Berenguer taking it one day at a time
Spanish broadcaster survives cancer, death of friend
BOSTON -- Red Sox Spanish radio broadcaster Uri Berenguer recalls the elevator ride down from the press box to the parking lot at Fenway Park on May 30 like it was yesterday.
It was sometime after 2 a.m. and the club had just arrived at its home park from the airport after a Sunday night game in Yankee Stadium. He and his broadcasting partner, Juan Pedro Villaman, labored as they locked up their broadcasting equipment in the corner booth on the fifth floor, and they both stepped into the elevator a few minutes later still wondering how a three-hour nationally televised game and a flight that lasted less than an hour could feel like an eternity.
"J.P. was talking about how ESPN games take forever because of all the commercials and all that," said Berenguer, 23. "We were laughing about it and having fun -- talking about how we should all be home by now."
Villaman never made it home that night. He died in a car accident north of Boston. He was 46.
"I was the last person to say goodbye, and I was lucky to have that privilege," Berenguer said. "We gave each other a hug, and I said, 'See you tomorrow, Papa.' We never did."
Charismatic and a wordsmith in English and Spanish, Berenguer still struggles to articulate his emotions on the morning of Villaman's death. Berenguer remembers crying. He recalls the shock, the sadness, the feelings of helplessness and despair. The emotions that had haunted him as a child growing up with a rare form of cancer all came rushing back in an instant, and they were overwhelming.
It was all a blur.
Mired in misery, he soon felt something else. Call it inner strength, call it responsibility or call it loyalty to Villaman, but Berenguer wiped his tears and told himself that the show must go on, because J.P. would want it that way. Only hours after starting to grieve for his friend, Berenguer worked the broadcast that night. He had an empty seat next to him and an empty heart within him.
"I did a lot of crying that day and composed myself very well for the game, I think," Berenguer said. "I didn't realize how tough it would be, but as soon as I entered the gate, I started crying again. Sadly, I have to deal with a lot of bad news in my life, and I have thankfully been able to overcome a lot of it."
Adversity has left a mark on Berenguer, but he is only scarred physically.
Born in Panama, Berenguer was diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer called histocytosis at age 3. When his mother, Daisy, disagreed with a local doctor's decision to amputate her son's leg because of a tumor, they departed for Boston to seek treatment at the Jimmy Fund Clinic at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. While in Boston, Uri and Daisy lived in the Howard Johnson behind Fenway Park, prompting the boy to wonder about "that big green wall." Daisy assumed they were staying next to some type of factory.
Neither had any idea what the future had in store for them.
"We went back to Panama after my first surgery, but I relapsed," Berenguer said. "Mom said we are not going back to Panama until I am cured, and that kept us here for most of my life."
Berenguer endured 16 years of treatment and overcame six relapses. He spent one of his years as a youth in a wheelchair and another using a walker. He had to learn to walk again on more than one occasion but was later pronounced cured of cancer at age 19 after being in remission for five years. Daisy has been recently treated for breast cancer at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Her son ran the 2005 Boston Marathon in her honor, only the second time he has missed a broadcast since joining the Red Sox. His only other absence from a broadcast came when he accompanied his mother to visit a cancer specialist.
"Cancer has been a battle for me my whole life, and I was very much robbed of my childhood, but I don't regret anything," he said. "It has been a blessing in disguise and helped me grow as a person."
At 10, Berenguer met Red Sox radio broadcaster Joe Castiglione when club officials visited the Jimmy Fund Clinic. The pair quickly developed a relationship. Three years later, Berenguer was Castiglione's statistician, and when Berenguer was 16, he was helping out in the Spanish side of the club's community relations department and contributing with occasional interviews for the Spanish radio broadcasts. One month before his 18th birthday, Berenguer joined the Spanish radio broadcast team as the play-by-play man.
He has fulfilled his dream to be the No. 1 man in the Spanish radio booth in Boston, free to change the style of the broadcast to suit his hip demeanor, but he says everything, including newfound attention to the Spanish radio broadcast, remains bittersweet.
"It's sad when a Spanish broadcast has been working so hard for some recognition for the job we do for so long and then reporters only want to talk to me on the day my friend dies because they have a story," Berenguer said. "It made me think. Nobody had ever wanted to talk to me and nobody wanted to talk about J.P. before this happened. It hurt."
Another painful task was filling Villaman's spot on the Spanish Beisbol Network. Juan Oscar Baez, a former Minor Leaguer for the Yankees, joined Berenguer in the Spanish radio booth after Villaman's death, and he is the top candidate to join the broadcast on a permanent basis for next season.
"J.P. was my friend, like a brother to me," Baez said. "To sit in his chair and use his microphone so soon is difficult. I also have a job to do, and I know he would want me to do the best I can do."
A person like Villaman is not replaced, Berenguer said. His legacy as a man and broadcaster will stand forever.
"J.P. was almost too affectionate for this cold society," Berenguer said. "He didn't understand that a big hug or a huge laughter might seem weird to people around here. It's Latino culture, and that's who he was. Every 'hello' was a hug. Every 'goodbye' was a hug. He was such a fan, the most passionate broadcaster I've ever known. He will always be in my heart. I think about him every day."
Jesse Sanchez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.