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Garcia: Kingfish Of The Kingfish

HPU's Rico Garcia had a stellar summer in Kenosha PHOTO FROM RICO GARCIA

HPU’s Rico Garcia had a stellar summer in Kenosha PHOTO FROM RICO GARCIA

As you watch and enjoy the Major League Baseball postseason this month, imagine some of the young guys who are trying desperately to have a chance to play at that level. For every Kolten Wong, Benny Agbayani or Sid Fernandez, there are dozens of others who would give anything to have that opportunity at baseball glory.

One such baseball dreamer is Joshua “Rico” Garcia — just call him Rico — a former pitching ace for the Saint Louis Crusaders in high school and now a star hurler for Hawaii Pacific University. For the past several years, Garcia has been toiling in mostly empty ballparks in games mostly attended by friends and family. But this summer, Rico found out what it was like to play before big crowds in communities that love their baseball — and let’s just say Rico was the kingfish of the Kingfish.

The Kapolei 20-year-old, who is a junior this year at HPU, played for the Kenosha (Wis.) Kingfish in the Northwoods League. Now, you may never have heard of it — Rico hadn’t either — but the Northwoods League is a collegiate summer baseball league made up of the top college players in North America, and the league draws more fans in the smalland medium-sized towns it represents in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan and Ontario, Canada, than any league like it — even the more famous Cape Cod or Alaska summer leagues.

“We had average crowds of around 2,800 to 3,000,” Rico says. “I had never played in front of that many people — I wasn’t used to it at all. I think we ended up eighth in the nation in attendance.”

Kenosha, located in southern Wisconsin near Lake Michigan between Milwaukee in the north and Chicago to the south, loves its baseball, and always has. Its ballpark, Simmons Field — dating to 1920 when it was built by the Simmons Mattress Co. for its baseball team — was made famous in the movie A League of Their Own, as the set for the story about the all-women’s professional baseball league of the 1940s and early ’50s.

“I watched the movie when I found that out,” Rico says. “We had a game where they honored some of the players from that era.”

Rico loved the whole experience:

“I went to a couple of Milwaukee Brewers games. I got a chance to see (Green Bay’s) Lambeaux Field when we were on the road. I ate a lot of bratwurst,” he says.

He also brought some aloha and local food to Kenosha.

“I got packages from home, including lots of Spam, cuttlefish and li hing mui. I shared it with my teammates. Everyone seemed to know I was the only guy from Hawaii. That was neat.”

It also was neat that he pitched well. After a strong season at HPU, in which he was named the team’s MVP as a sophomore, Rico was dubbed the “bulldog” of the Kingfish staff. His fastball, which had been clocked in the mid-80s when he was at Saint Louis and when he started playing collegiately, was now getting into the low 90s. He had great command of his pitches, and his coaches praised him for his confidence and poise “beyond his years” on the mound.

When the Northwoods League wrapped up — teams played 72 games in 76 days from mid-June to late-August — Rico had a miniscule 1.90 ERA, and was in the league’s top 10 in strikeouts, innings pitched and fewest earned runs allowed. When baseball scouts rated the top 200 pro prospects at season’s end, Rico Garcia was No. 10 on that list.

“My dream is to have a career in baseball,” he says. “I want to get to the next level.”

With the kind of season he just had in baseball-crazy Kenosha, there’s a chance you may be seeing another local baseball star in future MLB classics.