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Mudville: June 22, 2024 3:24 am PDT

The Man Behind The Mask

Perseverance is a great skill. It may be the greatest.

That is one of the qualities I like best about baseball. You don’t succeed unless you persevere. That goes for players, coaches, managers, writers, broadcasters and yes, even umpires.

Fans must persevere as well. Your team will make a lot of mistakes.

All this brings us to the inspiring story of veteran MLB umpire Phil Cuzzi, a New Jersey native, who didn’t just follow his dream, he persevered time and again to get the job he wanted to do the rest of his working life, finding a way around so many roadblocks.

“Nothing about this job, which I am blessed to have, and I love my job, nothing came easy,’’ Cuzzi told BallNine. “And it started from Day One when I went to umpire school.’’

Along the way, Cuzzi, 65, founded an impressive fundraising dinner that not only raises money for ALS research and helps ALS patients in their daily struggle, the event also provides scholarships so those chasing their dreams can follow their dreams.

The Robert Luongo ALS Fund dinner is held at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville, N.J.

It’s all about perseverance.

“When I graduated from college I was a school teacher, and I taught for like four years and I was in a good school system in Union, New Jersey,’’ Cuzzi began. “I said, it’s a great job, a great school, the people are good, the kids are good, I taught graphic arts, so it was an elective, so people chose to come into that class, and it was fun.’’

It wasn’t enough.

“I went into sales and made more money, which is what I wanted to do – and I said, ‘There has to be more to it than closing an order.’ I was at Yankee Stadium one night with my buddies and for some reason I just started watching the umpires and I said, ‘That would be a great job.’ ’’

The flame burned brightly.

“So I went to umpire school,’’ Cuzzi told me. “I packed up my car, I drove down to Daytona Beach, I said I’ve known baseball all my life how hard could this be? Once I got there I realized it was nothing like being a fan or being a player, it was completely different.’’

The former catcher at Belleville High took four years to make it out of umpire school.

“It’s offered once a year,’’ Cuzzi said. “It’s a five-week class and if you don’t make it but you still want to pursue it, you have to wait another full year. You try to work as many games as possible to get the experience. Long story short, it was tough for me to even get started.’’

There is no short to this long story. This is only the beginning of Cuzzi’s umpire journey.

“When I finally went out to the minor leagues in 1985, the New York Penn League, I was going along pretty well, I was a little bit older, so they had to move me up or move me out,’’ Cuzzi said. “Finally I was in AAA and I’m there for three years and I’m saying, ‘Okay, where is this going to go?’

LOS ANGELES - JULY 29: Phil Cuzzi stands at home plate during the Los Angeles Dodgers game against the Washington Nationals at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles, California on July 29, 2006. The Dodgers defeated the Nationals 7-5. (Photo by Robert Leiter/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

“One night I’m working the plate in Louisville and we come in the locker room after the game and who’s in there but Al Barlick, who was the National League supervisor and the first thing he said to me when I walked in was ‘Where have you been hiding?’

“I said ‘I’ve just been waiting for you, Al.’’’

The National League invited him to spring training, and for three years Cuzzi was one of those up and down umpires, minors to majors, a reserve umpire at the major league level.

“Everything was building to expansion to Colorado and Miami so with that there would be four jobs and two retirements, so that was an unprecedented six jobs that were going to be open for umpires,’’ Cuzzi said. “Just based on how often I was used as a fill-in umpire, an up and down umpire, I said ‘I’m in the thick of it.’ I was close to 100 days going into that season.’’

Remember, this is all about perseverance.

“Not only did I not get one of those jobs,’’ Cuzzi said, his voice dropping, “but the day before Thanksgiving, Branch Rickey, my AAA League president called me to tell me that the National League was no longer interested in me, so basically I was fired, I was released.’’

That would be Branch B. Rickey, the grandson of Branch Rickey of Jackie Robinson fame.

Imagine all that. Imagine chasing your dream, getting so close, overcoming so many obstacles and then having it taken away.

One of those days in the majors saw Cuzzi working the plate the last day of the season at Shea Stadium, October 4, 1992, a 2-0 win for the Pirates over the Mets.

After Cuzzi wound up getting released, just to make some money he took a job with a buddy’s company that included delivering and installing office furniture.

“The saddest thing for me,’’ Cuzzi told me, emotion in his voice, “I get released. I’m working for my buddy and I take the subway out in Queens to meet at a job and the subway went right past Shea Stadium. I’m thinking, ‘I worked the plate here the last game of the season and now I’m going to work putting together office furniture.’ It was sad … It was devastating.’’

