When we think of the New York Yankees, our thoughts usually turn to the players. But there is more to the Yankees team beyond that layer. Today, we’ll focus on another MVP, Rob Cucuzza, the team’s equipment manager.
Did you ever wonder where all those bats, balls, uniforms, gloves, buckets of Gatorade, boxes of bubble gum, and sunflower seeds come from when the New York Yankees play their first spring training game on Feb. 23 against the Tigers at George Steinbrenner field 2200 miles from Yankees Stadium?
Probably not, and I didn’t either until I began to think about how everything “works” behind the scenes where individuals like Rob Cucuzzo play so vital a role as the fuel that keeps the Yankees engine running.
Soon, if it hasn’t happened already, tractor-trailer trucks filled with everything the Yankees could need will leave from the Bronx for the trek to Tampa. And at the end of spring training, the process will be repeated in reverse.
That’s when it gets complicated for Cucuzza because some of the equipment heads straight back to the Bronx, while other “stuff” is destined for places like Trenton New Jersey, where the Yankees Double-A farm team plays. Or maybe the stuff is earmarked to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre for a player who didn’t make the team but has been designated to start the season at the Triple-A level.
That’s only part of the story, and that’s because there’s an entire machine that operates under the direction of Cucuzzo. And by the way, for non-Italians, it’s essential to get the pronunciation right. It’s not Ku-kuz-a, it’s Kyou-k-u-u-u-z-a. Like Riz-u-u–u-t-o.
Anyway, here’s a sampling of a few of the situations Cucuzza has found himself in his duties from his office in the bowels of Yankee Stadium:
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Cashman to Cucuzza: He’s coming up tomorrow, get him ready.
In 2015, Michael Pollack wrote an interesting piece for the New York Times and one of the questions he asked Cucuzza in a rare interview, was how he prepared for the inevitable arrival of a player called up from the minors on a moment notice. We come to find out the Yankees exude professionalism even in this assignment. Cocuzza explains:
The club creates a database of player sizes — including those for a jersey, pants, and cap — during spring training when those minor leaguers most likely to be called up are with the Yankees in their Major League camp. “During the regular season, we can simply look up his uniform size and then assign a number,” Mr. Cucuzza said. “Sometimes it’s his number that he wore in spring training, but not always.” An outside company usually does the heat-pressing and sews on the numbers off the premises. The numbers are pressed first, then sewn on.
Well, who woulda known? Except the process isn’t always that smooth, especially when a new player arrives on the Yankees via a trade or wavier transaction.
If you’re not a Yankee, who would have thought a uniform number is so important?
Remember the brouhaha that occurred when the Yankees traded for Todd Frazier last August, when Frazier, perhaps absentmindedly, asked Cucuzza for uniform No.21? Except, though not a retired number, it was worn by fan-favorite and Yankee warrior Paul O’Neill.
You would have thought the devil asked to wear the Pope’s ring based on the outcry from fans and even some higher-ups on the Yankees. And sure enough, Cucuzza found himself smack in the middle of the “dis” on O’Neill, and as reported by George A. King III in the New York Post. “Frazier talked to clubhouse manager Rob Cucuzza about trading No. 29 for O’Neill’s Yankees number, but was told that wasn’t going to happen.”
And guess what? That was the end of that.
But as it turns out, uniform numbers rear their ugly head in Cucuzza’s life more than we think. Remember back again when Aaron Judge, who pretty much had yet to earn his Yankees spurs at the time, had to answer Suzyn Waldman’s claim that Judge had told her he was looking forward to wearing Number 7, which happened to belong to Yankees icon, Mickey Mantle?
Waldman, who forms half the Mom and Pop Sterling team for Yankees radio, took her lumps for having, as they say, misspoken, but again it was Cucuzza who laid down the gauntlet settling the matter.
And once again, it was the same George King who stepped in setting the record
straight with this Tweet:
"When I heard it I called (equipment manager) Rob Cucuzza and he said it never happened. I called Gary Denbo on the minor league side
— George A. King III (@GeorgeAKingIII) April 5, 2017
Hey, Cucuzza, what the weather like tonight?
Yankees fans, do you recall the night CC Sabathia and the New York Yankees stopped the Los Angeles Angels cold in the AL championship series opener in 2009 by a 4-1 score?
If you do, it’s not likely you’ll remember the temperature at Yankee Stadium in the low forties along with a blustery wind. Ronald Blum, a reporter for the Lubbock-Avalanche Journal, writes:
“While players took batting practice in ski caps, sweatshirts and gloves, the giant video board in center showed the NLCS game in Los Angeles, where the temperature was in the 90s and fans wore short sleeves. Nick Swisher, Johnny Damon, and Mark Teixeira wore special caps with Elmer Fudd-style ear flaps.”
Did Cucuzza send one of his underlings to Walmart that morning cleaning out the store of all these items? No way. Blum writes that “Yankees equipment manager Rob Cucuzza said the team had stocked them all season but hadn’t used them before. “
Always prepared. Just another day in the life of the Yankees equipment manager.
He’s the Locker Man, too
Did you know this happened at the beginning of spring training in 2016? Shocked me a bit when I saw this report in which he details the role Carlos Beltran played in the assignment of lockers that February. According to Raymond:
“Beltran called Yankees manager Joe Girardi not long before pitchers and catchers showed up to George M. Steinbrenner Field Thursday and asked if Aaron Judge’s locker could be moved closer to his, equipment manager Rob Cucuzza told NJ Advance Media on Sunday.
“I guess Carlos is feeling this is the heir apparent to right field and whatever Carlos has to offer, he wants to give it to Aaron,” Cucuzza said. (NJ Advanced Media)
Voila, it was done. Who will ever know the impact of Beltran’s mentoring a full season before Judge became the sensation he was in 2017? All because of a locker placement in the clubhouse.
But there’s still another facet to the same theme and it has to do with the infamous corner locker in the clubhouse. The last to occupy the best seat in the house for any period was Derek Jeter. When he retired in 2014, there was a vacancy in the clubhouse, and it was up to Cucuzza to settle the matter. But first, Jeter needed to vacate the premises.
Brett Smiley, of Fox Sports, solved the mystery of who would be the next in line for this treasured piece of real estate when he reported,
“I took it,” Sabathia said, grinning, according to a report by the Wall Street Journal. “I’m going over there.”
Before Sabathia staked his claim, clubhouse managers Rob and Lou Cucuzza also conferred with Yankees veterans, Mark Teixeira and Brett Gardner.”
The Cucuzza’s are part of the Yankees family. Brothers Lou and Rob Cucuzza have been long-time clubhouse and equipment managers at Yankee Stadium. Rob has been with the team since 1984 when he first joined the Yankees as their batboy. They previously served with their father, Lou Sr., who also had an extensive career in similar capacities with the Yankees.
Cucuzza gets little notice for the job he does, and yet he is a critical part of the New York Yankees. And when one of the Yankees breaks a bat and the batboy searches for a new bat in the rack, doesn’t find one, and scurries back into the clubhouse, don’t worry. Cucuzza is always looking ahead, and we can be sure the batboy will come running up to the player with a replacement bat found stacked neatly in the player’s locker.
An unheralded Yankee, Rob Cucuzza proves there’s more to a winning team than meets the eye.