CLARK, NJ — Typically, Major League Baseball umpires are used to being booed and heckled in front of 40,000 fans on a nightly basis. Many of them become so accustomed to it, that cheers register stranger to them than boos.
But Nutley’s own Phil Cuzzi experienced quite a different crowd response on Sunday, when he was given a rousing ovation upon giving a speech in his home state.
Cuzzi, a veteran umpire regarded as having one of the most consistent strike zones in the game, was honored as the guest speaker at the 82nd annual Union County Baseball Association Hot Stove League Dinner in Clark Sunday afternoon. For about an hour, he entertained the annual dinner with humorous stories from his umpiring experiences and told the tale of his unusual path to the big leagues.
Guest speaking at this specific event is a top-notch distinction, seeing as baseball legends like Joe DiMaggio, Keith Hernandez and Bob Feller, to name a few, have all once shared the same podium.
“This was really an honor, because if you take a look at the [event’s] past speakers, is a who’s who,” Cuzzi said in an exclusive interview with TAPinto.net. “It’s almost like my name does not deserve to be on the page; I mean, you’re talking about Joe DiMaggio and crazy names.”
“I’m the only Major League umpire from New Jersey,” he added, “and it does feel like an honor [to represent Nutley].”
Being from Nutley means that two Major League teams are right in Cuzzi’s backyard. Cuzzi and his crew work a handful of games at the Mets’ Citi Field and Yankees’ Yankee Stadium each year, which presents a very unique situation for him.
Though Cuzzi travels across the country, often appearing in two cities each week, coming home to work in New York City is always something special. Nutley is just a half-hour ride over the Hudson River from Yankee Stadium, and Citi Field is about 40 minutes away on I-95.
“It’s a thrill to be on the field anywhere, but when you’re in your own and your own hometown, and you can work the game and then sleep in your own bed, that’s a thrill,” he said. “The first time I worked in Shea Stadium [the Mets’ former stadium] and then the first time I got to work in Yankee Stadium, it was absolutely a thrill.”
There have certainly been plenty of other thrills during Cuzzi’s career. While he is currently the only umpire to hail from New Jersey, that may not have been the case if it weren’t for his love for baseball and some down right luck.
He opened up his speech with the captivating story of his initial hire and release from Major League Baseball, and second chance in which he ascended to the big leagues. When Cuzzi first entered the game, he graduated umpiring school, was selected by the National League, and reached as high as Triple-A ball before being released one offseason.
While being out of baseball for a few years, Cuzzi started a more normal job at the Short Hills Hilton, though he was actively trying to get his umpiring job back. Cuzzi's big break came when then-National League president Leonard Coleman checked into the hotel during the 1996 All-Star Game, which was held in nearby Philadelphia.
Long story short, the two made contact, Cuzzi got re-hired by the National League that offseason, and eventually reached the majors — a position he’s held for 22 years, although he works both National and American League games now that the two have merged.
Hiring Cuzzi has turned out to be wise decision, as he’s garnered a ton of respect as an umpire throughout the years, and perhaps the biggest honor he’s received was working the plate for Game 1 of the 2017 World Series. He’s also staffed 11 postseason series, the 2008 All-Star Game, and the 2013 American League Wild Card Game.
“I am beyond lucky — I’m very blessed to be able to have the job that I do,” Cuzzi said. “There’s only 74 of us; when I was hired, there was only 68. To be in this unique fraternity is really a blessing.”
The nearly 10-monthp-long baseball season begins next Monday for Cuzzi and fellow umpires, when they arrive at their assigned team’s Spring Training camps. He works his first Spring Training game on Feb. 23, and MLB Opening Day is March 29 — the earliest it's ever been.
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