Phil Cuzzi’s venture to the top of his chosen field has taken him on a whirlwind tour.
Many of his friends and family know the story. In 1982, the-then 27-year-old Cuzzi, a graduate of Belleville High School and later Glassboro College (now Rowan University) decided he wanted to go to umpire school, with the hope of one day being a Major League ump. Through the help of his long time friend and Belleville, NJ teacher, George Zanfini, Cuzzi was able to procure the funds to attend the school.
It took a few years, but Cuzzi finally got a job in the Minor Leagues and began an eight year venture to the big leagues. He got his first taste of the majors in 1991, filling in for umpires on vacation and on the disabled list. However, two years later, Cuzzi’s career appeared to be over when his services were terminated following the 1993 season.
Undeterred, Cuzzi continued to press for another chance to follow his dream. While working at a local hotel in 1996, he found out that Len Coleman, then the National League president, was staying there and slipped a note under Coleman’s door, asking for a chance to umpire again.
Coleman eventually gave Cuzzi that chance, but he would have to begin again the lowest levels of the Minor Leagues. In 1997, Cuzzi was back working games in the minors, traveling from one obscure city to another, making the minimum salary, but taking advantage of his second chance.
In 1999, Cuzzi had advanced to AAA ball and was doing a good job. During that summer, he received another call from Coleman and this would be the ultimate life changer. Coleman was calling to offer Cuzzi a full time job in the Major Leagues.
A tearful Cuzzi, at 44 years of age, had reached the pinnacle and over the past 14 seasons, he’s had the chance to work with some of the best umpires in the game and has also been assigned to numerous post-season series, including the 2005 National League championship series and most recently, the 2012 National League Division series between Cincinnati and San Francisco. He also was assigned the 2008 All Star Game at the old Yankee Stadium and was behind the plate for the first-ever game at the new Yankee Stadium in 2009.
Cuzzi’s success on the diamond has provided him opportunities to give back to his community and the community has returned its gratefulness in kind. A member of the Belleville High School Hall of Fame for his baseball prowess, Cuzzi was named to the prestigious Belleville High Wall of Recognition for his tireless work as a fundraiser and philanthropist, most specifically in raising money and promoting awareness for ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, in memory of his closest friend and BHS classmate, Robert Luongo, who died in 2004.
Now, the trifecta from Belleville High to Cuzzi. He will have his name placed on the prestigious Fence of Fame, reserved for the greatest baseball players to ever wear the Blue and Gold. Cuzzi, along with Jack Cullen, believed to be the only Belleville grad to play in the Major Leagues and the 1976 Belleville High baseball team will be honored at a ceremony on April 30 at the high school baseball field, beginning at 5:45 p.m.
Cuzzi is the first to have his name on all three shrines to Belleville High greatness and each venue represents a different phase of his life. There’s the Hall of Fame for his days as a Bellboy, the Wall of Fame for his work in seeking a cure for ALS and now the Fence of Fame which acknowledges his ascent to being a Major League Baseball umpire.
“I never thought of it that way, but it does represent my life’s accomplishments and how it all started in Belleville,” Cuzzi said. “I’ve never gone that far away from this community. It’s my home. That’s why this is so special.”
A wonderful accomplishment for a deserving man.