Cuzzi wasn’t about to give up. Minor league umpires are not part of the Major League Umpires Union, but the union was trying to help him get back.

At the time, Len Coleman had taken over as NL president and Cuzzi decided he was going to try to talk to Coleman one on one.

He called MLB offices. No progress. Cuzzi said he decided to sit down and write a letter to Coleman.

“Put my life on a page,’’ is how Cuzzi put it to me. “As it turned out there was divine intervention.’’

“They say good things come to those who wait. Well, I waited and I waited and I waited and it paid off.’’

Cuzzi’s sister was chief concierge at a hotel in New Jersey. She offered him a job because he was good with people. “My older Italian sister made me feel guilty, so I took the job,’’ he said.

Cuzzi was bringing the letter to work that Monday so she could proofread it. “I worked in the lounge upstairs,’’ he said.

On the way to the lounge he passed a fellow worker who told him there was a VIP staying at the hotel that night up on the concierge level that he might know: Len Coleman.

Later, after Coleman checked in, Cuzzi planned to knock on the door, officially introduce himself and give him the letter.

Good plan, except when Cuzzi knocked on the door, he could hear that Coleman was in the shower.

“Mr. Coleman, I have a letter for you.’’

“Just slide it under the door.’’

“Mr. Coleman, do you mind if I hand deliver it?’’

Cuzzi comes back 15 minutes later. Another knock but no answer. Coleman was fast asleep. Cuzzi slipped the letter under the door and came back early in the morning.

“Eventually the door opens up and it’s Mr. Coleman,’’ Cuzzi said. “I’m dressed in a suit and I say ‘Good Morning, Mr. Coleman.’ He has a big smile on his face and says ‘Good Morning.’ I tell him, ‘Mr. Coleman, pardon the ambush, but I’m Phil Cuzzi.’

“And the smile dropped off his face.’’

Oct 16, 2005; Houston, TX, USA; Umpire, Phil Cuzzi St. Louis Cardinals manager, Tony La Russa against Houston Astros during Game 4 of the National League Championship Series NLCS at Minute Maid Park in Houston, Texas on Oct. 16, 2005. The Astros beat the Cardinals 2-1. (Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

Cuzzi then asked if he had read the letter. Coleman said. “I did read your letter.’’

Again, this is all about the “P’’ word. Perseverance.

“In the letter, I said that I would be willing to start all over again, it took me four times at umpire school, I’ll go back a fifth time,’’ Cuzzi said of his unique plan and added, “I’m not supposed to be working here. I’m supposed to be working with you.’’

Coleman said, “Take a walk with me.’’

At the end of the conversation, an open-minded Coleman said, “I will call you after the season is over.’’

Cuzzi was afraid he was getting the brush off and said, “Mr. Coleman, let me call you. I know you’re busy.’’

Coleman stopped and said, “I told you I will call you.’’

Coleman, now 71, was true to his word. “The day after the World Series, he called me,’’ Cuzzi said.

Perseverance pays off. Coleman went out on a limb for Cuzzi. Cuzzi had to go through the umpire observation course for a week. After that, he had to spend a year back in A ball, a year back in AA and a year back in AAA. No guarantees. Except one.

“Only that I would be treated fairly,’’ Cuzzi said. “And here we are 22 years later.’’

He managed to get back to the majors in 1999.

“I was 40 years old, going back to A ball in the Florida State league working with guys who were 18-20 years old,’’ Cuzzi said of the journey. He was assigned to be a rover and make a two-man crew a three-man crew. “That was a tribute to the league president Chuck Murphy. He said if I have you here I’m going to use you to work with these young umpires. It was great for me and great for them.’’

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 11: Umpire Phil Cuzzi (10) on the field before the start of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Los Angeles Angels played on June 11, 2019 at Angel Stadium of Anaheim in Anaheim, CA. (Photo by John Cordes/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

In that league, umpire crews often stay in the same hotel because depending if you are on the east coast or west coast of Florida, it’s a short commute to the ballparks. One night a group of umps were sitting around at the hotel talking about the year that they graduated high school.

Cuzzi told them he graduated high school in 1973.

The kid umps looked at each other in amazement. One of them said, “Phil my father graduated high school in ’73!’’

He laughs at the memory.

“Again, nothing in this job came easy but it was so worth the wait,’’ Cuzzi told me. “They say good things come to those who wait. Well, I waited and I waited and I waited and it paid off.’’

Remember all that the next time you might have a bad day at work or the next time you might want to yell at an umpire. Dues have been paid.

