Historical Perspectives: Phil Tirabassi Playing for Pizza

Judge Tirabassi “I knew at the age of fourteen, not to be afraid of whatever might come.”  Pele

In a real sense, the life and career of Judge Philip N. Tirabassi has been defined by futebol or football in English.  Football, which is soccer in America, is the leading sport on the globe. The World Cup extravaganza, which occurs in four year cycles, dwarfs the Super Bowl.  Phil started about the age of four kicking any and all round balls, in the backyard, in the nearby vacant lots, in the narrow alleys of East Baltimore, bouncing balls off walls, garage doors, fences, and trash cans with multiple dents.  Soon he had the glorious uniform of the Little Flower tyker team, where he was a prolific forward striker, playing with official soccer balls.  When the dinner bell rang in the Tirabassi household, Phil’s two sisters were easily located in their shared room doing their homework. Mom would open the back door and listen for the thud of the soccer ball, to begin the search for Phil’s whereabouts.  After Mom’s beckoning call, he trudged home with the precious ball rolling off his feet, leading the way. The same ritual ensued Sunday mornings at Mass time.  The girls were prettily dressed and ready and Phil was outside chasing his soccer ball, before arriving home with grass stained khakis.  He continued playing in the CYO youth leagues until high school, where he was a solid player for the Archbishop Curley Friars. He had moved up from forward to midfield.

Upon high school graduation, like many Italians from the old neighborhood, Phil headed for Loyola College.   His teammates had symphonic sounding names which rolled off the tongue in metered rhyme.  There was Portera, Caltibiano, Scilipoti, and Notaro. Palmere, Mangione,  and so on.  When he wasn’t studying his major of Political Science, and taking the necessary core courses, including the theology courses required of Catholic students, he was on the soccer pitch with his goombas. He had again moved further down the soccer field towards his goalkeeper.  Now he was a staunch defender, fullback.  His stocky stature and strong legs were anathema to dribbling forwards.  He became an integral part of the Loyola team which won the National Championship in Division II of the NCAA in 1976. He continued playing for Pompei, a stellar club team, for a few post graduate years. Pompei  has a national club championship in its history.

“I have seen the player who will inherit my place.  His name is Messi.”  Maradona

Soccer would continue to be a lifetime passion.  His soccer smarts, his Political Science studies as well as his keen, perceptive mind, gave him an acumen for life beyond the field, including politics, business and law.  When he made his inaugural speech as Baltimore County Bar Association President in 2013, he said he would look beyond the box.  He knows how things work and what transpires beyond the naked eye.  It’s like watching a fast break on the soccer pitch as he eyes all the players and not just the man with the ball. He senses where the ball is going and moves to thwart the attack.  In an election he doesn’t count the votes, but studies where they came from.  In business, he reads the players before the balance sheet. When presiding in court, he hears more than mere words. He calculates the intent of the words.

Phil had a keen eye when he married Cathy, a fellow Loyola Greyhound. They were married in the Loyola College Alumni Chapel, with the President of Loyola, Father Joe Sellinger, presiding.  Cathy has been on his team for thirty six years. She has had a successful career in her own right as an account executive with Mattie Corporation. Two great boys came from this union, Joe and Jim, both of whom went to Loyola Blakefield high school, where they excelled in Soccer.  Predictably, they were coached by Dad. When the boys graduated, Dad stayed around as a coach at Loyola for a while, until his judicial appointment foreclosed his afternoons.  He had been a coach ever since he finished playing. Meanwhile Joe and Jim went off to St. Josephs and NYU respectively.  They then did semesters overseas at Oldenburg in Germany for Jim and the University of London for Joe.

As their parents, both sons have embarked on successful careers. They have eschewed the law for now and are in advertising and IT work.  Dad didn’t become a member of the Maryland Bar until 10 years after graduation from Loyola so the boys could still pass the ball onto the field of law.  Soccer continues as a family affair.  Phil is the president of the Bohemians, which plays in a development league, and is the only area outdoor professional soccer team.  Jim is the GM and Joe is the Director of media operations of the Bohemians.  Phil also took time to be a driving force behind the building of the Cedar Park soccer fields in Harford County.

