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Cuzzi Is Safe At Home After Long Run On Bases

By Mike Lamberti

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The native of Belleville, N.J., and a 1973 graduate of Belleville High School, finally got 'the call' this summer, the call that every aspiring minor league umpire dreams of. Cuzzi, after years of toiling on the minor league level, and after three years completely away from the game, was named a permanent member of the National League umpiring crew.

"I'm with Jerry Crawford's crew (which includes Crawford, Eric Gregg, Paul Naard and Brian Gorman," said Cuzzi, 44, last week while speaking at his good friend Alan Frank's baseball camp at Municipal Stadium. "I have the plate tonight (when the Mets played host to San Diego last Wednesday night)."

Cuzzi recalled the day he thought would never arrive, when National League president Leonard Coleman telephoned him with the news.

"It was about a quarter after five, about two weeks ago," said Cuzzi. "That's usually about the time that I speak to my wife (Gilda). I'll talk to her in the morning and I'll talk to her again before she leaves work. So when the phone rang, I just assumed it was Gilda. I was kind of surprised because it was my cell phone that rang. I figured my wife didn't want to call through the front desk. She just wanted to call directly.

"But when I answered the phone, it was (Len) Coleman."

There is a certain amount of irony to Coleman making the call that put Cuzzi, literally, over the top. Back in the summer of 1996, Cuzzi had been working at the Short Hills Hilton. His baseball career appeared to be over. At the conclusion of the 1993 season, the National League had informed him that, despite working a series of major league games from 1991-1993, that Cuzzi wasn't going to make the big leagues. In essence, baseball had thrown Cuzzi a curve, and the end result was a strikeout.

"I was devastated," Cuzzi recalled about the leagues decision in 1993. "I just didn't think it was really for a good reason. I thought there were personal feelings on the part of the-then supervisor of the National League. My heart just wouldn't let it rest. There was no way I was able to accept it. I fought it, and you know the story."

So, in July, 1996, Cuzzi figured he had nothing to lose when he decided, on a hunch, to speak with Coleman, who was staying that week at the Short Hills Hilton because the Major League All Star game was being contested in Philadelphia. He waited outside Coleman's room, working up the nerve to speak with him, to ask for another chance.

The meeting, albeit brief, produced a promise. Coleman would take into consideration Cuzzi's request to return to baseball, and get back to him in a few weeks. True to his word, Coleman did make an offer. Cuzzi would have to start all over again, at the Single A level, beginning in 1997 and work his way back up. He would earn approximately $2,000 a month.

"At the time," said Cuzzi's wife Gilda, "people were saying to Phil 'come on, maybe it's time to consider something new.' They were trying to be nice, but in the same instance, tell him that the dream of being an umpire would not be happening."

Thus, when Cuzzi's cell phone rang, and Coleman's voice was on the other end, one could only imagine the trepidation Cuzzi felt as Coleman said hello.

"First he congratulated me on a good game in Atlanta," said Cuzzi, recalling a game on June 21 in which Cuzzi worked home plate in the Sunday night Braves-Orioles game, a game in which Cal Ripken Jr. would go 6 for 6 with two homers as Baltimore won, 22-1.

"He apologized that it was a 22-1 game, (and) I told him that I preferred to work a 22-1 game for him than a 1-0 game in the International League. Then he got right to business, and he said the reason for his call was that he was offering me a full time, permanent position with the National League. I was in my hotel room in Norfolk (Va., preparing for a AAA game featuring the Norfolk Tides, the New York Mets affiliate). I couldn't believe it, my head was spinning. Plus, I knew there was some labor dispute that was on the horizon, so my first question was, does this have anything to do with that? I explained to Mr. Coleman, that with all that I've been through, that if it was a matter of being a replacement, or strike break umpire, I couldn't accept the position. He assured me it had nothing to do with that, whatever the problems were with the labor disputes, if it ended tomorrow, I was still in."

