This article was written by Jason Lenard
Juan Berenguer combined a high-90s fastball and a menacing appearance to become the first Panamanian-born pitcher to win a World Series ring, starting 27 games for the Detroit Tigers in their 1984 championship season. And he did it again three years later, earning the monikers “Señor Smoke” and “El Gasolino” for the 1987 Twins.
Berenguer was born on November 30, 1954, in Aguadulce, Panama, one of nine children born to Francisco and Bienvenda Berenguer. He played in youth leagues as a third baseman until the age of 16. Noting his rocket arm, Berenguer’s brother Jose convinced his younger sibling that he could be a successful pitcher. Jose’s advice was a turning point in the blossoming career of the younger Berenguer, and led to 15 years in the big leagues.
In 1972, at the age of 18, Berenguer, a right-hander, made the Panamanian National Team, traveling to various locations with his fellow countrymen. While playing a game in Cuba, Berenguer met Tony Oliva and Luis Tiant, Cuban-born players who had made the jump to America and the major leagues. Oliva was then starring with the Minnesota Twins and Tiant with the Boston Red Sox. “They told me to work hard, and that they would soon see me in America,” Berenguer said in an interview in 2009. “I never thought I had a chance to come to America.”
That advice and encouragement from two of the game’s most influential Latinos motivated Berenguer, and three years later, in 1975, a New York Mets scout, former major leaguer Nino Escalera, spotted him in a game in Panama. He saw enough to know that Juan had a major-league arm, and he showed up at the Berenguers’ front door at 6 o’clock the following morning, taking Berenguer’s mother by surprise. Reluctant to wake Juan, she tried to send Escalera away, explaining that Juan was still asleep. Luckily for Juan, brother Jose intervened, woke his kid brother and ushered in Escalera, contract in hand. By 6:45 p.m., Berenguer’s name was on the contract, and he was bound for spring training in St. Petersburg, Florida.
At that camp, Berenguer met Mets pitchers Tom Seaver, already a 146-game winner, and Jerry Koosman, among other players. For a boy making his first trip to America, those names were as foreign as the language. However, the two were gracious veterans, and they told Berenguer to keep working hard.
Berenguer spent the 1975 through 1978 seasons working his way up to the high minors — 5-4 and a 2.94 ERA in 1975 with Wausau in the Class A Midwest League, 10-13 and 3.61 in 1976 with Lynchburg in the Class A Carolina League, and 9-8 and 3.43 in 1977 with Jackson in the Double-A Texas League. He reached a peak in 1978 with Tidewater in the Triple-A International League, winning the league’s Pitcher of the Year Award with a record of 10-7, a 3.67 ERA, eight complete games, and three shutouts. His reward was a call-up to the parent club and making his first big-league start, at the age of 23, on August 17 in front of 9,003 fans at Shea Stadium. The opponent that evening was the San Diego Padres, and Berenguer had to pitch against the legendary Gaylord Perry, then well on his way to 300 victories. The Mets, by comparison, were well on their way to a last-place finish in the National League’s Eastern Division.
“My leg was shaking,” Berenguer recalled. “I was very nervous to go against one of the best players in baseball. But Nino [Escalera] told me to go in and pitch hard.”
The top of the first inning was rocky as he walked the first two batters, which led to a run for the Padres. Berenguer settled down until the third inning, when San Diego plated four runs, two of them on a home run by Tucker Ashford. Berenguer finished the third, but was removed for a pinch-hitter in the bottom of the inning. The line for his first big league start: 3 IP, 4 H, 5 ER, 4 BB, 2K.
After four more appearances, including two additional starts, Berenguer ended his first major-league season with an 0-2 record, an ERA of 8.31, and the knowledge that he needed another pitch to complement his fastball.
Winter ball in Venezuela was the next stop, with the goal of finding the elusive breaking ball. “I had a good fastball,” said Berenguer. “But I needed to find another pitch. The changeup wasn’t it. Every time I used a changeup, someone took me deep. They could see it coming.”
