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It was a spring afternoon at the Jimmy Fund Clinic a few years back, and Uri Berenguer-Ramos had stopped in for a quick checkup. This was nothing new; a Dana-Farber patient for 16 of his first 20 years, Berenguer-Ramos has come to view the clinic as his second home.
What was unusual, however, was the timing. The visit took place during Berenguer-Ramos' workday, and while his boss knew where he was, he also expected him to return soon. When you're a broadcaster for Boston Red Sox baseball, you tend to be missed when a game is under way.
"I left the radio booth in the bottom of the second inning to go to Dana-Farber but figured I'd be back in plenty of time to finish the game," Berenguer-Ramos recalls of the incident, which came during a Patriots Day contest between the Red Sox and New York Yankees this past April. "But when I walked into the clinic playroom, there was a 3-year-old tugging on my pants, asking me to play Chutes and Ladders. I stayed two-and-a-half hours, playing games, painting, and doing other stuff with the kids. I just couldn't pull myself away."
Berenguer-Ramos' boss was understanding, and his on-air partners were happy to fill in during the rare absence. As the youngest play-by-play broadcaster covering Major League Baseball, the bilingual Berenguer-Ramos is passionate about a job that has him criss-crossing the country six months a year for the all-Spanish station WROL-950 AM. Yet after a childhood spent enduring three surgeries and seven relapses for the rare cancer histocytosis, he's equally committed to his role as a survivor – and as someone whom younger clinic patients can look to with admiration and hope.
"From the moment I met Uri when he was 6 years old, he's always been a leader among the other kids," says clinic volunteer Rosemary "Rosie" Lonborg, who formed her special bond with Berenguer-Ramos as his "play lady" during years of weekly treatments. "Every time [former Jimmy Fund Chairman] Mike Andrews or anybody wanted a child to speak about their cancer experience, Uri would always step to the plate and do it. He's got an incredibly positive attitude; I've never seen him down."
Given Berenguer-Ramos' history, that's an extraordinary statement. When he first came to Dana-Farber in November 1985 from his native Panama, neither he nor his mother, Daisy, could speak English or knew anybody in the city. Three-year-old Uri was suffering from a tumor in his right leg, and doctors back home had told the family it would need to be amputated. Daisy Berenguer-Ramos insisted on a second opinion, so she and her son headed alone to America.
"Those early memories are the worst," Uri recalls. "It was 93 degrees back home, and then we land in Boston and I see this cold white stuff – my first snow experience. We stayed at the Howard Johnson's right behind Fenway Park that night, and took a cab to the Jimmy Fund Clinic the next day. There was a Latino security guard who helped us settle in, and we met with an interpreter, social worker, and Dr. Lindsay Frazier. She was gentle and caring from the start, but it was still a terrifying experience."
Berenguer-Ramos' first surgery immediately followed, and he remembers waking up and asking his mom if his leg was still there (it was). They returned briefly to Panama City, but after his first relapse they came back to Boston to stay. Uri began school, punctuated by weekly checkups and chemotherapy treatments, and he and his mother moved to Dorchester. Over time, his older sister and father joined them.
Through the many years of remissions, recurrences, and surgeries that followed, Berenguer-Ramos kept his positive attitude. "Uri managed to retain his optimism through multiple relapses," says Frazier, who has continued caring for him. "His engaging personality and twinkle always made him a pleasure to work with for the staff who had that privilege."
In spite of his medical challenges, Berenguer-Ramos developed into a fine athlete. Perhaps inspired by his uncle Juan Berenguer, a major-league pitcher in the 1980s and '90s, he picked baseball as his favorite sport and was delighted when members of the Red Sox and other local teams visited the Jimmy Fund Clinic. It was during one such trip that the then-13-year-old Uri first met Red Sox broadcaster Joe Castiglione, who was immediately taken with the young man's spirit. Their friendship led to Castiglione's radio booth at Fenway Park, where he put young Berenguer-Ramos on the air just long enough to discover "the kid was a natural."
By high school, Berenguer-Ramos was a regular statistician for Castiglione and his partner, Jerry Trupiano, on WEEI-850 AM and was competing in baseball, football, and track for Boston Latin Academy in Dorchester. Since the Jimmy Fund is the official charity of the Red Sox, there were also opportunities for Uri to make more on-air appearances promoting various fundraising events. Red Sox management was impressed enough by what it heard that then-team president (and Dana-Farber trustee) John Harrington worked with Castiglione and Roger Giese, PhD, director of Northeastern University's Environmental Cancer Research Program, to help secure Berenguer-Ramos a full Northeastern scholarship starting in fall 2001.
The next spring, however, Uri received a unique opportunity. While still a college freshman, he was offered a full-time job covering the Sox for WLYN and The Spanish Beisbol Network. The position would require him to work all 162 of the team's games in 2002, home and away, from April through September. Interviewing players in either English or Spanish – the Red Sox have several who speak the latter – he would then translate for his listeners when necessary. He would be responsible for a pre- and post-game show, two innings of play-by-play alongside two senior broadcasters, and engineering duties such as cueing ads and music during the rest of the game. With the help of Castiglione, whom he calls "my guardian angel and second father," and Giese at Northeastern, Berenguer-Ramos was able to work out arrangements for making up all classes and exams he missed.
Four years later, Berenguer-Ramos has the poise of a veteran and a strong fan following. Following the May 2005 death of his beloved partner J.P. Villaman, he's taken over as one of WROL's lead broadcasters alongside current partner Juan Oscar Baez. He also hosts "Hablando Pelota," a daily baseball show on XM Satellite Radio, and jokes about someday taking the place of his first mentor. Castiglione is rooting for him, stating that "Uri's a remarkable kid with great inner strength and maturity far beyond his years. I think he can do anything he sets his mind to." Adds Bill Kulik, president of the Spanish Beisbol Network, "His bilingual abilities allow him to combine the best of the American and Latino styles in his work. Given the changing demographics of this country, he represents the future of broadcasting."
Outside the radio booth, 2002 was a big year for Berenguer-Ramos in another way as well. After four consecutive years of remission, he was declared officially cancer free by Frazier that February. He's stayed healthy ever since, but he knows the disease may come back at any time. And although chemotherapy and radiation are for now in the past, Dana-Farber is still very much a part of his life. His unique status as a former patient who spends his days hanging out with the likes of David Ortiz and Curt Schilling has made Berenguer-Ramos a popular speaker at Institute events such as fundraising dinners and golf tournaments, where he eloquently describes his long years of treatment. Since his mother has developed breast cancer in recent years, he has also assumed her role as caregiver, driving Daisy to her Dana-Farber appointments in between his broadcasts. "I grew up with her being strong for me, so I want to give my strength back to her," he explains.
There is also, of course, always time to return to the Jimmy Fund Clinic. There, Uri can joke with Rosie Lonborg about their days learning to juggle paper tissue together, or get down on his hands and knees in the clinic playroom with the latest batch of young patients. When he hears a young patient talking to his brother in Spanish on one visit, he quickly joins in and finds out that the ardent Red Sox fan – who has driven down with his mother from Derry, N.H., for his six-month checkup – has never seen the Sox at Fenway. Before the kid can say "Manny Ramirez," Berenguer-Ramos is inviting he and his family to attend an upcoming game as his personal guests. "I see myself in his shoes," sums up Berenguer-Ramos. "I remember going nuts with joy when somebody came in here [the clinic] and offered me Red Sox or circus tickets, and I remember someone talking to me in Spanish and making me feel better that way."
"Now that I'm in a position to help, how can I not do it?"