the prestigious group of SCSU players with at least 100 career runs and RBIs. He also has 31 career stolen bases with more walks than strikeouts in his time at Southern.
“He’s a phenomenal player, he doesn’t get the credit he deserves from the conference or on a regional basis,” Shea said. “Last year he was the regional representative as a gold glove player at first base. Here is a kid that was a third baseman/shortstop his whole high school career and we kind of brought him over there and taught him how to play that position and he picked it up like it was second nature. Offensively, he has been a force in the middle of our lineup from the day he stepped on campus, one of the toughest outs in the conference, competes, great knowledge of the strike zone, will hit the ball to all fields.”
Criscuolo, being utilized as the designated hitter after returning to the field, wants to lead the Owls into the Northeast-10 Conference tournament. After that there will be more trips to the doctors. His jaw needs to be realigned, his nose straightened, his deviated septum needs to be repaired.
“I have been around [baseball] a long time,” said Shea, who played for the Owls for four years, and was an assistant coach for 11 seasons before taking over as the head coach in 2002. “It kind of speaks to the kind of kid that he is, as tough as they come. He is a former high school hockey star so he probably gets it a little from there, but just his grit and determination to want to be back to be with his teammates and to play the game, it is truly amazing. I am grateful for him that he is healthy, and happy for him that he is able to come back and be a part of the program.”
The trials and tribulation has also brought the team closer and forced them to deal with the reality that their baseball career can end at a moment’s notice.
“Everybody realizes that the game that you love can be taken away in one play, so everybody is playing hard and leaving everything on the field,” Palmer said.