By Jim Hague
Observer Sports Writer
His life as an umpire in Major League Baseball has taken him all over the country, but there’s nothing that could pull Phil Cuzzi away from his roots in Essex County.
Cuzzi will begin his 15th season as an MLB umpire this season, but he never wanders too far from his native Belleville or his current home in Nutley.
“There was never even a question about it,” said Cuzzi, who has resided in Nutley with his wife, Gilda, for the last 20 years. “I came from Belleville and I moved all the way to Nutley. This is my home. This is where I belong.”
Cuzzi will host his annual fundraising dinner at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville later this month that will benefit ALS Research and provide scholarships for families grappling with the crippling and fatal disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
The fundraising dinner (this year, it’s Jan. 30, but the event is a complete sellout) was set up to help Cuzzi’s childhood friend and Belleville High School teammate Robert Luongo, a standout All- State two-sport athlete at Belleville during his heyday.
“We went to school together since junior high and we were the best of friends,” Cuzzi said. “We were almost related. We shared the same first cousins. We became inseparable growing up through school and sports and were always together at family functions.”
So when Luongo was diagnosed with ALS more than 10 years ago, Cuzzi wanted to do whatever he could to help with the situation.
“We wanted to buy him a computer so he could communicate with his eyes,” Cuzzi said. “That’s where it all started. His eyes were the only thing he had left, other than his mind. When he first had symptoms, he had problems with his arm and his hands. When he was diagnosed, it was a sad reality. He said it was like receiving a death sentence.”
Cuzzi said that he became more educated about ALS since Luongo was diagnosed.
“I learned so much about it,” Cuzzi said. “A lot of people don’t know much about ALS, except that it’s called ‘Lou Gehrig’s disease.’ Once you see someone affected by it, like the way Robert was for over five years, then you learn how devastating it really is.”
When Cuzzi started the fundraising dinner, he made a promise to his friend.
“I told him that we were going to raise money for his daughter,” Cuzzi said. “I told him that she would never have to worry about her college education. Robert was a Harvard graduate and I said that if she wanted to follow in her father’s footsteps, then we would send her to Harvard.”
Dominique Luongo was nine when her father was diagnosed.
“I’m proud to say that she just completed her first semester at Harvard,” Cuzzi said. “We know that Robert is looking down with pride. There’s no question he has something to do with this.”
Cuzzi said that he began his pursuit of “his dream job” almost 30 years ago.
“I started out as a school teacher in Union,” Cuzzi said. “I was a graphic arts teacher, but I just knew there had to be more to life. So I left teaching and went into sales, but that didn’t satisfy me. Baseball was always my love. One day, I was with a bunch of friends at Yankee Stadium at a game and for some reason, I found myself focusing on the umpires. I thought to myself, ‘What a great job that would be, to be in the big leagues, working baseball games, being in charge.’‘’
Soon after, Cuzzi went to the Harry Wendlestadt Umpiring School in Florida.
“Once I went, I got the bug,” Cuzzi said. “I was obsessed. That was it. I became obsessed and driven.”
It fueled Cuzzi’s odyssey that started in the New York- Penn League. Cuzzi spent 13 years working games in minor league baseball, hoping for the big break.
Cuzzi got the call to work his first MLB game in St. Louis, a game between the Cardinals and the Dodgers. At first, he was strictly a National League umpire, but when MLB began moving umpires between both leagues, Cuzzi got the chance to umpire games at Yankee Stadium, eventually working some games in the American League Championship Series.
“It really was unbelievable,” Cuzzi said. “People kept telling me how hard it was going to be to make it, but I thought someone had to make it, so why not me?”
During his career, the 58-year-old Cuzzi has worked four playoff divisional series and presided over the National League Championship Series in 2005. He also worked the All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium in 2008 and was the first base umpire for the firstever game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.
During his career, Cuzzi has also worked two no-hit games. He was the home plate umpire when Bud Smith of the St. Louis Cardinals fired a nohitter in 2001 and was the third base umpire when Jonathan Sanchez of the San Francisco Giants tossed a no-hitter in 2009.
Cuzzi has definitely seen his share of controversy in his career, including a call in the 2009 American League Divisional Series between the Yankees and the Minnesota Twins that Cuzzi received a ton of criticism over.
“I don’t read the papers, because you never read anything about me doing a good job,” Cuzzi said. “It’s only when it’s bad. A controversial call is what it is. (Legendary umpire) Al Barlick was the one who gave me my chance and years ago, he said that if you read the papers and your feelings are hurt, then you shouldn’t be in the business. So I just don’t read them.”
Cuzzi said that the job as a major league umpire gets tougher every day.
“With high definition television and instant replay, there is all this scrutiny now,” Cuzzi said. “It makes the job more difficult.”
Beginning this season, the role of an umpire will get even harder, because MLB will implement even more instant replay rules. It won’t be just home runs. Other calls regarding fair or foul balls, safe or out calls will be in play.
That’s why Cuzzi will head to Phoenix Sunday for the annual meetings to go over rules, as well as the annual physicals.
“It’s a blessing,” Cuzzi said. “I consider my job to be a blessing. It never gets old. I’m living a dream.”
Cuzzi said that he’s spent the off-season in Nutley doing things around the house.
“When the season finishes, you welcome the off-season, because the season is long,” Cuzzi said. “The season goes fast, but the off-season goes faster. I can’t believe how quickly the time goes. Once we get through these meetings in Phoenix, that’s when I’ll start to get the itch to get back. It gets me antsy and ready to go.”
Cuzzi will go to Florida for the month of March and work a series of spring training games there.
For now, Cuzzi will concentrate on the last-minute preparations for his annual dinner.
In the past, Cuzzi has welcomed such prestigious special guests as Tommy Lasorda, Bob Costas, Larry Holmes, Joe Pepitone and Bucky Dent. Last year, Tony LaRussa, who recently learned he will be inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame this August, was the featured speaker.
“This year, it will be a blockbuster, but I can’t say who it is,” Cuzzi said. “I don’t know if people come to the dinner because they respect my work. I think it’s that the baseball community is so small and they all rally together for the cause. There are big hearts in everybody. Through my association with baseball, I’m able to tap into those big hearts and bring those people into Belleville.”
Robert Luongo passed away five years ago, but his memory lives on through this great fundraising dinner.
“Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to basically get the same 600 people to come to the dinner,” Cuzzi said. “It’s a good cause and it’s our local community that comes out. Every year we’ve had this dinner, it sells out. It’s very comforting to know that so many people care. It’s 10 years now and it’s still going strong. When we started it, we never thought it would snowball into this.”
The Robert Luongo ALS Fund is a 501 C-3 charity. In addition to helping ALS research in Luongo’s name, the funds go to scholarships for victims of ALS.
“It really is a great thing and I’m proud to be a part,” Cuzzi said. It’s definitely a home run for a local guy who never wandered far from his roots.
“This is my home,” Cuzzi said. “It’s where I belong.”