Baseball fans are probably aware that during this summer, the Umpires Union, headed by Richie Phillips, had submitted the resignations of all its members, from the Major Leagues, effective September 2 of this season as part of a labor dispute the union has had with Major League Baseball. Later, the umpires rescinded the request, but baseball opted to accept a number of the resignations nonetheless. A judge is set to hear the appeal of the union on whether baseball acted improperly on the recessions.

While Cuzzi, a deeply religious man with a strong commitment to family, was not unfamiliar with the major leagues, the impact of knowing that this trip to the majors was for good still overwhelms him.

"The first person I called after I got the news was Gilda," said Cuzzi, fighting back tears. "Thinking of that day, knowing what a tough road (it was). There were times when I just wasn't sure what was going to happen. It's been such a long, winding road. To be able to call Gilda, and tell her about the call I just got.... We just both started crying."

His wife had never been to a major league game, prior to the August 16 game at Shea.

Needless to say, Cuzzi has noticed a big difference in the first class treatment umpires receive on the major league level.

"We're treated very well," said Cuzzi, who wears number 55. "We travel first class and everything is sent ahead for us. When we get to a ball park, all of our gear is already in the umpires room, ready for us to wear. It's a big difference from minor league ball, that's for sure."

There are many in Belleville who are thrilled for Cuzzi. Frank, the Bucs varsity baseball coach who graduated Belleville High School with Cuzzi in 1973, knows what his good friend endured.

"I'll tell you what," said Frank. "If there is ever someone who worked his way through the ranks, it's Phil. Here's a guy who could have quit on numerous occasions. Instead, he hung in there. I couldn't be happier for him. If anyone deserves good fortune, it's Phil."

Cuzzi's long and winding road began in 1982 when he attended Harry Wendelstedt's Umpiring School. (He later attended Joe Brinkman's school). It took four years of schooling before Cuzzi would get his first minor league assignment. Former Belleville baseball coach George Zanfini, a close friend of Cuzzi's, recalls the day Cuzzi left for school.

"I remember him telling me was going to umpiring school," said Zanfini. "I didn't know what to make of it. But he stayed with the program and started in the (New York-Penn League) and worked his way up. He makes the majors as a substitute ump (in 1991), but two years later, he's basically out of the game. For him to work his way back up, and finally get this opportunity, is something very special. It's a great story."

It might be safe to say Cuzzi was destined to be a Major League umpire. How else would a man, who was written off by his peers in 1993, have the perseverance to wait outside the National League president's hotel room in the summer of '96, asking for a second chance?

"There is a God, and this proves it," said Cuzzi. "When I thought that all avenues really had come to an end, my thought was I wanted to speak to Mr. Coleman himself. I knew that he knew my story, that he knew my name. And I thought that if I put a face to the name, tell him my story and ask for his help (that it couldn't hurt). I had been trying to call him on the telephone for eight months to a year, and really not to my surprise, he didn't take my calls. He had no reason to. So, after him not taking my calls for that period of time, it certainly was God who put him right in front of me that day I was working at the Short Hills Hilton.

"Yes, I do believe in fate, I certainly believe in God and God has made this happen for me. If you know my in-laws, then you know there were a lot of Novena's that were sent."

Cuzzi feels that Coleman did take a certain amount of pleasure in conveying the good news of his promotion to the big leagues.

"He loves the game," said Cuzzi of Coleman. "As a result of that, he saw this as a real love-of-the-game story, and I think that he did take pleasure in my being successful. So here I am."

As he begins his life at the top of his profession, Cuzzi feels a little more confident now.

"It was always hanging over your head that you were going to get the phone call saying, 'sorry, you did a good job, but you have to go back to Triple A now.' Now I don't have to be afraid when the phone rings, because I'm never going back to Triple A.

"It's a good feeling."

Indeed, Phil Cuzzi has rounded the bases. And, today, he's safe at home. It was a close play at the plate, but Cuzzi's perseverance, along with the love of his wife, helped make the run around the bases worth all the trials and tribulations.

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Source: Courtesy Mike Lamberti, sportswriter for the Belleville Times.

Copyright August 1999 Mike Lamberti, used with permission.

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