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 jalape�o on the ball."
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. Left-handed 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 anytime."