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An Interview With Juan Berenguer

The former fiery relief pitcher was once dubbed Pancho Villa by his teammates. Senior Smoke, another nickname, reflects on his four World Series appearances and on collecting.

Juan Berenguer’s major league career involved seven teams and spanned more than 15 years and 1,200 innings pitched.
Berenguer, a Panama native, pitched in the big leagues from 1978-92, compiling a 67-62 career record with 32 saves and 975 strikeouts in 490 games played.

“When I look back at my career, I say that I was successful,” Berenguer said “I played on four World Series teams, and just playing on one is what so many people want to do.”

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Berenguer signed with the New York Mets as an amateur free agent in 1975, making his major league debut with the Mets in 1978.

Berenguer was with the Mets for limited action from 1978-80. He split time in 1981 between Kansas City and Toronto, then went to Detroit in 1982, where he stayed for four seasons.

Berenguer pitched for the Giants in 1986, then moved to Minnesota for a four-year run. He played his final two seasons (1991-92) with Atlanta and Kansas City.

“Playing in the World Series with Detroit was very exciting,” Berenguer said. “We had a lot of starting pitchers who were used to going seven innings, and then we had Willie Hernandez and Aurelio Lopez in the bullpen, so there weren’t many relief opportunities.

“In Minnesota, I had the chance to become one of the best relievers,” he continued. “It’s really neat, really exciting to get into a World Series game because that’s something you’ve waited for for so long. We had a lot of good players in Atlanta, with a good coaching staff, too. Playing against Minnesota, a team I had played for, was exciting, even though they defeated us to take the championship.”

Berenguer also had the opportunity to play in the World Series with Detroit.

“I have a lot of memories from my time playing in Detroit, playing for Sparky Anderson and Roger Craig, alongside a lot of good players,” said Berenguer. “Getting the chance to play in the World Series was very special, especially coming to America from another country.”

Success on the mound
Berenguer was 8-1 (3.94 ERA) for the 1987 World Series-winning Twins, with his fastball surpassing 90 mph, often inside. He also had an effective forkball, with an intimidating appearance and disposition. Berenguer was a mean-looking Panamanian with long hair and a mustache. He was dubbed “Pancho Villa” by his teammates.

“I had a lot of opportunities to go out on the mound, and I’m very thankful to Sparky Anderson,” Berenguer said. “He was the one who really helped me; he helped get me stable in the U.S., especially with all of the competition. I’m very appreciative for all of the chances he gave me.”

But that didn’t mean Berenguer always listened to Anderson.

Take, for instance, the time in 1987 when Anderson asked Berenguer to calm his emotions on the mound and no longer “shoot out” players with his hand-held, make-believe gun.

“Sparky said, ‘Don’t shoot at anyone anymore on my team.’ So I promised I was not going to do it anymore,” recalled Berenguer. “But, I struck out Dave Bergman and ‘shot’ him; the whole crowd went crazy. Sparky said, ‘You did it again,’ and I replied, ‘I’m sorry, I won’t do it tomorrow.’ ”

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Sure enough, Berenguer did it the next day.

“You get so excited and there are so many emotions when you’re on the mound, especially in the Metrodome which was so loud,” he explained. “Every time I went out on the mound, I always wanted to give it my best.”

Change in careers
Berenguer now lives in Minnesota, working for a Spanish-speaking TV station.

He goes to Twins’ home games at times, mostly to watch the pitchers. But he admits that he rarely stays the whole game. In fact, he might even leave after two or three innings.

He doesn’t have a favorite player today, either.

“I just like the players who always work hard, such as Joe Mauer from Minnesota,” he said.

His favorite pitcher is Francisco Rodriguez, now on the New York Mets.

“He reminds me a lot of myself, mostly because he shows a lot of emotion on the mound,” said Berenguer, now 54, admitted that he still pitches in the Latin League in Minnesota, though usually just one inning in the casual Sunday afternoon games.

A willing signer
Berenguer returned to Detroit in late 2008 to sign autographs at the Gibraltar Trade Center in suburban Mt. Clemens. He signed about 250 autographs for the public.

“The card shows are nice. It’s good to see the fans,” he said. “Seeing the old cards remind me of the times with that team shown on the card.”

Berenguer has long been a willing signer.

“I don’t mind signing. It’s nice to know that people still want my autograph,” said Berenguer, whose personal collection of autographs includes Willie Hernandez, Aurelio Lopez, Sparky Anderson and many other former teammates.

Who’s on his autograph wish-list? “A lot of the young players, mostly for my kids,” he said.

Berenguer regularly gets autographs at games and golf tournaments. None, though, are for him, but rather for his kids. He has one daughter (Jody, 27) and two sons (Andrew, 20, and Chres, 23).

His sons also play hockey, no thanks to Dad.

“I have to dress warm just to go to their games,” he said. “I never learned how to ice skate, and I still never learned. I learned how to snow ski and I almost killed myself, so I’m done doing that.”

Baseball was, after all, his forte.

Ross Forman is a freelance contributor to SCD.

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