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Last farewell for voice of Medias Rojas

Hundreds at funeral of Spanish broadcaster

Broadcaster's funeral Family and friends of Juan Pedro Villaman gathered yesterday at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lawrence for the funeral of the Spanish-language Red Sox broadcaster, killed in an auto accident Monday.
Broadcaster's funeral Family and friends of Juan Pedro Villaman gathered yesterday at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lawrence for the funeral of the Spanish-language Red Sox broadcaster, killed in an auto accident Monday. (Globe Staff Photo / Dominic Chavez)

LAWRENCE -- For Juan Pedro Villaman, baseball wasn't just a job. It was everything.

And so yesterday, when the Spanish-language Red Sox announcer was buried, a Manny Ramirez jersey was buried with him.

Villaman, known as ''J.P.," died Monday when his SUV hit a truck on Interstate 93 near Wilmington. The man who will be remembered by thousands of listeners as Papa Oso, or Papa Bear, the voice of the Medias Rojas, was 46.

Portions of his funeral were broadcast live on three regional radio stations, including WCCM-AM, where for 10 years Villaman could be heard calling Red Sox games with an enthusiasm that turned his voice ragged.

Johnny Mackenzie, program director for WNNW-AM, said it was only fitting: After all, Villaman's life had played out on the radio.

''Broadcasting his funeral is the best way to say goodbye to this great man," said Mackenzie, who called Villaman his brother. ''He loved the radio. He was the radio man."

Mackenzie said he discovered Villaman nearly 20 years ago, plucking him from a construction job and giving him his first radio gig as a music announcer on a Lawrence station.

Hundreds of mourners came to St. Mary-Immaculate Conception Church in Lawrence yesterday morning to pay their final respects. Hundreds more had attended Villaman's wake, held over two days to accommodate the crowds. Some had met him only once or twice, or not at all, but they felt they knew him, having heard his voice for so long.

At the end of the service, as the front of the church filled with the scent of incense and the sounds of weeping, mourners came up in groups to place their hands on Villaman's casket and say their last goodbyes. Briefly, Mackenzie laid his microphone on the coffin.

A native of the Dominican Republic and one of nine children, Villaman joined the Red Sox Spanish Beisbol Network as a part-time broadcaster in 1995, after a stretch as a news and a talk show host in Lawrence. He became a full-time Red Sox broadcaster in 1999, one of the first Spanish-language broadcasters in Major League Baseball.

The radio show aired in Boston, Hartford, Providence, Lawrence, and Worcester, and Villaman's Spanish commentary was available on NESN. Baseball fans as far away as Costa Rica, Venezuela, and Spain heard him via satellite. They would sometimes call in to his pregame show, which pleased Villaman enormously.

''He used to laugh," Bill Kulik, president of Spanish Beisbol Network, recalled yesterday. ''He had a big fan in Spain."

His love of the Red Sox knew no bounds, friends said. You could hear it in his broadcasts. Every play was huge.

''He made foul balls sound like home runs," Kulik said.

The unabashed fan cherished his close relationship with the players, including fellow Dominican David Ortiz. Red Sox flags poked out among the flower arrangements at his funeral.

His Papa Oso moniker was well deserved, Kulik said.

''He found a way to give you this kind of virtual hug when he was on the air," he said. ''I don't know exactly how he did it. He was just a unique broadcaster."

Red Sox chief executive Larry Lucchino, who also attended the funeral, called Villaman's death an ''irreplaceable" loss for the Red Sox community.

At the behest of players, particularly Ortiz, Lucchino said the team is looking for a way to honor Villaman's memory.

''He was an integral member of the Red Sox team and family," Lucchino said. ''He will be terribly missed by all Red Sox Nation."

Ortiz, who hit a walk-off homer in Thursday's game against the Baltimore Orioles, paid tribute to Villaman after the game, dedicating his win to the broadcaster. On his helmet were the initials ''J.P." and ''D.E.P.," for ''descanse en paz," or ''rest in peace."

Through tears, family and friends described Villaman as a devout Catholic who never left home without a Bible in his hand. He had the heart of a child, they said. Alex Llibre, a longtime friend, said Villaman's life was as full as his booming voice.

Jose Genao, 53, a janitor at WNNW-AM, said Villaman treated everyone the same, no matter who they were or what they did.

''He always gave the most sincere hugs, no matter who you were," said Genao, who lived next door to Villaman in Lawrence. ''He was just a big kid. He was an unforgettable figure."

Some mourners wore Red Sox jerseys to the church.

''I wore it in tribute to him, because he was so close to the Red Sox," said Jose Aponte, who said he knew Villaman just from talking to him in the street. ''He never hesitated to talk to you, even if he didn't know you."

Villaman leaves his wife, Noemi Santelises-Villaman, and three children, Michelle, Juan Gabriel, and Bianca. At the end of yesterday's service, 12-year-old Bianca stood beside the Rev. Jorge Reyes as he read a tribute she had written. She was too emotional to read it herself.

''He treated everyone like a brother or sister," he read. ''He called me every half hour to say, 'I love you.' I'm going to miss seeing my dad and kissing him on his cheek. My brother and sister and I are going to miss him a lot, but we have to remember what he always said: 'Keep your head up and walk straight. Never put your head down.' "

Yvonne Abraham of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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