El Guapo Rides Again

His fastball isn’t what it used to be, and the crowds are a whole lot smaller than those he once charmed at Fenway. But Rich Garces is still the one and only El Guapo—and well into his improbable comeback tour, that’s more than enough to keep the party going.

It’s been five years since Rich “El Guapo” Garces last threw a pitch in the major leagues, and even longer since Red Sox Nation first fell for the pudgy Venezuelan, but he looks just like you remember. He still has the chubby face and the chubby arms and the belly that starts somewhere up around his chin and stops somewhere down around Caracas. He still has short, curly black hair, stubby little fingers, and skin tanned a deep caramel.

He’s 36 now, but he still has that squat body, that compact throwing motion, that easy smile—all the traits we found so damn charming when he was here. An online poll taken earlier this year declared him the second most adored Red Sox bullpen pitcher of the past 40 years, after Derek Lowe. There was just so much to love about him. And Guapo and his new team are betting there still is.

He’s playing in Nashua these days, pitching for the Pride, a low-level minor- league club. Right now, Guapo and the team’s other pitchers are standing in the outfield, shagging lazy fly balls while the hitters take batting practice. Guapo’s loitering with his new teammates out in right field, doing what he always does, goofing around and telling bad jokes.

It goes on like this for a while, until a ball is crushed to the gap in right-center field. Abruptly, unexpectedly, Guapo takes off after it, moving much faster than you’d think possible for someone his size. He’s wearing a blue Pride hat and blue mesh shorts and knee-high blue socks and, as he runs, he looks a little like a blue Barney. There doesn’t seem to be any way he’s going to catch it, but he’s putting in serious effort. At the last second, he flicks out his glove and somehow snags the ball over his left shoulder. It’s a stunning grab, and the teammates who see it stand and stare, unable to come to terms with the idea that Guapo—whose walk is closer to a waddle—can make a play like that.

Suddenly, hoots and whistles fill the air. “Eh, Guapo! Way to go, Guapo!” And so on…and all of it coming from Garces himself.

Yes, in case you’d forgotten, even Guapo loves Guapo.

He was having visa problems. Guapo was supposed to arrive in Nashua in mid-May, a week before the start of the season, but the relevant authorities had briefly confused him with a different, law-breaking Rich Garces, holding up his paperwork. But now, it’s the third game of the season, and Guapo is finally here. He landed last night. He’s been in the country for just about 24 hours.

Holman Stadium is almost sold out. That’s a big deal for this place, a total shocker. (While there’s been minor- league ball in Nashua since the 1930s, the town doesn’t really support its team; during the past few seasons, the stadium has often been as empty as a politician’s promise.) Most minor-league clubs are affiliated with a major-league organization. The Pride, though, play in the independent Can-Am League. And being independent means going it alone. There’s no financial support from the Sox or Yankees or Indians. No steady supply of bright young prospects. No “come see tomorrow’s stars today” advertising opportunities to help sell tickets. Independent-league clubs survive by selling something else. They market the love of the game, zany giveaways, and, every now and then, the chance to “see yesterday’s stars today.” Ricky Henderson made an appearance here when he played for the Newark Bears; the Canseco brothers have come through Nashua, too. Guapo fills that same role now. He’s why all the fans—more than 2,000 of them—are here tonight.

The game moves quickly. But after nine innings, the score is tied 6-6. In the 10th, Pride manager Butch Hobson turns to Guapo, even though he’s tired from traveling and hasn’t thrown off a mound in 10 days. Bullpens in the bush are thin, and the organization, not to mention the fans, is eager to see its new acquisition in action. So in goes Guapo. But he doesn’t go alone. He’s accompanied by a very important message from the announcer:

“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, introducing…El Guapo! El Guapo is brought to you by the New Hampshire Business Resource Center in Concord. If you have any questions about any aspect of doing business in the state of New Hampshire, visit nheconomy.com. That’s nheconomy.com.”

The fans stand and scream (likely more in support of Guapo than the resource center). It’s what everyone came for, what they remembered and missed. They aren’t here to see him pitch so much as they’re here just to see him. Guapo throws two scoreless innings, allowing only one hit, and keeps the game tied. But a pitcher who follows him blows it in the 13th, and the Pride lose. No one really cares. Wins and losses aren’t all that important in the minors. It’s the draw that matters, the hubbub. Even the players aren’t immune to the commotion. “I called my buddies from school after the game,” says 23-year-old Pride catcher Adam Laplante, who grew up in Harwich as a devoted Red Sox fan. “‘You’re not going to believe who I caught tonight.’”

