Originally created 06/11/99

Ump gets second chance



Phil Cuzzi tried to move on when his career as an aspiring big league umpire ended.

He was a bartender. He was a substitute teacher. He was in the restaurant business.

"And there were times when I didn't do anything," he said. "I was just so down and so embarrassed."

Then, an incredible break.

Working at the VIP lounge at a hotel in New Jersey in July 1996, a chance meeting with NL president Len Coleman led to a unique second chance: Cuzzi, out of baseball for three seasons, could return to the only job he ever wanted if he started over at the bottom.

After a long road through all levels of the minors, Cuzzi will be back in the majors for the first time in six years Friday night when he handles the Baltimore-Atlanta game at Turner Field.

"When they called and said I was working this weekend, the first thing I did was call my wife and she started crying," the 43-year-old Cuzzi said Thursday. "And when I hung up the phone, I started crying like a baby."

Cuzzi is scheduled to work the plate on Sunday night -- Mike Mussina vs. John Smoltz on ESPN -- taking the place of Eric Gregg, out for the past month because of health reasons.

After that, Cuzzi heads back to the International League, where he's the lowest-paid umpire in Triple-A. Beyond that, nothing is certain for the undaunted ump.

"I don't know what the future holds," said Cuzzi, who had a game Thursday night in Norfolk, Va. "There were no promises, no guarantees and no shortcuts when Mr. Coleman made this possible."

Said Coleman: "I could tell he was committed to umpiring. He wanted back in, and I thought he deserved another opportunity."

NL crew chief Bruce Froemming was among many championing Cuzzi's cause.

"I knew Phil when he was here the first time. I applaud his courage and persistence," Froemming said. "Phil did not want to be eliminated. He's like a fighter who gets knocked out a lot of times, but keeps getting up."

Cuzzi began umpiring in 1985 in the New York-Penn League. By 1991, he was a fill-in for the NL, and he worked a total of 95 games in the majors in a three-year span -- ejecting the likes of Bobby Bonilla, Dallas Green and Jim Lefebvre along the way.

Then on the day before Thanksgiving in 1993 came the dreaded call. He had done well, but there were no foreseeable spots for him in the majors, and he was being released -- forever.

Though about a dozen pro umps get dropped each year, "I couldn't believe it," he said.

Cuzzi was working at the Hilton in Short Hills, N.J., in July 1996 when he heard Coleman coming.

Cuzzi happened to have a letter in his pocket that he was preparing to send to Coleman. So after finishing his night shift, Cuzzi knocked on Coleman's door.

Coleman was in the shower. Cuzzi said he had a letter to deliver but didn't identify himself, and when he came back a half-hour later, Coleman was asleep.

Cuzzi slipped the letter under the door, then found out Coleman had a wakeup call at 7 a.m. Cuzzi returned early the next morning.

"I was pacing in the hall, back and forth in front of his room," Cuzzi recalled. "It felt like I was out there forever, but it was probably 30 minutes."

Eventually, the door opened and they were face-to-face.

"Initially, I kind of jumped back. It surprised me," Coleman said.

"I don't know if he thought I was a nut or a stalker," Cuzzi said.

They talked for about 20 minutes, and Coleman promised he would call. Two weeks later, he presented Cuzzi with this option: Work one year in Class A, one year in Double-A and one year in Triple-A, and then whatever happens, happens.

Cuzzi spent the 1997 season in the Florida State League, teamed with umpires half his age, getting $2,000 per month and daily $17 meal money, and driving his car to games.

He spent 1998 in the Eastern League and now is in the International League.

"We're part of his journey here," IL president Randy Mobley said.

Cuzzi got his chance this weekend because the eight fill-in umpires the NL employs are working, the result of a stretched staff during interleague play.

"I know there were a lot of people who thought I was crazy for pursuing this. But I had the support of my wife, Gilda, and I just knew I was meant to be in this game," he said.

"I think all of this has made me a better umpire," he said. "And when I get on the field Friday night, I know I will appreciate it even more."