Winter ball and two more stints in Triple-A, although helpful, failed to produce the secondary pitch Berenguer desired, and he made only sporadic late-season appearances for the Mets in 1979 and 1980. He spent the bulk of 1979 on loan to the Tacoma Tugs, Cleveland’s affiliate in the Pacific Coast League, going 8-8 with a 4.88 ERA. It was in that season that Berenguer earned his first big-league win, pitching 7? innings, allowing two earned runs and registering four strikeouts in a Mets victory over the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium on September 28. Preserving the win for Berenguer was 23-year-old rookie Jeff Reardon, who earned his first save for a player who would be his World Series teammate eight years later, in 1987. The 1980 season found Berenguer at Triple-A Tidewater, where he posted a 9-15 mark with an improved 3.84 ERA.
Late in spring training of 1981, buried on the Mets’ depth chart, Berenguer got word from manager Joe Torre that his Mets days were over, and that he was headed to Kansas City for a fresh start. “Joe told me that I was going someplace where I could pitch in the big leagues,” Berenguer said.
Berenguer was dealt for Marvell Wynne and John Skinner, neither of whom ever played for the Mets. Former minor-league pitching instructor Bill Connors had taken the first of his several major-league pitching coach positions with the Royals a year earlier. And he wanted Juan.
For the first time, Berenguer opened a season with the big club, making his first appearance on April 20. After seven more appearances, including three starts, giving him an 0-4 record and an 8.69 ERA, Berenguer’s 1981 season came to a halt on June 12 as the Major League Baseball Players Association voted to strike in the name of free agency. On August 8, the eve of resumption of play, Berenguer was sold to Toronto to join a young Blue Jays squad that had gone 16-42 before the strike.
As luck would have it, the Royals ended up in the playoffs because of the unique split-season rules necessitated by the strike that year, and Berenguer missed a chance at postseason baseball. However, the trade gave Berenguer an opportunity to throw big innings; he started 11 games for the Blue Jays in the second half of the split season. The highlight of his Toronto tenure was his first American League victory, coming against the Tigers, the club that signed him as a free agent eight months later.
Playing in front of a crowd of 10,526 at Tiger Stadium on August 11, 1981, Berenguer entered the game in the second inning. The Blue Jays were up, 6-3. They had scored six runs in the top of the first against Dan Schatzeder, but the Jays’ Paul Mirabella gave up three in the bottom of the inning. With two on and two out in the second, Berenguer replaced Mirabella, fanned Alan Trammell for his only strikeout of the game, and pitched into the seventh before surrendering the ball to Roy Lee Jackson, who preserved his second career win.
Berenguer won just one more game that season and finished the season with a 2-13 record (0-4 for the Royals, 2-9 for the Blue Jays), with a 5.26 ERA. His career record was now 3-17.
Another year, 1982, brought another spring training disappointment for Berenguer as the Jays released him, less than two weeks before teams headed north.
But in a moment that marks one of the turning points of his career, Berenguer got the call from Detroit and signed as a free agent on April 4. He was to play for Sparky Anderson, a manager about whom he knew two things: Anderson won two World Series as manager of the Cincinnati Reds in 1975 and ’76, and had a reputation for impatience with pitchers.
“Sparky had a reputation as Mr. Hook,” Berenguer recollected. “You know, walk one guy and you’re gone. I thought, ‘We’re going to have trouble. I need to work on my control.’”
Twenty-five players headed north as the Tigers broke camp to begin the season in Kansas City, but Berenguer wasn’t one of them. Instead, Anderson told him to stay behind in Lakeland, then report to Evansville to play for the Triplets, the Tigers’ Triple-A affiliate. Starting 24 games for the Triplets that season, Berenguer logged 11 wins against 10 losses, with an ERA of 4.61.
As had become a familiar routine during his time as a Met, Berenguer was a late-season call-up in 1982, making his Tigers debut at the corner of Michigan and Trumbull in a starting role on September 2. His line was another parallel to his days in New York; he walked five California Angels and departed after three innings — but this time he gave up only three earned runs. Nine days later the story was the same, this time out of the bullpen, as Berenguer struck out five Boston Red Sox but walked four, giving him nine walks in 6? innings.
After another offseason of hard work, Berenguer left Florida with the Tigers in 1983 to begin the season that changed his life as a major leaguer.
“Sparky and Roger Craig saved my career,” Berenguer said. Craig, the Tigers’ pitching coach, “taught me to throw the split-finger, and I learned it in about a week.” That season, Berenguer finished on the plus side of .500 for the first time, going 9-5 with a 3.14 ERA in 157? innings. He appeared in 37 games and made 19 starts.
Berenguer got permission from Anderson to play winter ball to perfect the split-finger pitch. Berenguer knew winter ball would also help him satisfy one of Anderson’s other requirements: weight.
“Sparky would send the players a sheet in December that said what weight to report at,” Berenguer recalled. “I had to keep in shape.”
Berenguer entered the spring of 1984 as he had every other in his career, with the mindset that someone was going to try to take his job. This year, someone almost did, with Berenguer’s wildness nearly costing him a spot in the starting rotation.
After almost three weeks of sitting in the bullpen, with Anderson using Jack Morris, Dan Petry, Milt Wilcox, and Dave Rozema en route to an AL East-leading 11-1 record, Berenguer started on April 22 against the Chicago White Sox at Tiger Stadium. The game-time temperature was frigid, punctuated with periods of sleet, but not cold enough to chill Berenguer’s heater as he pitched a game that was in stark contrast to the majority of his previous big-league appearances. He dominated the White Sox hitters for seven scoreless innings of two-hit ball while striking out seven. But the best number of the afternoon was in the BB stat line, as Berenguer issued only one free pass.
His next start, five days later against the visiting Cleveland Indians, proved that his first outing was no fluke. Berenguer went 7? innings, struck out six and allowed one earned run, but got no decision in an extra-inning affair.
One of the season’s most spectacular moments came on May 12, Berenguer’s fifth start, when Detroit hosted the California Angels in front of more than 38,000 fans. Led by aging veterans Tommy John and Reggie Jackson, the Angels came into the contest one game above .500 to play the red-hot, 26-4 Tigers. After being hit by a pitch in the first inning and striking out in the third, Jackson came to the plate in the fifth inning with a man on first and the Angels trailing 2-0. Berenguer ran the count to 3-2 before Jackson, according to Berenguer, uttered, “Come to papa” from the batter’s box, knowing a fastball was likely from the right-hander. He got it, and — aided by a 20 mph wind — cleared the right-field roof for his 485th home run, a mammoth blast reminiscent of the shot he hit in the 1971 All-Star Game.
The Angels grabbed the lead in the seventh, and Tommy John scattered eight hits in a 4-2 complete-game victory, a line that took a back seat to the Berenguer-Jackson encounter midway through the game.
Berenguer alternated wins and losses for most of the season, with the losses somewhat more frequent, and his record stood at 8-10 in mid-September before a three-game winning streak allowed him to finish above .500 at 11-10 with a respectable ERA of 3.48.
Heading into the American League Championship Series against the Royals, Berenguer knew he was on the outside of the pitching rotation looking in, both as a starter and a reliever. Before the opening game, pitching coach Craig explained to Berenguer his postseason role. “Roger told me before the playoffs, ‘This is the situation. I am going to push my starters into the eighth. You are my innings 4 through 6 guy. Anything later than the sixth and it’ll be [Doug] Bair, [Aurelio] Lopez, and [Willie] Hernandez.’”
Typically, Berenguer accepted his role with ease. “I knew the rule,” he said. “I am a team player. I wanted to win.”
The postseason for the Tigers lasted a scant eight games, with the starters doing the job Craig had envisioned. In the Championship Series, Detroit relievers got only seven innings of work. Jack Morris pitched seven strong innings in Game One, with Hernandez hurling the final two; Dan Petry went seven innings in Game Two, but Hernandez blew the save and the win went to Lopez in extra innings; and Wilcox pitched eight innings in Game Three, with Hernandez saving it.
The World Series featured two complete-game victories by Morris in Games One and Four, and two subpar performances by Petry in Games Two (4? innings) and Five (3? innings). Lopez, Hernandez, Bair, and Bill Scherrer did Detroit’s relief duty in the Series. Berenguer, despite 27 starts and 168? innings for the Tigers during the season, never left the bullpen in the postseason.
According to Berenguer, that inactivity was made easier by the support system he had on the team, mainly Hernandez, Lopez, and utility player Barbaro Garbey. That support, he said, enabled him to succeed during his time in Detroit.
“I talked to everyone on the team,” Berenguer said. “Lopez and Willie would say, ‘You start, then give the ball to me.’ I put that in my head. I knew I didn’t have to go nine innings. I would get to six or seven and let those guys come in.
