Ron Pizzanello is manager of the South Windsor Phillies.
Magical things sometimes happen on and around the baseball field, and one need look no further than the South Windsor Phillies dugout to be reminded of this.
Ron Pizzanello, in his second year as coach after a reluctant return to a sport he left years ago, calls the shots there. He makes the lineup with players he recruited to this Greater Hartford Twilight Baseball League team. He argues with the umpires. This is where he comes and this is what he does to feel whole again.
“I don’t know what I’d do without baseball,” Pizzanello said.
About four years ago, with Type-1 diabetes wreaking havoc on his circulatory system, Pizzanello started having body parts removed. His left leg was amputated below the knee in 2015, and above the knee in 2016. Doctors took his right leg below the knee in 2017.
Pizzanello, a Hartford native who was a feisty catcher under Bill Holowaty at Eastern Connecticut before graduating in 1976, lost equally meaningful parts of himself through years of debilitating health, too — some pride, some purpose, a whole lot of confidence. He became depressed.
But what Pizzanello has gotten out of a return to baseball, with a nudge from Holowaty, speaks to the power of feeling included, the power of sport, the power of having someone believe in you, the power of human connection and common goals.
Pizzanello, prosthetic legs and wheelchair and all, is just another guy spending a few evenings a week on the dusty diamonds of central Connecticut, again just one of the boys.
“When you wake up in the morning and you know you have something to do, it’s good,” said Holowaty, who won 1,404 games and four national championships in 45 years at Eastern and is now the GHTBL president. “It makes your life a lot better. True or false? That’s what it’s doing for him, and I just feel delighted.”
Holowaty hadn’t spoken much to Pizzanello, now of Eastford, over the years but kept up with his story, which included Pizzanello’s year as a professional baseball player in Italy just after graduating from college. He arrived at 195 pounds and left at 128 pounds.
He couldn’t figure out what was happening to his body. His father came for a visit and said it must be diabetes. People in Italy suggested the same. Pizzanello didn’t want to hear it.
“I was playing like crap, and that’s what really ticked me off,” Pizzanello said. “I was 22, and you don’t get diabetes at 22, but I had all the symptoms. I was eating like a horse and losing weight. My dad said he wanted me to return home. I said, ‘Dad, we’re one game out of first place and there’s a $15,000 bonus if we win the championship.’”
Pizzanello, now 64, stuck it out as long as he could.
“We’d go to the best restaurant in town and I’d have a big dish of pasta,” he said. “They called it rigatoni abbondante. That means a lot. I’d eat the whole thing by myself. I’d have a steak or a fish. I’d have some kind of dessert. On the way home, I’d stop and get a big bottle of Coke. I’d have an ice cream.”
When Pizzanello returned to Connecticut he said his blood sugar was over 800 and doctors wondered how he was still alive. He began to properly manage his health and went about a relatively normal life. His first marriage lasted 28 years, and he is a father of three. He was a good player for years in the Twilight league for the Vernon Orioles, the team he coached against last week, until a case of frozen shoulder — people with diabetes are particularly susceptible — made it impossible for him to keep catching.
“I couldn’t hit, anyway, so if I couldn’t catch, I was done,” he said.
Pizzanello, who remarried last year, laughed. He has a lot to laugh about these days. There’s a joy in his voice, even when retracing the obstacles diabetes has produced since he stopped playing in 1990. He spent much of the next 10 years coaching American Legion ball while working as a mainframe system programmer for The Hartford and later IBM. He had a heart attack nearly 15 years ago and has a defibrillator. He had a kidney removed.
Eventually, Pizzanello’s legs were so damaged that blood wasn’t reaching his feet unless he stood, and it was impossible to sleep through agonizing pain. His prosthetic legs — one of which he goes without, occasionally, for fear of a skin infection — are emblazoned with Red Sox logos.
Baseball was always on his mind and in his heart. He didn’t think it was in his future. But Holowaty called last summer, urging him to coach the South Windsor team with the help of Gary Burnham.
“I said ‘Coach, I don’t know,’” Pizzanello said. “I could barely walk. I couldn’t hit a fungo, couldn’t do any of that stuff. And I was in the stages of depression.”
Holowaty kept on his former player, wouldn’t let Pizzanello accept limitations. Pizzanello’s return would be good for Pizzanello and good for a league that is always looking for tough, serious, knowledgeable baseball people.
That’s Pizzanello — tough guy, always, and a baseball guy again.
“It was probably the best decision I’ve made,” Pizzanello said. “I just got so into it. It changed my whole demeanor, everything. I had a lot of fun. Just being part of this has done wonders for me. You wouldn’t believe how much this means to me.”
Story printed in the Hartford Courant: https://www.courant.com/sports/hc-sp-greater-hartford-twilight-baseball-ron-pizzanello-column-20190612-ysxrs5ynhraspcvdnprdwmspju-story.html
Article written by Mike Anthony
Mike Anthony was named The Courant’s sports columnist in May 2018. He has written about the state’s most prominent athletic programs, including the UConn men’s basketball beat from ’05-11. After a five-year period focused on feature writing, Mike spent two years on the UConn football beat. He also covered the ’17-18 UConn women’s basketball season.