NASHVILLE, Tenn. — “How’s your slider?” Vanderbilt pitching coach Scott Brown asked freshman reliever David Horn, as they stood on the Hawkins Field mound Saturday in a defining moment of a critical game, the kind of game that can inspire or obstruct a postseason run.
“Do you feel good about it?” Brown continued. “I know we’ve been working on it, but do you trust it? This hitter has no idea you have a slider.”
Horn responded: “Yes. I’ll rip it.”
It was the top of the seventh inning in the deciding game of the series, the regular-season finale leading into this week’s SEC Tournament. Vandy had just scored three runs to take a 7-6 lead. Arkansas’ Peyton Holt was up with two on and two out. He was ahead in the count, 2-0.
Brown rarely makes mound visits for discussions. He almost never does so in the middle of an at-bat. But this situation was special. And this year has been different. The jersey Brown has been wearing tells the story.
Brown wore No. 12 in his playing career, which culminated with Division III All-America honors as a senior pitcher in 1999 for State University of New York at Cortland, on the west side of the state. After four years as an administrator and volunteer assistant coach at Cortland, Brown got a break — St. John’s baseball coach Ed Blankmeyer wanted to hire him as pitching coach.
It was part time, at least officially. It meant a massive cut in pay, down to $9,453 a year. That was tight even for a guy who would be living at the parents’ house of his girlfriend and future wife, Mary. But it was the Big East. The big time. An opportunity to turn passion into career.
When Brown showed up for his first day of work, he asked equipment manager Derek Smith if he could have No. 12. Smith told him he’d have to ask the guy who had the number already, sophomore pitcher Anthony Varvaro. Brown knew of Varvaro, of course, a supremely gifted righthander who had gone 4-6 with a 4.83 earned-run average in an inconsistent freshman season.
In his first interaction with Varvaro, Brown told him he had worn No. 12 all his life and wondered if Varvaro would mind giving it up to him. Respectfully, yes, Varvaro minded. He had already had to give up his lifelong number, 24 — the one he wore in Snug Harbor Little League and then Curtis High on nearby Staten Island, N.Y. — as a freshman because someone had it. He halved it at the time. He’d keep it now.
Brown was a bit taken aback, but he shrugged, went back to Smith and took No. 21. It was an inauspicious start to a rewarding partnership and lifelong friendship.
“All through the years,” Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin said of Brown, “he has talked about Anthony.”
Brown helped Varvaro become an All-American, a dominant college starter with a diving slider and elusive changeup to go with his mid-90s fastball. He helped him become a major leaguer, a six-year career as a reliever after the Seattle Mariners took him in the 12th round in 2005. A projected first-round pick, Varvaro plummeted after an elbow injury late in that junior season requiring Tommy John surgery.
Brown did it with the frankness he is known for at Vanderbilt. By building trust in a pitcher just a few years his junior. And with creativity. Varvaro couldn’t stop from throwing across his body, so one day Brown plunked a railroad tie on the mound as a landing spot. Varvaro protested, but after the season Brown got reports that Varvaro was using a railroad tie on his own in Cape Cod League bullpen sessions.
“I’ve never used that with anyone since,” Brown said. “But Anthony swore by it. That was his teachable spirit, that’s how he got better over time because he knew he had more to give.”
Varvaro helped Brown become a full-time pitching coach, a nationally respected pitching coach for a rising St. John’s program, a coach Corbin hired away in 2013, a guy who will be on the list of candidates whenever Corbin retires. Brown’s sprawling list of star pupils reaches back to Varvaro’s teammate Craig Hansen and includes names such as Carson Fulmer, Walker Buehler, Kyle Wright and Kumar Rocker.
Varvaro did it by challenging Brown at times. His mischievous alter ego, “Tone Capone,” was good for some subtle cracks and the occasional launch of a baseball over the center field wall toward the Utopia Parkway. Years later when Brown and Varvaro would meet up for a lunch or dinner, Varvaro would joke: “You want to go with Anthony or Tone Capone?”
Mostly, Varvaro was “a quiet leader” for those teams, said his catcher and housemate Joe Burke, a guy who rarely talked on the field or boasted off it. That, beyond the thunderbolt of a right arm, drew Blankmeyer to Varvaro as a prospect. He noticed how well Varvaro treated his parents and how involved he was in Snug Harbor as a kid. That mattered to the coach.
“We’d pick on him because whenever he got any time off, he’d go home,” Smith said of Varvaro. “But if you spend any time around that community, you get it.”
His parents went to every home series and most on the road. And if Varvaro was hanging around campus, chances are Kerry Thomson was there with him. She was his high school sweetheart and would eventually become his wife and have four children with him. At that time, Burke said, she was “the house mom” for the five St. John’s students who created “a typical guy house.” This while getting her bachelor’s in education and master’s in special education from the College of Staten Island.
“Sometimes people just click,” Smith said. “You could tell even back then that Anthony and Kerry were meant to be together.”
And that Varvaro had a plan for after baseball. It made sense before he made seven figures in the sport. He was working toward a degree in criminal justice — he would later get it while in the majors, with Smith helping him arrange the right classes — and wanted to work in law enforcement. He would pepper Burke’s father, a New York Police Department officer, with questions when he got the opportunity.
When other major leaguers would ask about his plans and he’d tell them, some wondered if this was “Tone Capone” having some fun.
“It shocked people who didn’t know him, and it was no surprise at all to those of us who did,” Burke said.
“How many stories do you know like that?” Blankmeyer said. “I don’t know many. A very successful person in the game of baseball and he decides to become one of us, a regular person, a police officer. A highly respected police officer. Someone who just wanted to serve others.”
After climbing the ranks in the Mariners organization and reaching the bigs in 2010, Varvaro had his best seasons with the Braves. He and Kerry were married in 2011. His final major-league season, with a worsening right elbow, came with Boston in 2015. In December 2016, he graduated from the Port Authority Police Academy.
As of the summer of 2022, he was teaching at the academy. He and Kerry had four young children. He was coaching them in baseball and he was the recently elected president of Snug Harbor Little League, where he first learned the game. Varvaro had a multi-year plan in place to improve the league’s facilities. Already he had convinced the local community board to approve lights for the three fields, after more than 20 years of those requests being denied.
Brown was driving to Memphis to watch a recruit on the morning of Sunday, Sept. 11, when his phone started buzzing. It was a call from Blankmeyer. And it was early, even for the coach affectionately known as “Blanky.”
“Hey,” Blankmeyer said to Brown, “did you hear about Varvaro?”
Earlier that morning, Varvaro was driving on the New Jersey Turnpike near the Holland Tunnel, on his way to work security detail in the annual 9/11 memorial at the site of the World Trade Center. He was not on the schedule that day; he volunteered.
About 4:25 a.m., a wrong-way driver crashed head-on into Varvaro’s Nissan Maxima. Both drivers were killed. Varvaro was 37. Port Authority officers who were friends with him later told Brown that the blind spot where the collision occurred was especially bad — that a few seconds earlier or later might have enabled Varvaro to swerve and avoid.
“I thought it was a fake story at first,” Burke said. “One of our roommates from St. John’s called me and there was just no way. He was larger than life, this couldn’t be. Then you think about Kerry and the kids. Then the calls and the social media start flooding in.”
Smith was on vacation in Austin, Texas, when he got a similar call. The flight back to Columbus, Ohio that day, where he is the general manager of Nationwide Arena, was “the longest of my life.”
“You just don’t know what to do,” Smith said. “You have to understand, Anthony wasn’t just a friend, he was a hero of mine.”
Shortly after an emotional call with Blankmeyer, Brown was pulled over by an officer on I-40 headed toward Memphis. He was ticketed for going 93 in a 70. The officer told Brown he wasn’t paying attention.
“You’re right,” Brown said. “I don’t know where my mind is.”
Brown has endured tragedy in his own family. Mary gave birth to their second child, Peyton Riley, on Nov. 12, 2010. Peyton passed away five days later of meconium aspiration syndrome. Every year the family celebrates Peyton’s birthday and looks at pictures of her from the NICU during her brief life. They don’t want to make it a sad thing, but as Mary said: “It hurts still.”
Brown called the Sept. 15 funeral for Varvaro “one of the toughest days I’ve ever been a part of in my life.”
“But also, an unbelievable experience,” he said of a Staten Island service that included hundreds of officers and about 30 members of the St. John’s baseball family. “The support, the Port Authority, his wife giving the eulogy. You talk about strength, strength that you can pull from. That’s one of the strongest things I’ve seen.”
Take the trips and give the hugs to the ones you love, Kerry told a packed house at Our Lady of Good Counsel Church. Be grateful for the time you have, she said. She pointed around the cathedral, calling out and thanking people from her husband’s life who had made the trip — people such as Braves teammates Mike Minor and Tim Hudson.
“I don’t know exactly the right word but it was just inspiring,” Smith said. “How Kerry is as a human being. It’s just how Anthony was. So humble, so gracious, so grateful, so kind. I’d do anything for that family.”
And in the months that followed, he did.