“I felt like I found a home in Detroit. The crowd made you feel comfortable and everyone supported you. They made you feel good, and I wanted to pitch well for them.”
Berenguer pitched one more season in Detroit, a disappointing season in which his starts declined to 13, his record dipped to 5-6, and his ERA rose to 5.59. On the day after the ’85 season ended, Berenguer left the home he thought he had found and headed west to join the San Francisco Giants. Berenguer, backup catcher Bob Melvin and pitcher Scott Medvin were sent to San Francisco in exchange for catcher Matt Nokes and pitchers Eric King and Dave LaPoint. There, Berenguer would join the man who had tutored him in the art of the split-finger fastball, Roger Craig, the team’s manager.
By the time he joined the Giants, Berenguer had accepted his role as a reliever. However, San Francisco already had a crowded bullpen. As a result, Berenguer joined the Giants starting rotation, at least at the outset of the 1986 season, alongside players like Mike Krukow and Vida Blue.
Berenguer made his first start at Candlestick Park on April 30 in front of just 5,147 attendees, and didn’t last through the third inning. After two more lackluster starts, Berenguer and his 6.00 ERA were sent back to the bullpen. By June 12, his ERA was down to 2.93, and almost a week later, with other relievers injured, Berenguer got the chance to close. Between June 18 and June 22, Berenguer saved three games and won one before returning to middle relief.
With an overstocked bullpen in July, Giants general manager Al Rosen met with Berenguer and asked where he might want to be traded. Rosen asked him to pick one team. Around the same time, his old acquaintance Tony Oliva, then a batting coach for Minnesota, told Berenguer that the Twins were trying to acquire him. So Berenguer told Rosen that he wanted to be traded to Minnesota — a request Rosen declined because, according to Berenguer, “he didn’t want anyone from Minnesota.” So Berenguer stayed with the Giants.
Berenguer finished the 1986 season with a 2.70 ERA in 73? innings of work, a solid year that landed him a spot on his second World Series winner.
He was released by the Giants on December 19, 1986, and signed on the following January 9 with the Twins to be their closer. He finally landed the elusive job at the back end of the bullpen that he was looking for. And it lasted less than a month. On February 3, the Twins traded four players to the Expos to obtain the Terminator, Jeff Reardon, who had 76 saves over the previous two seasons.
Oliva calmed Berenguer’s fears, informing him that, with only two bona fide starters, Bert Blyleven and Frank Viola, a relief pitcher on the Twins would be in high demand during the 1987 season. Oliva’s prediction proved correct, and the result for Juan was 112 innings of work in six starts and 41 relief appearances with a 3.94 ERA. He posted the best strikeout-to-walk ratio of his career, striking out 110 and walking only 47, and finished the season with an 8-1 record. He became known as Señor Smoke.
The Twins finished 85-77 for the year, winning the American League West by two games over the Royals, and were headed to the postseason for the first time since the Harmon Killebrew-led 1970 team.
The only team between the Twins and the pennant was the 98-win Detroit Tigers, winner of the East by two games over the Blue Jays and the owner of the best record in baseball. The Tigers won the division in dramatic fashion, winning the last four games of the season at home against Toronto — which came into the series with the division lead.
On paper and in the standings, the Tigers held the advantage. But after an 8-5 victory by the Twins in Game One at the Metrodome, the regular–season records were quickly forgotten. Berenguer finally broke his postseason pitching drought in Game Two, pitching what could be called the best 1? innings of his 15-year career.
Bert Blyleven started. Leading 6-2 in the eighth inning, he gave up a solo home run to the Tigers’ Lou Whitaker. Enter Señor Smoke; Twins manager Tom Kelly’s plan was that he would get the final two outs of the inning before turning the ball over to Reardon.
Berenguer promptly struck out Kirk Gibson on three pitches, the final one swinging, and got Alan Trammell to ground into a force play at second. Kelly saw something in Berenguer that made him change his plan, and with the Twins holding a three-run lead, he left Berenguer in for the ninth.
Matt Nokes, one of the players the Tigers got for Berenguer, led off the inning. Berenguer struck him out swinging. Next was Chet Lemon, a player Berenguer admired during his time in Detroit for his spectacular defense. Strikeout swinging. The final batter of the game was Pat Sheridan. Another strikeout swinging.
