NEW YORK — Row by row and shoulder to shoulder they stood, white-gloved hands raised in salute. The sea of blue barely moved, not as the midmorning sun shone down, not as the funeral procession drove by.
From the long column of police motorcycles that led the way to the final, flower-laden hearse that came to a stop in front of Our Lady of Good Counsel Church, hundreds upon hundreds of Port Authority police officers remained at attention.
How could they not?
Anthony Varvaro was one of their own. He’d honored their uniform in life; they were here to honor his uniform in death. This story, one so unspeakably tragic it’s difficult to fathom, left more than one community shattered. The baseball community remembered Varvaro as one of its own, too, including the Red Sox, the last stop on his six-year major league career.
The 37-year-old father of four was killed by a wrong-way driver on the morning of Sept. 11, and was buried Thursday with the full honors of an officer killed in the line of duty. Varvaro died on his way to a 9/11 memorial event in New York City, a service for which he’d volunteered to work. As a man shaped by the events of 2001, when he and his then-high school classmates could see the smoldering city skyline from their classroom windows, Varvaro had long nurtured a dream of working in law enforcement. He fulfilled his wish in 2016.
To do so, he had to turn in a different uniform, one that came with a cap and a jersey rather than a jacket and a badge, one that represented the other of Varvaro’s childhood dreams: to make it to the big leagues. A 12th-round Mariners draft pick in 2005, Varvaro broke into the majors in 2010, spent the bulk of the next four seasons with Atlanta, and was traded to the Red Sox near the end of 2014.
But with season-ending arm surgery coming only after nine appearances, repeated injury and job uncertainty took their toll, and Varvaro walked away the following year, leaving a rehab assignment with the Pawtucket Sox when the Port Authority police called. If there’s a fallback assumption that all major leaguers are somehow set for life, Varvaro disproved the notion, a mid-level draft pick who scratched and worked his way to the majors, received no huge signing bonuses or mega-million-dollar contracts. He just had a love of the game, a relentless work ethic, and a superior right arm.
His choice to leave it all behind resonated with his Red Sox colleagues of the day, not just for the courage of Varvaro’s convictions, but for their unwavering faith he would wear both uniforms with honor and pride.
“I remember getting to know him during stretch in spring training of 2015,” recalled pitcher Rick Porcello. “We had a common connection through people we knew at St. John’s [University, where Varvaro pitched in college]. He had a great dry sense of humor that would make me laugh, but when it came time to work he was always focused and worked hard. I remembered him talking about leaving baseball to apply to the Port Authority and how much I admired the fact that he was putting his career aside to be home and to serve and protect.”
There were some funny moments in the transition. In an interview on SNY a few years back, Varvaro recalled how a background-check call to the Red Sox front office, which occurred before Varvaro had a chance to alert anyone he’d gotten a call about the police exam he’d passed years before in Atlanta, prompted concern it might have been a hoax.
“I remember getting a call as part of the background-check process and checking with Anthony and telling him, ‘I’m not going to talk to them unless you want me to,’ ” said Red Sox senior vice president Ben Crockett, the team’s farm director in 2015.
As Varvaro recalled in the video, “I said, ‘Listen, it’s something I always had an interest in, and I’m letting it ride out and see where I stand at the end of the day,’ and they said, ‘OK.’ I said, ‘While I’m here, I’m a hundred percent all-in. But I want to see where it leads me.’ ”
That’s how Crockett described him: “I said he was a standout citizen, a really hard worker. Anthony was really mature, soft-spoken, and driven. He cared about his teammates and the game, but he knew what he wanted when deciding to go to his family and pursue his real dream job.”
Assurances were in place, but Varvaro’s manager at the time, Kevin Boles, still thought there was major league life in his arm.
“I remember the day in 2016, we were in Buffalo I think, when he told me he was going to retire and move on and go into law enforcement,” said Boles, now a minor league manager with the Syracuse Mets.
“And I said, ‘Are you sure? You’re doing really well, you have a chance for service again in the big leagues.’ But he said, ‘My dream is actually to be in law enforcement.’ That put everything in perspective. Most guys, their dream is the big leagues.
“His is to serve.”
That is the man the world lost last weekend, and sadder still, the father and husband a family lost. The unrelenting grief that enveloped the funeral Thursday spoke to the life Anthony Varvaro lived in 37 years, but also to the one he never gets to live. It spoke to the impact he had in serving his community, in teaching baseball to the next generation of Little League stars (he was recently elected president of his local organization), but also to the impact he could have continued to make, most especially to the four children he shared with his high school sweetheart and wife, Kerry.
There was one of his boys on Thursday, helping the uniformed pallbearers who’d shouldered his father’s flag-draped casket back to the hearse, small arms extending out of one of his dad’s old jerseys as they pushed the casket all the way into the car. Putting others first, a desire to help, Varvaro family traits.
“I remember one appearance he had in ‘15 where we were getting blown out and he covered multiple innings and racked up a pretty high pitch count to save the rest of our bullpen,” Porcello said. “I think that outing was a great example of what he is all about.
“He will be missed.”
A charitable fund has been set up for the family, with a description that says everything about Varvaro and the reason he swapped those uniforms seven years ago.
“Nothing in the world mattered more to Anthony than his family, and this collection will ensure AJ, Johnny, Christian, and Savannah are taken care of for the future.”