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Handsome return

Ex-Sox reliever Garces is the pride of Nashua -- and hopes to get back to the majors

Even while sitting in the bullpen, Rich Garces has been gracious with his young teammates in Nashua, such as showing them how to throw a slider. Even while sitting in the bullpen, Rich Garces has been gracious with his young teammates in Nashua, such as showing them how to throw a slider. (STAN GROSSFELD/GLOBE STAFF)

NASHUA, N.H. -- It's four hours before game time and Holman Stadium is nearly deserted. In the parking lot, the young Nashua Pride players -- born in the 1980s -- arrive in carpool style, chatting about their girlfriends, cheap restaurants, and the lack of 34-inch bats in stock.

It's Tom Brady Baby Bib Night, the forecast is for showers, and Rich Gedman's Worcester Tornadoes are in town for the June 24 CanAm (Canadian American Association of Professional Baseball) League game. Inside the nifty old ballpark, a girl methodically wipes seats and picnic tables. On the outfield track, a solitary figure runs between the BBQ picnic area in left field and the Fried Dough sign just outside the Pride clubhouse door in right.

Sweat glistens from El Guapo (the Handsome One), a.k.a. Rich Garces, who waves, smiles, and does another lap. This is no publicity stunt: Garces (and his XXL jersey) has landed in the Granite State to launch a comeback.

When last seen in 2002, El Guapo -- named by Red Sox teammates for his resemblance to the villain in the movie "Three Amigos" -- was a cult hero at Fenway Park. In seven seasons with the Red Sox from 1996-2002, he compiled a 23-8 record, a remarkable .742 winning percentage. In 1999, he had an ERA of just 1.55. He started the 2000 season with eight straight wins and a love affair with fans, who celebrated his entrance into a game by bowing toward the bullpen. Part of his mystique came from his appearance -- the Everyman beer belly but the heart of a lion and a nasty fastball that made believers of the Fenway faithful and sometimes fools of American League batters.

Now as Guapo runs, Pride staff members unpack Bobble Belly figurines to be given to the first 2,000 fans attending last Thursday's "El Guapo Bobble Belly Night." The figurines, which wiggle only at the belly, must have puzzled the assembly line workers at the Bobblehead factory. But it's guaranteed to boost Pride attendance, which had been last in the league but is rising steadily with the addition of Garces.

The 36-year-old Garces made more than $5 million playing major league baseball. So why is he now riding buses in an independent league?

"I'm doing this because I want to do it," Garces says. "It has nothing to do with money. I just wanted to come up here because I was 45 minutes from here for seven years.

"I lived at the Ritz-Carlton downtown with Manny [Ramírez] in the same building. It's fun for me. Fans come up to me wearing the Guapo shirt, No. 34. They remind me of a lot of things that happened to me in Boston. The good times I spent there, and hopefully, you never know . . ."

His voice trails off as if he's thinking of running in from the Red Sox bullpen again. But that's a very long shot.

There were bad feelings when the Venezuelan-born Garces left Red Sox Nation five years ago. Garces, injured and ineffective for the first half of the 2002 season, was designated for assignment Aug. 1. He was upset the news came from assistant general manager Mike Port and not manager Grady Little. He stormed out of the Ritz-Carlton and returned to Venezuela.

"When they made the decision to designate me for assignment, [Little] didn't even bother to talk to me," Garces remembers.

"If you've got to face one of your players, you've got to face them man to man. I'm not a kid; I understand. If he's going to make that decision, he should have called me into the office and said, 'Guapo, this is my decision . . . and you never know, you could come back in September.' Hey, I'd take that. Go down there, work hard, and pitch my way back up there again. It was so simple. It was nothing difficult to talk to a player. So that's one of the reasons I left."

Garces says he pitched well in Venezuelan winter ball -- twice winning the Rolaids award for best reliever and once being named comeback player of the year -- before receiving "hundreds of calls" from Pride vice president of baseball operations Chris Hall to return to New England in February and play for former Sox third baseman Butch Hobson, the Pride's manager.

Garces signed for the maximum salary of $3,000-4,000 a month plus an apartment for his family. Guapo, the Pride's closer, is 5-1 with a 4.20 ERA and 13 saves. He says his fastball has been clocked as fast as 92 miles per hour and his location has been excellent.

Garces sits in two double-stacked white plastic chairs in the bullpen, which is next to the picnic tables along the right-field line. He still has the small, well-worn 5-pound Venezuelan cannonball he used to warm up his arm at Fenway and throughout his 10-year major league career, which included stints with the Twins, Marlins, and Cubs. Players almost half his age ask him how to grip a slider and laugh at his jokes. He chats easily with fans.

'Everybody loves Guapo'
It's a nasty, cold, misty night, but Guapo's wife, Rochelle, and two of his five daughters are at the game. In 2003, the Colorado Rockies signed Garces but he never reported, telling them he wanted to spend more time with his family.