That’s pretty much how everyone felt after Guapo’s first outing—jazzed that he wasn’t just a memory anymore. It made the team and Guapo hopeful that every night would be that way—that the fans would pack the stadium regularly. Now, though, about a week after his debut, the buzz is already ebbing. The announced attendance for this evening’s game against the Sussex Skyhawks is 1,531, which seems awfully inflated. Pockets of fans here and there are cheering Guapo as he takes the mound in the ninth inning, but the stands are largely empty, and the night feels listless. Guapo isn’t even the biggest celebrity in the park. Tonight, most of the crowd came to meet WWE star Triple H. The pro wrestler, who is signing autographs in the concourse, has stolen Guapo’s fans, or co-opted them at least. Only a few hundred people witness Guapo close out the game and pick up the save, his second of the season. Fenway is just an hour-or-so drive from Holman, but right now the big leagues couldn’t feel farther away.

Guys who bust out of the majors but still have a little left usually end up in the Atlantic League, arguably the best of the independents; the roster of one of its teams, the Long Island Ducks, includes former Red Sox malcontent Carl Everett, along with a handful of other former big leaguers hoping for another shot. The Can-Am League isn’t nearly as highly regarded (mainly because there are about seven people in the country who have even heard of it). Here, the few players with major-league experience are more like one-time Pride pitcher Tim Bausher, who played for the Red Sox in 2005. You don’t remember Bausher, because he didn’t even have time to unpack his things. He appeared on the Sox roster for one game and never threw a pitch. He returned to the minors the next day and hasn’t been back since.

Guapo’s new league offers the kind of competition he can dominate. It doesn’t matter that—unlike his breaking ball, which is still nasty—his fastball has lost something. It’s still good enough for the Can-Am. In his first 13 appearances, he’s struck out 17 batters in 16 innings, collected eight saves, and posted a sparkling 1.69 earned run average. Joe Klein, executive director of the Atlantic League and a former scout and general manager with three major-league teams, reacts like most educated baseball men when he hears those numbers—he isn’t impressed. “It’s pretty much an A-ball league,” Klein says. “Almost everyone he’s pitching against has three years or less experience.”

The fact that his heater lacks the sizzle it once had is something Guapo would rather not discuss. When a writer from Sports Illustrated shows up in Nashua one afternoon, he and Guapo sit at a table in foul territory near first base and talk about how things are going. The scribe asks how fast he’s throwing these days, and Guapo does what any ballplayer in his situation might. He lies. “Ninety-three, sometimes 94,” Guapo tells the guy. (The Pride staff might be in on the con, too. During one game, someone with a radar gun can be seen behind home plate. But when Guapo takes the mound and a couple of reporters ask to see how fast Guapo is throwing, the media relations aide claims the gun is broken.) The truth is, Guapo is reaching around 88 mph, which, coming from a righty, may as well be underhand. At this point, when he scratches 90 mph, it’s cause to break out the booze and toast his arm.

Then there’s the matter of Guapo’s girth. “With Rich, I don’t know what you can say about how much of an effect his weight has on him,” Klein says. “We had marginal interest in him, but last time I saw him [a few years ago], I thought he was going to explode. He’s a worker’s comp case waiting to happen.” Guapo, naturally, has heard those kinds of digs before. Sometimes he’s even the one making them. But being Guapo means being heavy, and he’s happy to play that role. “Shit, I like who I am,” Guapo says in his accented English. (He pronounces Butch Hobson’s first name, for instance, as “Boosh.”) “I look in the mirror and say, ‘Damn, dude, I’m ugly and I’m fat, but I’m happy.’”

The most important phone call of Rich Garces’s life came around 2 o’clock in the morning. This was back in 1996, back when he was new to the Red Sox and everyone was still calling him Rich or Garces. Some of the other pitchers—Roger Clemens, Mike Stanton, Greg Maddux’s brother Mike—wanted to give him a nickname, something catchy. They tried “The Fat Guy” and a few others that were equally imaginative, but nothing stuck. Then came the unexpected call.

A shrill ring woke Garces. It was Maddux. He had just watched The Three Amigos, and damn if one minor character in particular didn’t make him laugh. “I’ve been El Guapo ever since,” Garces says.

