The journey of a 37-year-old junior college baseball hat that remarkably found its way back to the original owner’s son ended last February in Hampshire.
Hampshire graduate Alex Crinigan, a pitcher at NCAA Division III Concordia in River Forest, received the gift from Alex Themelis, who lives in Georgia.
Themelis was 9 when he received the autographed hat from Dan Crinigan, a pitcher for Allen County (Kansas) Community College, which played in the 1983 NJCAA World Series in Grand Junction, Colorado.
Themelis found the hat, among others he received from players, and a series program in boxes his mother had saved, tracked down Alex Crinigan via the internet and sent him the hat last year. It now hangs on the wall in Alex’s room along with several other medals and baseball mementos.
It was an extraordinary story of kindness that warmed hearts and welled up eyes.
It was a story that could not get any better … until it just did.
Themelis, a 46-year-old quality assurance software tester who lives outside of Atlanta, fondly remembers the NJCAA World Series and meeting Dan Crinigan, because Crinigan was the one player who asked him his name. After the series, Crinigan signed his cap and gave it to Themelis.
Fast forward almost four decades and Themelis, going through a box with his childhood baseball memorabilia, found some items and tried returning them to their owners. He searched the internet for “Crinigan” and found Alex through newspaper stories, mainly from the Northwest Herald.
Dan Crinigan died in 2016 at age 53. Alex was thrilled to have a piece of his father when he received the hat.
'THE POWER OF SPORTS'
Themelis had emailed Kim Niesner, Alex’s mother, who had divorced from Dan in 2011, several times last year. Themelis became long-distance friends with Alex and Kim. They texted and spoke on the phone, and Themelis followed Crinigan’s baseball career at Concordia.
Themelis was planning a trip with his wife, Heather; their daughter, Lynly, 7; and son, Dade, 5, this winter to Florida to see some Atlanta Braves spring training activities. Niesner had told him Concordia was making a spring trip to Florida, and it turned out the Themelis family would be in Sarasota, about an hour-and-a-half from Auburndale, where Concordia was playing.
Themelis was determined to make every effort to see another Crinigan pitch, although he did not tell Niesner in case the plans fell through.
The world was turned upside down with the COVID-19 outbreak about the time of the trips. Themelis watched as professional sports leagues closed operation to help control the coronavirus. When the NCAA canceled the rest of winter sports and spring sports seasons, he thought Concordia was done playing. But since the teams were there, they were allowed to play through March 14.
Themelis called Niesner the night before and told her he was coming. Since Major League Baseball had suspended activities, Themelis was free to see Concordia.
Themelis made the drive, thinking about what he would say to people he felt like he knew, even though they had not actually met in person. He brought a picture of the hat from Crinigan’s bedroom, one Niesner had emailed him, for Crinigan to sign.
“I’m meeting them for the first time, and there’s something powerful that bonds us, but I didn’t know what to say,” Themelis said.
Concordia coach Kolin Conner, well aware of the hat story, invited Niesner onto the field with the players to speak. She brought Themelis out to meet Crinigan.
“That moment on the field, hugging Alex, surrounded by his team, I don’t know how you put that into words,” Themelis said. “The only thing I can remember that was said by anyone was the coach said, ’It’s the power of sports.’ ”
THE FINAL GAME
Crinigan had started Concordia’s game two days earlier and was ailing from a sore elbow. Because of the nation's ongoing health concerns, he has not been able to see a doctor to be evaluated, but his season could have been done at that point even without the coronavirus issues.
But Conner, knowing it was their last game, made sure that all seniors played that day and that their teammates could give them a proper sendoff.
Crinigan’s turn came in the fifth inning. He entered and threw one last pitch, giving Themelis a unique distinction.
Dan Crinigan did not pitch after his sophomore season with Allen County, so Themelis, although he doesn’t recall details from when he was 9, saw Dan and Alex Crinigan’s last games on the mound.
“It played out unbelievably,” Themelis said.
Themelis watched as Niesner, her phone in her left hand, reached high on the fence with her right hand as Crinigan made his final toss.
“I was reaching out to Alex,” she said.
As Crinigan walked off the mound for the last time, he blew her a kiss, just as he had his sophomore season at Oakton Community College when the Owls won the NJCAA Division III World Series.
Themelis had read about it in a Northwest Herald story written by Barry Bottino in 2018.
ANOTHER CRINIGAN HAT
Before the game, Themelis had asked Crinigan for his hat, just as he had with his father 37 years earlier. Crinigan agreed to give it to him after the game, but Themelis told Niesner during the game he felt a little guilty taking it.
Crinigan told him not to worry about it. Conner already said he would give him another one.
“When I handed it to him, he told me, ‘Thirty years from now, I’m going to make sure this gets back to you,’ ” Crinigan said. “It was a surreal day for sure. We had a pretty strong connection with [Themelis] right away.”
What Themelis didn’t realize when Crinigan gave him the hat was what already was on it. Before he signed it “Alexander Crinigan 19,” he had writen “RIP DAD.”
Themelis still had a small piece of Dan Crinigan on a college baseball hat.
'SHOULD BE A MOVIE'
Niesner said their incredible hat story, written by Bottino and published in the Northwest Herald in May, touched a lot of people, including Crinigan’s teammates and their fathers.
“When I met Alex, I felt like I’d already known him forever,” Niesner said. “He’s very genuine, very easy to talk to. He has no motives other than wanting to find the owners of those hats. He stays in touch. He’s probably going to be in touch with Alex for a long time.”
The new hat sits on Themelis’ desk, although he aspires to find it a more special place in the future. He wants to create a space to prominently display it and the 8-by-10 photo of Dan’s hat that Alex signed when they met.
Themelis sent Crinigan the page from the 1983 World Series program with Allen County’s picture and his father’s autograph. He is grateful for meeting players and procuring mementos, as well as being thankful his mother didn’t pitch everything through the years.
“It’s one of those stories,” Niesner said. “I told Alex, I feel like this is his dad’s way of letting him know he’s still here watching over him. I still feel like it should be a movie.”