Anthony Varvaro’s work day used to begin with an umpire’s call, “Play ball.” These days it begins with a police sergeant announcing, “Attention to roll call.”
Varvaro pitched six years in the major leagues with the Seattle Mariners, Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox, calling Hall of Famers Ken Griffey Jr. and Chipper Jones and future Hall of Famer David “Big Papi” Ortiz teammates before transitioning to law enforcement with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department. Not a normal career trajectory, but one Varvaro says was “a difficult decision with no regrets.”
A kid from Staten Island, one of New York City’s five boroughs, he grew up among the families of the many first responders from that borough who perished in the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. He described himself as “a hard worker, a gritty, blue-collar baseball player” and a New York Yankees fan. His ticket to professional baseball was his four-seam fastball and a sweeping 12/6 curveball that made him a successful middle-relief pitcher. He developed a potent changeup after Tommy John surgery required some changes in his pitch selection. He still marvels at his changeup, saying, “It’s amazing to see a batter look at a 94-mph fastball and then be totally confused by an 86-mph changeup.”
Baseball is part of his family’s history. His wife is the grandniece of Bobby Thomson, the Staten Island baseball legend who, as a New York Giants outfielder, hit the 1951 pennant-winning, three-run, walk-off home run against the Brooklyn Dodgers. That home run is popularly known as the “shot heard ’round the world.”
When Varvaro was younger, he knew he had the talents and skills to carry him through high school ball and possibly to play college baseball, but on the chance of making it to the majors, he said, “I never thought it would become a reality until it did.” He recalls reporting to his first minor league team, a Seattle Mariners affiliate, showing up wearing a New York Yankees cap, not thinking anything of it until a coach said, “Hey, kid, the Yankees aren’t signing your paycheck.”
During his final year in professional baseball, he was sent down to Boston’s Triple-A affiliate for an injury rehab stint. Varvaro was sure he would work his way back to the majors and pitch at that level for maybe two more years, but his future consisted of more than two years. He needed to think about what he would do after baseball for his family and himself.
His Staten Island childhood, along with a criminal justice degree earned at St. John’s University, kept a career in law enforcement not far from his thoughts. Major League Baseball is rewarding, but life on the road is tough on a player’s family. Two of his children, born during his major league years, became a daily reminder that his children needed consistency at home and with their father. There were, though, financial considerations. The minimum salary for a Major League Baseball player is approximately $450,000. He was earning more. Even at the minimum, a police officer’s salary doesn’t quite measure up, but he viewed the police service as a career providing a steady salary, benefits and a great pension.
He decided the time was right, sat for the Port Authority Police entrance exam, went through the vigorous vetting process and on June 17, 2016, two days after pitching in his final professional baseball game, he entered the Port Authority Police Academy.
After rising to the lofty levels of professional baseball and performing in some of the nation’s iconic ballparks, he endured six months of police academy training and became Police Officer Anthony Varvaro. He was assigned to the Port Authority Police Department’s World Trade Center Command upon graduation, arguably one of America’s most famous police commands.
It didn’t take long for him to get a taste of big-city police work. During his second week at the WTC Command, he was dispatched to a report of a taxi driver menacing his passenger with a handgun. He remembers responding to the location with other cops, tactically approaching the vehicle with guns drawn. He knew then he was performing in a totally different arena. Before, his teammates depended on him to keep them in the game, now a person’s life depended on his actions.
Soon he realized what every cop comes to terms with — police work is not how it is portrayed on television. It is not all action all the time, but a cop must always be prepared to handle whatever he or she may face. He said, “It is like being in the bullpen, getting that call to get ready, you’re going in.” He added, “When you are called upon you need to be ready, without question.” Preparation does not only mean training, but also the daily things an officer does. He gave an example: As a ballplayer, he would always check the lineup card to see who the “players” were. As a cop, he checks the roll call every day to also see who the “players” are. In both cases, it’s a matter of preparation.
Another similarity is the baseball clubhouse and the police locker room. “Both are basically the same,” he explained, “with one difference being the amount of money earned by ballplayers, which translates into the stupid things they buy.” He said it would not be unusual to see a ballplayer order something online, like a gorilla suit costing a couple thousand dollars, just so he can pop out of a closet to surprise teammates.
The majority of Varvaro’s career was with the Atlanta Braves, a National League team where pitchers, unlike in the American League where the designated hitter rule is employed, do come to bat, but substitution strategies, such as using a pinch hitter or employing the double switch, reduces a pitcher’s already limited plate appearances. So the question had to be asked if he had any major league at-bats? He said he had one, begging another question, could he hit major league pitching? To that, he said, “That day I thought I could.” He said he was pretty good with the bat during his high school and college days, but it’s a different game in the majors.
His only at-bat came as the Braves were playing a home game against their league rivals, the Washington Nationals. In a previous series with the Nationals, their batting star, Bryce Harper, was drilled with an Atlanta pitch. Baseball players don’t forget easily, making for a tense series. During that game, Varvaro made a relief appearance, getting the Braves out of a tough inning. During the bottom half of that inning, he was due to bat, but he knew that wasn’t going to happen until he heard the manager tell him to grab a bat and helmet. A stunned Varvaro was shocked and said, “I don’t have a bat and helmet.” As he walked to the plate, he realized he didn’t even know the batting signs from the third base coach. So he journeyed up the third base line to talk with the coach, who told him to lay down a bunt. Varvaro stepped in the batter’s box with a runner on first and one out. The first pitch, approximately 85 mph, was a ball. The second was a 95-mph fastball he fouled off. The third pitch he looked at for his second strike. As he settled back into the box, he looked at the third base coach, who was now just imitating a batter bunting. The windup, the pitch, strike three! He looked at the umpire trying to see if he committed for the strike or if it was a called strike. The ump just looked at him, shook his head and had a look that Varvaro saw as, “Just get out of here, please!”
Varvaro reached the dream so many children have: becoming a Major League Baseball player. He is thankful for the mentorships and opportunities received throughout baseball. His life now is a bit more settled for his family that has grown to four children. Of being assigned to the World Trade Center Command and patrolling the sacred grounds with new mentors, he said, “I was honored, it really hit home, I knew many who died here.”
Police Officer Varvaro was assigned to patrol for close to five years before transferring to the Port Authority Police Academy where he became an instructor. In his new assignment, he is part of an academy staff turning raw recruits into police officers and conducting annual in-service training for his sister and brother officers. His bottom-line message to all seems to be, success is a result of preparation, persistence and perseverance.