Staff Photo: John Bohn Anthony Pizarro is a security official with the Gwinnett Braves. Pizaro is a retired corrections officer from New York City.
Anthony "Tony" Pizarro has worked security for the Gwinnett Braves since the team arrived in 2009. The retired New York City corrections officer moved to Georgia after two decades of working in his home city.
In this installment of "Getting to Know..." Pizarro talks with staff writer Ben Beitzel about donating a kidney to his father, winning "Wheel of Fortune" and how he learned not to underestimate guys in wheelchairs.
BB: Let's start with you getting to Georgia. How does that work for a guy from New York?
AP: I was just looking to go to some place where I could get more bang for my buck because I knew I was going to get a nice pension. It was a choice between North Carolina and my wife considered that the sticks and I told her to make her choice and she said Georgia. I said, "Georgia it is." It took about a year and Gwinnett County is the place that we chose.
BB: You moved to Lawrenceville without a job?
AP: I moved here without a job. I had just retired. My wife had left her position as a bookkeeper and was collecting severance pay and we basically just took some time to get acclimated to the area. Our realtor had told us they were breaking ground here for the triple-A team in the Braves organization and I told her, 'I'm going to work there.' Literally, we were driving by and I said, 'Yeah, why not? I am going to work there.' And lo and behold, it worked out.
BB: With two teenage kids, or preteens, how did your kids deal with moving so far from home?
AP: He was just starting high school. She was getting ready to start middle school. The transition was more so for him because he had to leave more of his friends. Leaving was harder leaving the family behind. Mom, dad, cousins. But me and my wife are very involved in their lives as far as sports. My daughter was doing cheerleading.
We basically told them we weren't going to have a problem meeting people. Which we didn't. It was a little hard. It was adjusting in the beginning. They are the type of kids who are not introverted and they began building friends very quickly.
BB: Where did you work as a corrections officer?
AP: The first few years, I worked at Rikers Island, which is one of the largest detention facilities in New York, or the world. Then I retired from the Manhattan facility, which is right below Chinatown in New York. It was 20 years of fun (laughs).
BB: I am sure it got wild at times.
AP: Twenty years of fun. A lot of notoriety cases I dealt with. Anybody who made the news came through our facility. John Gotti was one of the most famous people that I dealt with.
BB: He probably wasn't a problem.
AP: No he wasn't. And for the most part, working in the prison system, it's basically how you would like to be addressed you address them. If you treat them with respect, they'll respect you in return. I never put the uniform on thinking I was above the law or Superman. You basically had to be fair and firm and give them what they are entitled to. Once they know what they are entitled to you were basically given the respect you deserve.
You're talking about two officers to 60 inmates. You definitely had to have really good interpersonal communication skills and know how to talk (chuckles).
BB: Did you live in Manhattan?
AP: I was born and raised in Manhattan and I have lived in every borough in New York City except for Staten Island. And then I moved, actually, out to New Jersey.
BB: So does working for the Gwinnett Braves just keep you busy?
AP: I have always been around baseball. It was something that I enjoyed playing as I was growing up. Coaching. Coaching my son. Coaching my daughter when she played. I just love baseball and when I heard this stadium was coming up. The work here, it was one of those things that I felt, I was young. I was 42 when I retired and I just didn't want to not do anything. I had heard too many horror stories of people who had retired and just sat and became couch potatoes and the next thing you know a year later, passed away. This is basically right up my alley, doing security. When I retired, I did private security for a jeweler from Los Angeles and I have driving for the U.S. Open, the tennis players, in New York. I have done private security most of my career, before and after law enforcement.
BB: Alright, now you have to tell me about being on "Wheel of Fortune."
AP: (Laughs) "Wheel of Fortune." In 2007, I donated a kidney to my dad and I was recuperating from that surgery and I was watching TV and a commercial came on saying that the "Wheel of Fortune" was coming to New York to celebrate their 25th anniversary and they were looking for either people who were either public safety workers, doctors, teachers or somebody who has done something heroic in their life. I said, 'Well, I kind of fit two of those criteria. I was in law enforcement and I just did something heroic, I just donated a kidney. Well, let me give it a shot.' I applied online, they contacted me and told me I qualified for an audition.
I went to the audition. I was picked out of a room of 500 people. September I went on the show and it was designated as a heroes week. I competed against a police officer and a firefighter and I ended up being the big winner on the show, which was awesome. It was such a blessing. I wound up winning over $35,000 on the show plus a trip to Florence, Italy. I didn't get the bonus question which was, I'll never forget it, it was "Waist High" for $45,000.BB: That was what he flipped over?
AP: That was the final. I called some letters and only two letter popped up. I said waist band and it was waist high. Pat Sajak looked at me and said, 'Wow, I thought you were going to get it.'
BB: Was Pat Sajak nice? He looks like a robot, he's the same age all the time.
AP: He was. As long as I've been watching the show, which is a long, long time. He was a really pleasant guy, made me feel comfortable. After not solving the first two puzzles when I did, in fact, solve my first puzzle, I kind of went crazy. We went off to a commercial and he was talking to me and said, 'You are doing real good, just keep it going.' At the end, even Vanna White, she was very reserved, but was just a pleasurable person.
BB: Well it got you on the show and some money, but deciding to give your dad a kidney had to be a tough choice.
AP: What happened was, my dad had kidney failure. He was on dialysis and after about a year of me looking at him on dialysis and actually traveling with him (to Niagara Falls and San Diego) after those couple of trips I went with him to a doctor's appointment and we were sitting there talking and one of the nurses asked me, 'Do you know your blood type? ... Would you like to find out?' They took my blood and she said, 'Your blood work is similar to your dad's. Have you ever discussed your option of being a donor?'
They started running some more tests and I had actually never discussed this with my wife. Nobody knew that I was going forward with this. They ran all the tests and they were like, 'You're a match. You're literally a perfect match for your dad.' I said, 'Let's do it.'
BB: It went smooth then?
AP: Everything went well for him, he took well to the kidney. I had a little setback where I was in ICU because I had complications after the surgery. I had problems breathing. They ran all types of tests. They didn't know if I as going to make it. They never called my wife to tell her until she came in that morning.
All I remember is being moved from bed-to-bed and rushed down to X-rays and everything. But thank God, five years later, I am doing awesome. My dad is doing awesome. He continues to work for the Hilton organization. My kidney is doing fine. We just keep our fingers crossed. He is able to spend more time and be here and spend time with his grandchildren.
He actually just bowled a 300 game and wrote me a note that I will frame forever that said, 'This would never have been possible without you, son.' That was really touching.
BB: Alright, tell me this. With 20 years in corrections, what's the craziest night or thing you had to deal with? What's your go-to story from your old work days?
AP: This may be too graphic. The wildest thing was an inmate slashing. It was two inmates in wheelchairs, to boot. It was a Spanish inmate and an African-American inmate. It was a fight, they had argued over the phone time. Who was going to be on from 10:30 to 11 o'clock at night. The African-American had gotten into a fight with the Spanish guy and said, 'This is my phone time' and took the phone from the Spanish inmate.
Two days later, the African-American guy is on the phone and the Spanish guy rolled right by him and cut him from here (motion across his neck) to here. It was over 200 stitches through his neck.
I always tell everybody that story because I was maybe six months. I had been on the job for six months. And I was like, 'Oh my! Is this what I have to look forward to the rest of my life?'