It was as crucial to his career as learning how to snap off a curve or locate a fastball. He would go on to be a fine middle reliever for the Red Sox, but there have been a lot of those in the team’s history, and most were quickly forgotten. (Remember Mark Clear, anyone?) As Rich Garces, he had a nice career going, solid numbers, but nothing special. It was the name that transformed him into a cult phenomenon, from middle-relief nobody to everyone’s favorite cartoon character. It’s one thing to root for Rich Garces, quite another to cheer “The Handsome One”—especially when he’s anything but and built like a baked potato. (Nashua lists him at 6 feet, 250 pounds, but that’s probably adding a few inches and subtracting a few pounds.) As Guapo, he was afforded the kind of attention and love usually reserved for one-name superstars like Papi (and, to a lesser extent, Yanni). There’s some precedent here: In Baltimore, Guapo’s equivalent is Boog Powell—a good (not great) first baseman for the Orioles in the ’60s and early ’70s. Like Guapo, Boog (whose real name is John) has a catchy nickname. And Boog was worshiped by the fans.

It was the same for Guapo. He’d go to the convenience store and people would throw their arms around him. He’d be filling up his car at the gas station, and they’d shout his name. He was a bona fide professional sports star—who just happened to look like he should be slugging brews in a Revere slow-pitch softball league.

Guapo’s journey from major-league reliever to Nashua tourist attraction began in July 2002. The Red Sox, concerned that his best days had passed, asked Guapo to accept a demotion to their Triple A farm club in Pawtucket; when he refused, the Sox released him. Guapo wasn’t pitching all that well at the time, but he was convinced he still had major-league stuff. Even so, he says he would have agreed to go to the minors if Sox manager Grady Little had treated him better or talked to him about it in advance. Instead, Guapo says he heard about the demotion through the media. He’d played for Sox managers Kevin Kennedy and Jimy Williams, and gotten along great with both. But Little just wasn’t Guapo’s kind of guy.

“I never liked him,” Guapo says, coming as close to bitter as he gets. Usually he makes eye contact; recounting what went wrong in Boston, though, he looks at the ground. “He never talked to me,” he says of Little. “Then he’s in the newspaper saying I’d better go to Triple A or else. Why not come talk to me? We know each other a long time. I never did nothing to him. Never. It was like I don’t even know the guy. He didn’t respect me. I was feeling so bad. Awful. I didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to the fans or the team.”

When he left Boston, Guapo retreated to Fort Myers, Florida, where the Red Sox play their spring training games and he has a second home, to wait for calls from other teams. Colorado signed him to a minor-league deal in 2003 but cut him before the season started. After that, there were rumors that Cleveland was interested, but no offers materialized. He had a chance to play in Japan, but he didn’t want to live in the Pacific Rim. Days passed, years passed. Then Nashua called.

When Pride vice president Chris Hall mentioned the possibility of bringing Guapo aboard, manager Butch Hobson was thrilled. Hobson, a former Red Sox slugger and manager, first met Guapo back in the late ’90s when Hobson was managing a Sox minor-league team in Florida. Hobson and Guapo got along immediately and have been friendly ever since. “He’s just a happy guy,” says Hobson, who, like Guapo, looks much the same as he did years ago—same deep, leathery tan; same shock of paper-white hair; same accent hinting at his Alabama upbringing. “We hit it off right away. He’s a great guy to be around. And he throws strikes—which makes him more lovable.”

Before signing with the Pride, Guapo had been pitching in a league in Venezuela. This past season with Águilas del Zulia, he was one of the best closers down there (3-1 record, 11 saves, 2.31 ERA), although that is a little like being the prettiest girl in Malden—there’s not a whole lot of competition. He has a nice life in South America—family and friends, a beautiful home—and could have just played there until he retired. But here’s the thing: Even though his countrymen love and respect him, no one makes a fuss over him—not the way they used to in Boston.

“People went nuts when I came [to Nashua],” he says. “I feel at home again. That’s one of the reasons I’m here. The fans, they make you. They cheer you up. That’s the reason I love Boston, because they love me. That’s one of the things I missed most. It was hard not having that.”

Indeed, adoration is as much a part of Guapo’s compensation as his paycheck. Probably more. During his last season with the Sox in 2002, he earned $2.2 million, the highest salary of his 10-year major-league career. In Nashua, he’ll make about $10,500 for a three-and-a-half-month season. He drives a minivan up here and shares a two-bedroom apartment with his wife and two daughters. The other day, he had to sit around and wait for the Comcast guy.

