In the old Steve Martin movie ¬°Three Amigos! the citizens of a
dusty Mexican village tell tales of El Guapo, a bandido who
pillages the town. In Boston the citizens tell tales of El Guapo,
a portly relief pitcher who also wreaks havoc--on opponents'
batting averages and postgame clubhouse spreads. Meet Rich
Garces, a 6-foot, 255-pound (or so he says) mainstay of the Red
Sox bullpen and a Boston cult hero. "Everywhere I go, the mall,
downtown, people say hello," says Garces in English. "It's
always, 'Hey, El Guapo!' and 'Guapo, how are you!'"
Garces got his nickname--it roughly translates to "the handsome
one"--from former teammate Mike Maddux, who decided Garces
resembled the ¬°Three Amigos! character. At the souvenir shops
that ring Fenway Park, fans can buy jerseys with Garces's number
34 and EL GUAPO stitched on the back. Denizens of the centerfield
bleachers go berserk when they see his rotund figure scale the
bullpen mound. The admiration isn't without merit: Through
Sunday, Garces, who works mainly as a setup man, was 1-0 with a
2.84 ERA in 14 appearances. From August 1999 through Sept. 2,
2000, he won 13 consecutive decisions, the third longest victory
streak by a Red Sox pitcher.
Garces grew up in Maracay, Venezuela, and in 1987 signed with the
Twins as a skinny--yes, skinny--16-year-old centerfielder.
Impressed with his strong right arm, Minnesota immediately
converted him to a pitcher, but when, dogged by injuries, he
failed to stick in the majors after two cups of coffee, the Twins
released him in '94. He spent time with the Cubs and the Marlins
in '95 and then signed with the Red Sox in December of that year.
After two seasons spent bouncing between Boston and Triple A
Pawtucket on rehab assignments, he had surgery to remove bone
chips from his right elbow. He has been a different pitcher ever
since. "The first time I threw [after the surgery], I was
perfect," says Garces, who had pitched in pain for much of '98.
"I had my old velocity, about 92 or 93 miles per hour, and now I
can even get up to 95. Sometimes you need that extra jalapeno on
Garces complements his fastball with a diving split-fingered
fastball and a hard curve. This year he had walked five hitters
in 19 innings through Sunday, and over the past two seasons he
had allowed a meager 3.2 bases on balls per nine innings.
Lefthanded batters, who hit .209 against Garces in 2000, were 4
for 29 (.138) against him this season. "He's one of those
rocking-chair guys," says catcher Scott Hatteberg. "I just sit
there, and he puts the ball right where my glove is."
Still, Garces's popularity stems as much from his regular-guy
build as from his effectiveness. "He's one of those guys who puts
on weight by looking at food," says pitching coach Joe Kerrigan,
"but his mechanics are good for a big man."
"I'm trying very, very, very hard to lose weight," says Garces,
who, despite a program of exercise and running, has not slimmed
down. "But the pounds don't bother me as long as I do my job."
His teammates feel the same way. When Garces showed up in spring
training wearing an EL GUAPO T-shirt, the rest of the Red Sox
pestered him until he had ordered enough to give every player
one. "Everybody loves him, in here and on the field," says
Boston ace Pedro Martinez. "I'll leave one of my games to him
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER