Belleville’s Cuzzi set to return to call MLB games, but ready for what?

By all accounts, Phil Cuzzi had the best year of his career as an umpire in Major League Baseball in 2019.

The Belleville native and long-time Nutley resident was selected to umpire in both the MLB All-Star Game in July of 2019 and was later chosen to be part of the crew for the National League Championship Series between the eventual World Champion Washington Nationals and the Lost Angeles Dodgers.

“It was a good year,” Cuzzi said in a phone interview last week from his winter home in St. Petersburg, Florida. “The season went well and it was capped off with the NLCS.”

When the 2019 season ended, Cuzzi eventually returned to Nutley to prepare for his annual charity dinner, the Robert Luongo ALS Fund affair at Nanina’s in the Park in Belleville, an event that has been a total sellout every January to raise money in honor of Luongo, Cuzzi’s friend and former teammate at Belleville High School.

Luongo was a two-sport star at Belleville during his heyday. He died from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) 11 years ago. Cuzzi started the fundraising dinner at first to simply purchase a computer for Luongo to communicate when he was in the grips of ALS.

The dinner now helps to benefit ALS Research, as well as provide scholarships for families who are directly affected with the crippling and fatal disease. The Robert Luongo ALS Fund is a 501 C-3 charity.

“Over the years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to basically get the same 600 people to come to Belleville for 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. When we started it, we never thought it would snowball into this.”

This past January, the Luongo Memorial ALS Fund dinner honored Hall of Fame manager Jim Leyland as the guest speaker. Hall of Fame announcer Bob Costas was in attendance for the fourth time. Famed comedian Uncle Floyd Vivino did a little comedy bit and Sopranos and Blue Bloods actor Steve Schrippa was in attendance like he always is.

“It really is a great thing and I’m proud to be a part of it,” Cuzzi said. “I was in Florida and I headed to spring training a little early this year.”

While he was working the spring training games, Cuzzi heard on the news about the pandemic.

“I was in Bradenton, working a Pirates game,” the 64-year-old Cuzzi said. “At spring training games, you usually see the same people and between innings, I generally go over and talk to the fans. I started to hear from the fans that they were starting to shut things down because of the coronavirus. Just like that, it was over. It was very strange.”

It was Friday, March 13, when Major League Baseball, like the rest of the major sports in America, put an immediate halt on all activities.

Like everyone else, Cuzzi didn’t know how long the immediate hiatus from baseball would last.

“I was going to stay in Florida,” Cuzzi said. “There was no reason to go back home. I didn’t know what to expect. As time passed, it got worse.”
Cuzzi and his wife Gilda remained in St. Petersburg and conducted their own quarantine like millions of other Americans. Baseball was an afterthought. Staying safe and healthy were the priorities.

“Baseball was indefinitely suspended,” Cuzzi said.

Cuzzi didn’t know what to expect.

“Everyone was so concerned,” Cuzzi said. “I know a lot of people who didn’t even want to go out of the house. I did my exercise inside, but I also rode my bicycle. I did things around the house. I changed all the outdoor lighting and planted new bushes and plants, stuff I normally couldn’t do. And I basically stayed out of my wife’s way. I never realized how much of a baseball fan she is. She’s a big fan of getting baseball back to get me out of the house.”

That was March. The Fourth of July, the nation’s most important holiday, Independence Day, a holiday that has been synonymous with baseball since the late 1880s, rapidly approaches.

And Cuzzi waits to see what his fate is.

“To this day, I still don’t know,” Cuzzi said. “I have no idea what the season is going to look like.”

Apparently neither do the owners nor the Major League Baseball Players Association, who continued to bicker over billions – yes, billions with a “B” like the show the late former MLB Commissioner Bart Giamatti’s son Paul is the star on Showtime – of dollars, the length of a shortened season and subsequent playoffs and television rights.

Those negotiations have nothing to do with the umpires and their union.

So all Cuzzi can do like his brother umpires is sit and wait. Listen to the latest news from both sides and wait some more. It’s an endless game of tennis or volleyball, back and forth, over the net, with no one seeming to win. We all know who’s losing in all of this – the baseball fans. And come to think of it, baseball’s umpires.

After all, baseball is called the National Pastime for a reason. Because people love to watch and listen to their baseball heroes hit home runs or throw ferocious fast balls. Baseball serves as major distraction to what goes on in the real world and there’s never been a time in this nation’s history that it needs its National Pastime. With all this unrest caused by the killer coronavirus and the further racial strife caused by the horrors of the George Floyd execution in Minneapolis, the nation needs baseball. And it’s nowhere to be found.

Cuzzi has been involved in Zoom calls with his fellow umpires about rules changes that were adopted for the 2020 season.

“The one new main difference for this year is that we will announce the replays,” Cuzzi said. :Right before the spring training ended, we went to Tropicana Field (the home of the Tampa Bay Rays) to practice speaking into the microphones.”

There’s also the new rule implemented this season where a pitcher has to face a minimum of three batters when entering a game. No more can a team have a “lefty specialist” to face just one left-handed batter.

“The game is ever changing,” Cuzzi said. “Two years ago, we had to record how many trips were taken to the mound. So we’ve had to learn new things.”

But one thing that is not new is haggling negotiations. The latest proposal from the owners is a 50-game season. Fifty games? Will that even constitute a true season?

Right now, even that is up in the air. The other major sports are all making solid plans for a return to play, while baseball is twiddling their collective thumbs with no resolution in sight.

Cuzzi was paid by MLB until mid-May, but is like most of the country now – a man without a paycheck.

“I feel sorry for the young umpires who have families and mortgages,” Cuzzi said. “It’s different for me. But the other guys still have families and mortgages.”

And if and when MLB returns, the umpires will basically be paid on a pro-rated basis, almost like per game.

“I can’t even think about all the ‘what ifs,’” Cuzzi said. “Right now, it’s between the players and the owners. But the umpires? We’re ready to go. I’ve said that since Day 1. It’s been out of our hands. We’ve been hear it go back and forth, but no one really knows what’s going to happen and what it’s going to look like. Whether there will be fans or no fans. Whether everything will be just driving trips. I feel like I’m on call. But the clock keeps ticking.”

Cuzzi said that he has spent his free time cooking.

“I love food,” Cuzzi said. “My passion is food. We can’t go out, so my wife and I cook. People have said to me that it must feel like a vacation, but really it’s not. We can’t do anything. At one point, I felt like I was getting into a rut. I couldn’t go out for a walk or a bike ride. It was making me crazy. I knew I had to snap out of it.”

Cuzzi was asked about Commissioner Rob Manfred’s promise last week that “there will be baseball in 2020, I guarantee it.”

“Well, for the commissioner to say that, he must know something,” Cuzzi said. “He knows more than I do. I have to put faith in his words. It’s definitely a different year already. There will be asterisks in the record books for 2020. But whatever it takes, I hope we’re back on the field soon.”

And we all hope to see Phil Cuzzi back on the field, umpiring games like he always has, making Belleville and Nutley proud in the process, real soon. Like really really soon.

Just as a reminder, the 2021 Luongo Memorial ALS Fund Dinner has been tentatively set for Jan. 28, 2021 at Nanina’s in the Park, of course. We have to all wait and see what condition the nation is in after the pandemic and other things.

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”