For Pride owner John Stabile to break even—and keep the club in Nashua—the team has to average 1,800 fans per night; at 2,000 fans, they can even turn a small profit. Guapo helped sell tickets early in the season. As it wore on, though, attendance hovered closer to 1,500. But the club has continued to push its biggest name—mostly because he’s their only name. “The fans ask, ‘When’s he gonna pitch?’” says Pride general manager Robin Wallace. “I tell them, ‘Well, he’s coming out of the pen, so I guess you’ll just have to come to every game.’”

To entice fans to do just that, the Pride have been busy working the Guapo marketing machine. As part of the broader Guapofication of Nashua, there’s been an El Guapo poster night and countless autograph sessions. There was the promotion with Boston.com in which the winner got four Guapo T-shirts (the team’s bestselling merchandise), dinner with Guapo, and the chance to take batting practice off him. There were the endless media interviews—SI.com, Kiss 108, the Herald, the Globe. Last month, the Pride held their most spectacular Guapo promotion to date: A Garces “bobblebelly” night.

Then there’s the Holman Stadium concession stands, which offer something called the “El Guapo” steak sub. At $6.50, it’s the most expensive item on the menu. The list of ingredients is rumored to include steak, cheese, peppers, hot sauce, sausage, chili, mayo, and, possibly, hobo shavings. Truth is, no one seems to know what’s in it, not even the kids making it behind the counter. (They’ve also come up with some off-menu concoction called the “Super Guapo.”) What everyone agrees on, though, is that the sandwich is a monster worthy of its namesake. “I had one my first night here,” Guapo says, looking pleased.

It’s doubtful Guapo’s ever going to see the majors again. And he knows it. “I don’t know if the big leagues will happen,” he says. More likely, he squeezes another two or three seasons out of his career, taking the Guapo Reunion Tour on the road to minor-league towns everywhere. And that’s what this is, really, the baseball equivalent of one of those ’80s hair bands filling small venues with fans who want to spend a few hours reliving their youth. It’s Quiet Riot playing Hampton Beach.

But if there isn’t much left of his baseball career, he still has the Guapo name, the Guapo brand. He wouldn’t mind turning out like Boog, his one-named predecessor down in Baltimore, who managed to parlay his fan following into a pair of barbecue restaurants; the more popular sits behind the right-center field bleachers at Camden Yards. (Boog doesn’t do the cooking, of course. That would keep him from glad-handing customers and mugging for cameras.) Guapo will have done well for himself if he winds up with a slew of fast-food joints of his own, whiling away his time taking pictures with patrons who have grease smudges in the corners of their mouths.

Certainly, he’s Boog’s equal as a performer. Before a game one afternoon, while his teammates jog on the outfield warning track and take infield grounders, Guapo kicks back in the sun on a plastic deck chair along the right field foul line, near a giant “Fried Dough” sign that hangs on the Pride’s front office building. (A guy needs to conserve his energy, you know?) One of the assistant coaches walks by and shoots Guapo a funny look. “Don’t worry,” Guapo says. “I already did my running. I’m good, papi.” The coaches don’t actually care if he runs; they let him go at his own pace and largely defer to his whims, which is something Guapo’s thankful for. “They’re really treating me like I deserve,” he says, grinning.

The minor-league experience can be draining for some, but, Guapo being Guapo, he’s actually enjoying himself. Later in the season, on the way back from Atlantic City—after a four-game sweep of the Surf in which he picked up two saves—he celebrated by having a few cervezas with his teammates, because, as he often points out, “I like cervezas.” Guapo and his drinking buddies were just finishing the last of the Coors Light as the bus rolled into Nashua at 5 a.m.

“Guapo and three, four other guys were sitting in the back of the bus drinking like fish and screaming their heads off,” says Jason Paul, who pitched in Brockton the day the team returned from the road trip. “They woke me up about six times. I didn’t get any sleep.” Not surprisingly, Paul got rocked, allowing six runs on 11 hits and taking the loss.

It is, as Paul and the rest of the Pride have learned, part of being Guapo’s backup singers. The show doesn’t stop, not at 5 a.m., not on the field or in the clubhouse, not ever.

The day Triple H showed up, Guapo elicited laughs from his teammates by standing just out of the wrestler’s earshot, talking trash in his Guapo way—Guapo is going to slam you, Triple X—going right on calling him Triple X even after being told he had the name wrong. Later on, when the Pride front office staff was having a buffet dinner of veal Parm, pasta, and salad, Guapo made the same crack to each of the employees as they passed by with their plates of food: No, thank you. I’m fat, but I’m not hungry right now. He rubbed his belly just to make sure they got it. Then he laughed. Over and over. Same joke.