“My relationship with Messi is like the one between Ireland and the UK.”  Ronaldo

While studying law school in evening classes at the University of Maryland, he spent his daytime as a supervisor of claims with MAIF and Maryland Casualty. And, of course, he was also coaching soccer at Harford Kicks, Pompei, Catholic High (yes, he coached the girls there), Curley, before following his sons to Loyola.  Along the way he was the Maryland State Youth Soccer Coach of the year in 1999. Many of  his players have gone on to successful careers in the community, for which Phil is quite proud. These recreational and professional distractions caused an elongated time frame for law school.  1988 saw him finally admitted to the Maryland Bar.  A long association was begun with John Nowicki, with offices in Edgemere, Towson and Bel Air. Meanwhile, his two sisters have pursued careers in a catering business and as a Social Security claims examiner.  Their mom lives in a retirement community.  None of the Tirabassi family followed their dad’s career as a Baltimore City Policeman. Tragically Dad died of a heart attack shortly before Phil’s graduation from Loyola.  Understandably, Phil carries a strong affinity for the blue line.

Judge T is quick to point out the importance of his ethnicity.  He is a proud American but cherishes both his Italian heritage of his dad as well as the Irish heritage of his mom.  He has been a longtime member of the Justinians, a prominent Italian law club.  It is a very influential organization, whose support is sought by candidates for office, especially judicial candidates. Phil was the Justinian of the Year in 1997. The Justinians were ecstatic when their favorite son, Philip N. Tirabassi, was appointed by Governor Ehrlich to the Baltimore County District Court.  Phil has dual citizenship, with the United States and Italy.  He acquired the latter six years ago.  He speaks passable Italian.  As a regular at the annual Irish Hibernians Dinner, he speaks no Gaelic!

Although, soccer is a driving passion, family and faith are paramount.  And being a judge fulfills a longtime ambition.  The soccer background has taught him patience, and teamwork.  He survives and flourishes on a bench of many strong wills. His words are measured among his colleagues as well as on the bench. When day is done he will go the soccer channel and watch his favorite team, Juventus, which plays in the Italian Serie A league. Manchester United is his favorite English Premier League team.   Phil, Joe and Jim actually traveled to New York to see a “friendly” exhibition match between Man U and Juventus.

“Pele is the greatest player of all time. All the others,  Maradona,  Ronaldo,  Messi,  Johan Cruyff  rank beneath him.”  Franz Beckenbauer1st Mariner Bank

Judge Tirabassi took over as President of a Bar Association in financial distress. With a dwindling bank account, he looked past the box, and surveyed the whole field.  Dribbling the ball past discordant voices, he made tough decisions. Through fund raisers and cuts, a deficit turned into a surplus.  He made wise, well thought committee appointments, which revitalized the Bar.  A vibrant Association was handed over to T. Wray McCurdy, his successor.  Judge T is the first judge to arrive at the courthouse. Always accessible, and totally without pretense, he proudly wears his Highlandtown heritage like a chevron.  He won’t soon be riding with the hounds in the valley.  Although his present Catholic parish is St. Stephens, he will frequently return to his old neighborhood to attend historic St. Leo’s.  It’s a parish of miracles, which boasts of a progeny of famous figures, to wit, Tommy Dalesandro,  Nancy Pelosi,  Mimi DiPietro, and Phil Tirabassi for starters.

Judge T listens attentively, although lawyers may be deceived that he is bored and perhaps dreaming of a Juventus victory.  But if the lawyer is faring poorly in his presentation, it becomes akin to the soccer player listlessly playing offense.   Judge T will act decisively and strip him of the ball. On the converse, if a lawyer appears well prepared, and clear and precise in his presentation, Judge T will sit back and let a smile suddenly appear. He won’t stand with arms outstretched and shout “Gooooaaal!”  But he will generously say, ”Good job, Counselor.”   As my cherished friend for forty plus years, from our days at Loyola, I say to him, “Good job, Judge!”  God bless you Phil and Go Juventus!