Smith’s intended career path was law enforcement as well, after several years in St. John’s athletics. He had a physical fitness test scheduled with the NYPD when he got a call from mentor and former St. John’s AD Jack Kaiser about a job at Madison Square Garden. Smith got that job, as director of facility and event services. After 10 years he moved on to Barclays Center in Brooklyn as senior project manager. He has been the general manager of Nationwide Arena, home of the Columbus Blue Jackets, since 2017.
He has been involved in projects including a $10 million locker room renovation for the Blue Jackets and a massive makeover of MSG.
“None of it compares to Snug Harbor,” he said.
It started with an email, shortly after Varvaro’s funeral, to the address on the league’s website for the director of fundraising. His name was Dennis Thomson. He’s a firefighter. He’s Kerry’s brother. He has since succeeded Varvaro as president of the league — and become Smith’s best friend.
In just more than five months, they got about 10 years’ worth of Varvaro’s dreams for Snug Harbor Little League fulfilled.
The little leaguers of Snug Harbor, which is located near the north shore of Staten Island, used to have to rent a facility on the south shore for indoor batting practice. Now they have an indoor facility of their own measuring 50 feet by 80. They have donated FieldTurf on one field and resodded grass on the other two. They have completely revamped grounds. They have state-of-the-art illumination for night games from Musco Lighting.
That represents $2.2 million in funds raised and donations. And about 10 trips for Smith from Columbus to New York while co-workers covered for him at his day job. And full days of work for Thomson on the project after 24-hour shifts at the fire station. And countless volunteer hours. And an intense desire from a lot of people to let the world know what Varvaro meant to them, while doing some of what he planned to do for his community.
“It was beyond a mission,” said Smith, whose efforts included more than 500 emails and an extensive application for a grant from the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation — approved for $225,000.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Burke said. “Derek doesn’t want to take credit, but this doesn’t happen without him. This represents a lot of work and a lot of relationships Anthony had with people.”
There’s more planned in the future for what is now called the Anthony Varvaro Memorial Complex. It took a week straight of completely dry weather for it to be ready for opening day, April 14, which Blankmeyer said was “quite frankly, a miracle.”
He was one of many speakers that night in a ceremony emceed by Dennis Thomson and Smith. Kerry was the final speaker. She told the story of what turned out to be her husband’s last game coaching in the league — how he was giving the opposing pitcher tips and the other coach was helping their players, even though it was a playoff game.
“That’s what Snug is about. That’s what little league should be about,” she said to the crowd. “So please, as you go and coach this year, remember that. Remember that it’s about the kids. Nobody remembers or cares (about) your coaching stats from little league, but these kids could remember your advice for life. They say you don’t know what you have until it’s gone …”
Kerry paused for a few seconds to gather herself.
“And I’m thankful to be able to say that’s not at all true when it comes to Anthony,” she continued. “The kids and I have always known how blessed we are, and we told him every day. But looking around tonight, we see we weren’t alone, and we just want to thank you all so much.”
And then they took the mound. Kerry. AJ, 10 years old. Johnny, 8. Christian, 5. And little Savannah, a few weeks shy of her 4th birthday. They all got to throw a pitch to usher in a new season.
Standing on the mound at Hawkins Field on Saturday, Horn assured Brown he could get his slider over. So should that be the next pitch?
“Let’s go fastball away,” Brown said. “Then the slider for a strike.”
Horn peered in at Holt, down 2-0 in the count, and hit the outside corner with a 95 mph fastball. Then he dropped the slider in, 83 mph and perfectly placed, for a strike. Then back to the fastball. Swing and a miss. Horn’s fist-pumping celebration told the story of a defining moment and a critical game, both seized.
Vanderbilt has another team capable of winning a national championship, and the Commodores should be playing at home as they try to advance to Omaha. Brown has been with Corbin for both of his previous titles, in 2014 and 2019, and four of his five College World Series runs. All that success, all the little moments like the one with Horn that turned out just right, have required practice and seasoning.
Brown has thought about, and invoked — and thanked — Varvaro for the way he contributed to the journey. The thoughts are heavier lately.
“It’s devastating,” Brown said. “I sit here and think about how fortunate I am to be in this seat, because of coaching a young man like that who propelled my career, who gave me clout and respect. All because of what he did.”
Corbin does not let anyone in his program choose a jersey number. He picks for everyone. High school numbers matter none. He made an exception for former pitcher Tyler Brown, who asked for No. 21 because that is the plot number of his mother’s burial site.
And he made an exception before the season when Brown approached him and asked if he could turn in the No. 26 he’s been wearing all these years.
Brown walked off the mound Saturday sporting No. 12. It’s his again and for as long as he coaches.
(Top photo of Anthony Varvaro in 2014: Jamie Sabau / Getty Images)