A chat with Juan Berenguer
Juan Batista Berenguer was born in Aquadulce, Cocle, Panama on November 30, 1954. The 5’11” and 186 pound right-hander pitched for seven big league teams during his 15 seasons in the major leagues. Berenguer grew up playing baseball and was a member of the Panamanian National team between 1972 and 1974. It was in 1972 when Juan first heard about the Minnesota Twins when he met Tony Oliva while playing in Cuba when Oliva was already a big star for the Twins and back in his home country of Cuba.
Juan’s professional career started when he signed as a free agent with the New York Mets on January 22, 1975. Berenguer was primarily a hard throwing fastball pitcher as he came up through the Mets organization and had a reputation for being a bit wild and for pitching inside. In his first minor league season in the Midwest league, Berenguer pitched 95 innings and struck out 58 batters while walking 50 and hitting 8 batters to tie for the league lead in that department. Control was sometimes a struggle for Juan and in 1976 and in 1977 Berenguer lead his league in walks. The following season, 1978, was a good year for Berenguer as he was voted the AAA International League pitcher of the year and he was named to the Topps-AAA Baseball Team. Berenguer made his major league debut at Shea Stadium on August 17, 1978 as a starter against the San Diego Padres and Gaylord Perry but Juan’s first big league action lasted just 3 innings as he gave up 5 runs on 5 hits and 4 walks and came out on the short end of a 9-2 game. Berenguer continued to hone his pitching skills in AAA in 1979 and 1980 and had “cups of coffee” call-ups in September for the Mets. In March of 1981 the Mets traded Berenguer to the Kansas City Royals. After pitching for the Royals for several months, Berenguer was sold to the Toronto Blue Jays but his stay there was to be a short one as he was released in March of 1982. Just a few days later, the Detroit Tigers signed Juan and he pitched in Detroit from 1982 through 1985 where he earned the first of his two World Series rings in 1984. The Tigers traded Berenguer or “Poncho Villa” as he was sometimes known to his teammates to the San Francisco Giants after the 1985 season, a season in which Berenguer was transitioning from starting to relieving. Berenguer pitched very well for the Giants in 1986 and had a 2.70 ERA in 46 games with 72 strikeouts in 73 innings but after the season ended, he was released.
The Minnesota Twins quickly signed Berenguer and during the Twins run to the World Championship in 1987, Berenguer was a spot starter and reliever and was 6-0 until he suffered his only loss of the season on September 12 before finishing the season 8-1. “Senor Smoke” as Twins fans called him on his good days or “El Gasolino” when he struggled, had a very good fastball that could on occasion approach triple digits and when he mixed that with his split-finger (which some called a forkball) and his change-up, he was a highly effective pitcher. By this point in his career Berenguer had matured into a husky 220+ pounds with long hair and a mustache that made him look even more intimidating and menacing on the mound. Berenguer pitched in both the ALCS and the World Series for the Twins and in the process became the first Panamanian pitcher to ever appear in post season play and the eighth Panamanian player to participate in a World Series. Berenguer went on to pitch very effectively for the Twins for three more seasons before becoming a free agent after the 1990 season. Berenguer signed a $2.1 million deal with the Atlanta Braves and was having his best season ever with a 2.24 ERA and 0.98 WHIP with 53 strikeouts in 64 innings when he broke his arm in August and could not return in time to pitch in the 1991 Twins/Braves World Series. Juan pitched for the Braves again in 1992 but was not as effective and was traded to the Kansas City Royals in July where he finished the season. Berenguer became a free agent after the 1992 season but could not come to terms on another big league deal. Juan pitched in Mexico in 1993 and in several independent Minnesota leagues between 1994 and 1997 before walking away from baseball at the age of 42.
Who can forget Senor Smoke when he showed up at the Metrodome wearing that hat and trench coat and carrying that briefcase along with the rest of the Twins players after they whipped the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS and were all set to take on the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. I was one of those fans in attendance at the Dome that night and it was an event I will never forget.
Juan’s son Chris was a two-time Division III All-American hockey player at Hamline University and is now in the New Jersey Devils minor league system. Today Juan Berenguer works at Freeway Ford in Bloomington to stay busy and he lives in Chanhassen, Minnesota where he enjoys his family and life after baseball. Juan stops by at Target Field on a regular basis so keep your eyes open because one day you just might run in to Mr. Berenguer.
The interview with Juan took place in September 2011 and is 38 minutes in length.