And because of the journey, Cuzzi relishes everything about the job and that’s why he gave back via the ALS dinner.

“When I finally signed my contract it was my wife, who said to me, ‘It took you so long to get here that you really have to give something back because you are so blessed to have this job, you have to give it back. You have to figure out what it is you want to do.’’

Gilda Cuzzi is one smart woman. The two have known each other since junior high school.

Phil knew what he had to do after his friend Robert was struck down by ALS. This year’s dinner was a challenge because of Covid.

“I didn’t want to do a virtual dinner because everyone has been on a Zoom call, no one wants to sit in front of the computer,’’ Cuzzi said. “My event has such a warm personal feel. There are so many elements of success to it but one of them is that everyone knows everyone else, it’s like a reunion. And the food is great and we have great guest speakers and we raise a lot of money.’’

He decided to do the event virtually simply because he didn’t want to lose the momentum of the event.

In normal years, the dinner is held at the lovely Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville, NJ. Many of the 600 guests return year after year as do the celebrities. Bob Costas hosted the virtual event this year, on January 28th, his fifth time participating in the dinner. Sopranos and Blue Bloods star Steve Schirripa also participated again. Joe Torre, Bobby Valentine and Bucky Dent were there. Randy Maris, Roger’s son, David Mantle, Mickey’s son, and Larry Berra, Yogi’s son, also were included in the event.

DETROIT, MI - APRIL 19: Major League Umpire Phil Cuzzi #10 works the game between the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and the Detroit Tigers at Comerica Park on April 19, 2014 in Detroit, Michigan. The Tigers defeated the Angels 5-2. (Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images)

“I thought how great it would be to have the sons of three of the greatest Yankees of all-time to be on the call and answer questions,’’ Cuzzi said. In the past, Len Coleman has been to the dinner too.

Costas usually introduces the “Mystery Guest’’ every year, but this year Cuzzi changed it up and had Costas host a round table discussion.

“Some funny stories came up about ejections,’’ Cuzzi said with a laugh.

Cuzzi, you’ll remember, was the umpire who ejected Bang-A-Gong Brett Gardner after Gardner took a bat to the Yankees dugout ceiling in August of 2019. This was just about a month after the infamous “My guys are fucking savages in the box,’’ outburst by Aaron Boone, where Gardner took a bat to the dugout ceiling that crazy day —- and I was there for that game at Yankee Stadium.

One of baseball’s secrets is most umpires have personalities and a sense of humor. They are not just ball and strike robots.

All that comes through at the dinner and if you spend any time at all with the umpires you already know this. “We had 200 people on the Zoom call and the night exceeded my expectations,’’ Cuzzi said. “This was our 17th year doing the dinner and the first year I had no idea what to expect. This year I felt like it was back to the first year because I had no idea how many people were going to get on a Zoom call, but it was great and we raised a lot of money. We gave $50,000 this year, not even having a live dinner. We give money to research, we give money to patient care, whether it’s to put a chair lift or a ramp in their house, we’ve purchased conversion vans for ALS patients, we’ve paid bills for ALS patients and the third thing is we offer scholarships to students who are going to college or trade school, whose parent or grandparent may have been a victim of ALS.

“And that’s really how this started,’’ Cuzzi said of the 501c3 charity.

“I grew up with Robert, we were like cousins, his mother’s sister married my mother’s brother. We were the same age, graduated high school together in Belleville, played ball together. Robert went on to Harvard.’’

Robert was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease in 2000. He passed away on St. Patrick’s Day in 2004. He was 49. “The last time I spoke with Robert, he moved to Florida, and I went down to see him,’’ Cuzzi said. “His daughter at the time was nine years old. I made him a promise. I said, ‘you will never have to worry about Dominique’s education. I will tap into our community. I will tap into the baseball community and we raise enough money to send Dominique to wherever she wants to go to school.’

“And she followed in her father’s footsteps and she graduated from Harvard a few years ago,’’ Cuzzi proudly said.

In the mission statement that can be found at wefightals.org it says, “Our mission is to alleviate the financial burden of individuals and their families that have been victimized by ALS, including assistance in the educational needs of their children. By providing ongoing financial support for research we hope to win the fight against this dreadful disease.’’

“I found over the years that people want to help and they want to give but they want to know where it’s going,’’ Cuzzi said. “When people are confident where their money is going they are more apt to give and that’s what we have done. It’s just been amazing.’’

The man behind the mask made it all happen. Perseverance pays off.

Those interested in donating to the Robert Luongo ALS Fund can do so at the website found here.

45+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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