With the nation watching on television and his family in attendance, Berenguer was fired up, pumping his fist after each strikeout in a display of emotion that did not sit well with his former Tigers manager.
“Don’t ever try to embarrass my players,” said a peeved Anderson after the game. “Whatever this is, with the glove coming up and the hand coming down, don’t wake the sleeping dog.”
Berenguer saw it differently. “I was not trying to embarrass anyone,” he said in 2009. “I played with those guys, and respect them all.”
Berenguer pitched a hitless inning in Minnesota’s Game Three win, 2? hitless innings in the Twins’ Game Four victory, and two-thirds of an inning in the deciding Game Five victory — his no-hit, no-run string broken up by a home run by Chet Lemon. The Twins were going to their first World Series in 22 years to face the St. Louis Cardinals.
Berenguer struggled early in the Series, allowing two earned runs in an inning of work in Game Two, and taking the loss after allowing three earned runs in one-third of an inning in Game Three.
After the loss, Berenguer received a tip that he had heard before: He was relying too much on his fastball. In his next appearance, in Game Six, he served a steady dose of sliders and forkballs in three innings of scoreless work as the Twins evened the Series at three victories each. They defeated the Cardinals in Game Seven for Berenguer’s second World Series title in four seasons.
The reliever’s popularity soared after the World Series thanks to “Berenguer Boogie,” a music video that featured Juan dancing to the beat in a trench coat and briefcase. It achieved new life in the 21st century thanks to several Internet video sites.
Berenguer pitched in Minnesota through 1990, with a record of 33-13 in his four years of work as a Twin. After testing free agency, Berenguer signed with the Atlanta Braves, and as had happened with the Twins four years earlier, made another run at a title.
The Braves, 65-97 in 1990, went from worst to first in 1991, with Berenguer, at the age of 36, playing a key role early in the season. He had 17 saves, more than in his previous 13 years combined, when an injury derailed his season. While home wrestling with his children on an off-day, Berenguer broke his pitching arm and missed out on much of the Braves’ run to the National League West title, followed by the pennant and subsequent loss to Berenguer’s former team, the Twins, in Game Seven of the World Series. The winning pitcher for the Twins in that game? Ex-Tigers teammate Jack Morris.
In 1992, Berenguer returned to pitch for Atlanta, going 3-1 with a 5.13 ERA, but was dealt near the interleague trade deadline to the Royals in exchange for another former teammate, Mark Davis. With a 1-4 record and a 5.64 ERA with the Royals, Berenguer’s major-league career came to an end. He hung on until 1997, spending 1993 and 1994 in the Mexican League, part of 1994 with Minneapolis in the independent North Central League, and 1995 through 1997 with Minneapolis and Southern Minny in the independent Prairie League. As ERAs ranging from 0.82 (with Minneapolis in 1995, albeit with a 2-3 mark) to 6.14 (with Saltillo in 1993, with a not-surprising 1-5 record) indicate, his work was inconsistent. The end came in 1997 with an 8-3 slate and 3.09 ERA. At 41, Berenguer retired.
During his 15-year career, the man known by the nicknames Pancho Villa (referring to his facial hair) and the Panama Express registered 67 career wins, the record for a Panamanian-born player until 2008 when Mariano Rivera posted win number 68 with the New York Yankees. Berenguer registered 975 career strikeouts, 32 saves and a 3.90 ERA in 490 games, with 1,205? innings pitched — and two rings.
Berenguer returned to Minnesota, the site of his greatest baseball success, and worked in marketing for a television station. He was married for the second time in 2004. He sons from his first marriage followed in his athletic footsteps: Chris as a defenseman for the Hamline University hockey team in St. Paul, and Andrew following in his dad’s footsteps on the diamond at Mesabi Range Technical College in Virginia, Minnesota.
Zaret, Eli. ’84 – The Last of the Great Tigers. South Boardman, Mich.: Crofton Creek Press, 2004.
Anderson, Dave. “A Tale of Two Bullpens.” New York Times, October 9, 1987.
Durso, Joseph. “Offseason for Baseball Isn’t What It Used to Be.” New York Times, January 11, 1988.
Goessling, Ben. “Former Twin Enjoys Chaotic, Happy Retirement as Salesman and Father.” Minneapolis Star-Tribune, March 22, 2006.
Lenard, Jason. Juan Berenguer interview. January 14, 2009.