When Guapo sees his wife is cold, he whistles for a warm-up jersey. There are more mosquitoes than fans. The mosquitoes love Guapo.

Then again, everybody loves Guapo. The grand prize in the "El Guapo Experience" sweepstakes includes four game tickets, a pregame meal with Guapo (he loves shrimp), batting practice pitched by Guapo, Guapo T-shirts, and four Bobble Belly figurines. Asked about it, Guapo just laughs and shrugs.

"They never booed me at Fenway," he says. "Ever."

Garces refuses to complain. Even about the long bus trips to Quebec City and Atlantic City.

"It's all right, it's not too bad," he says. "It reminds me of when I was in the rookie leagues in '88 and '89."

His exuberance trickles down to his teammates, who universally praise him as being generous with his experience. During the game -- a loss to the Tornadoes -- the heavens open, and as other players seek refuge in the dugout, Guapo goes searching for the grounds crew to throw some dirt on the muddy mound for his teammate.

"Everything is about fun," he contends. "I'm not here for the money. And if I stay here, I stay the whole time. If I get called to the big leagues, fine. Otherwise, I stay here. I'm having a lot of fun here right now. So far, so good."

He still thinks he has time to make it back to the majors.

"I'm 36, [Roger] Clemens is 40-plus [45 tomorrow]. You never know. I just keep pitching, working hard every day, and see what happens. Every time I come here, I feel happy every day."

The two managers, both Red Sox alumni, are unanimous in praise for El Guapo.

"He seems to be throwing the ball pretty good and he seems to know what he's doing," says Gedman. "He certainly looks confident on the field. So, really, the bottom line is his desire to play. It's good to see him out here. I'm happy for him."

Hobson thinks Garces has a legitimate shot for an encore performance in The Show.

"Course he does," the manager says. "He's El Guapo. That's what I like about him."

Bittersweet remembrance
Garces says he watched the Red Sox finally win the 2004 World Series from his home in Maracay, Venezuela.

"I was home literally crying," says Garces. "Feeling that I wished I was there because I worked so hard, even with injuries. Hamstring pulls, groin pull. Tendinitis in my elbow. But I went out there and did my job. I was still frustrated because I was watching the guys winning the World Series and thinking I should have been there."

He says he has lost touch with most of his teammates, except for the fun-loving Ramírez.

"Manny called a couple of times," says Garces. "He told me, 'Why don't you come over, man? Don't be afraid. Just come over and say hello to the guys here. Hey, you're still a fan favorite.' So one of these days when we get a day off, I might go down there."

Garces says he also had a warm exchange with Sox slugger David Ortiz in Tampa when he was pitching briefly for the Gulf Coast Red Sox in 2005.

"He knew I was No. 34 before he was and he said he'd give it back to me if I came back," Guapo says. "I told him, 'No way. Are you kidding me?' He earned it by winning the championship."

In January 2005, there were published reports El Guapo was reported missing and feared kidnapped in Venezuela.

"Oh, no, no . . . somebody playing a joke," he says. "It was in the papers and everywhere. It was lies, all lies. When I came back to the city, the police and everybody were looking for me. I was on the beach, taking my time off, having a little vacation with my family."

He says he's not interested in pitching in Single A or Double A, and that he has turned down offers to pitch in Japan, Korea, and Mexico. "I like it right here," he says.

Garces says his weight is about 245, same as when he was with the Red Sox. Asked if that was the truth, Garces smiles. "Maybe 250." He says Red Sox management's request for him to lose weight for the 2002 season was not responsible for his bloated 7.59 ERA and his major league demise.

"No, no, no. I told [former GM] Dan Duquette at that time [that] all my family is like that. I can't do anything about that. If we drink one glass of water, it's like 5 pounds for us. So if I eat something light, it's going to be heavy for me."

But El Guapo has had some other bumps in the road since joining the Pride, including a tired arm and some bad food. "A few weeks ago, I got food poisoning," he says. "I was sick six days in a row. The whole front office got it. It was some kind of turkey thing. I lost 5-6 pounds."

El Guapo Bobble Belly Night turns out to be a night for Rolaids -- the stomach antacid, not the relief award. Before the game, Guapo signs Bobble Bellys for more than an hour. He enters in the ninth inning to a standing ovation with a 7-5 lead and promptly coughs up three runs to New Haven for his first loss of the season.

Asked if he is sick of weight questions, Garces shrugs.

"I don't care," he says. "This has happened since I came to Boston in '96. They're all making fun of me because I'm big. The only [way] I respond is by saying, 'Here's my numbers; you check my numbers and see how bad I pitched.' That's what I'm talking about. My numbers talk and everything [else] I don't care.

"There's no problem with me. I still go out there and do my job."

Photo Gallery PHOTO GALLERY: Back on the mound
Chat TRANSCRIPT: Chat with El Guapo