NUTLEY, NJ — As a little kid, one of the fondest sports memories for Phil Cuzzi was watching the 1963 World Series between the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Led by Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale, two of the best pitchers in Major League history, the Dodgers swept the Bronx Bombers, despite the presence of such sluggers as Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris.
Little could Cuzzi, who is a resident of Nutley, have dreamed that one day he would be involved in the Fall Classic. But in October, Cuzzi was one of the umpires for the 2017 World Series between Houston and Los Angeles. Cuzzi, who in the early 1970s was a pretty good player for the Belleville High diamond squad, had the honor of being the home plate ump for the first game in L.A. And in the second game of the Series, Cuzzi was the right field umpire. For the remaining five games he served as the replay official in New York.
“It was quite a thrill to be directly involved in the World Series,” said Cuzzi, who also played football at Belleville. “All the games were exciting, and it was great to see so many talented young players. Both teams appear to have a very bright future.”
Cuzzi feels that having been a catcher in high school ball gave him a better perspective on how to be a successful umpire.
“You get a pretty good feel for the strike zone from playing catcher,” remarked Cuzzi. “As an umpire, you always want to be fair and keep focused on every pitch. I guess the best compliment for an umpire, is if people really don’t notice you on the field.”
For Cuzzi, who graduated from Belleville High in the spring of 1973, it was a long road to becoming an umpire at the Major League level.
“My first experience as an umpire was in Little League ball in Belleville,” said Cuzzi. “I think I got paid around 15 dollars per game.”
Cuzzi, whose college baseball career at Glassboro State, was cut short by a shoulder injury, had other jobs before deciding to become an umpire. He was a graphic arts teacher at the ninth-grade level in Union for four years, and later went into the sales field for computers.
“It was on my fourth try in Umpire School that I finally got a break of sorts,” recalled Cuzzi, who in Game No. 1 of the 2017 Series was behind the plate for a contest that took only two hours and 28 minutes to complete. “I began in the New York Penn League, and then went to three other leagues before being promoted to Triple-A ball in the International League. I got the attention of Al Barlick who was a top umpire, during spring training in 1991.”
In early June of that year, Cuzzi finally got his chance to be a Major League ump. In a game involving the Dodgers and St. Louis, Cuzzi got the assignment at first base.
“I remember there was a close play at first base, and Joe Torre, who was managing the Cardinals at that time, didn’t like my call,” said Cuzzi. “When you’re an umpire, you know that each manager has a different personality. You can listen to an argument on a call, but you can’t let someone cross the line. That goes for players as well.”
At that time in his career, Cuzzi didn’t stick as an ump in the Big Leagues. It wasn’t until the late 1990s that Cuzzi finally made it to the Majors for good.
“I’m proud to be in this profession,” said Cuzzi. “I think there’s only 74 umpires in the Majors.”
Cuzzi has had the opportunity to be behind the dish for two no-hitters, one in Chicago and one in San Diego.
“You really aren’t aware of that situation,” said Cuzzi. “But it’s pretty exciting.”
Cuzzi feels that the game has changed from the days when he was playing ball.
“Everyone seems to swing for the fences,” said Cuzzi. “I don’t know if players are as fundamentally sound as they were years ago. Doing something like laying down a bunt to advance a runner is very difficult for most of today’s players.”
Cuzzi, who had great respect for umps like Barlick and Jerry Crawford, was impressed by the effort of Clayton Kershaw of the Dodgers in Game 1, as L.A. took a 3-1 decision. But when Houston won a wild 7-6 contest in Game 2 in extra innings, the momentum quickly changed. Sparked by outfielder George Springer, the Astros gained their first title in franchise history.
“I was fortunate to not have a lot of calls to make as the replay official in the final five games of the World Series,” said Cuzzi, who is in the Belleville Hall of Fame. “I know that baseball fans enjoyed the 2016 Series when the Cubs beat the Indians in seven games, but I think 2017 will long be remembered as one of, if not the best, World Series ever. It was certainly special me.”
NOTES – Cuzzi said that the intense heat in Game 1 of the Series did not bother him.
“I’d rather be hot than cold,” said Cuzzi…
In Cuzzi’s senior year in high school, pitcher Vin Byron of Our Lady of the Valley in Orange, led his team to the GNT title.