Wednesday, May 23, 2018
Sports

MAJOR-LEAGUE MOTORS

Pablo Sandoval pulled up to a custom car shop on a recent Friday afternoon hoping to do some business. He wanted to trade in the Porsche Panamera he was driving, order new rims for his two Range Rovers, pick up the gray one that was being worked on and discuss the next car he would buy: a 2016 Rolls-Royce Ghost.

Sandoval strolled inside and, seeing no one at the front desk, leaned on the counter and playfully smacked the bell several times. The owner, a Miami native named Alex Vega, suddenly emerged, smiling, with a phone pinned to his ear. Vega hugged Sandoval; kissed Sandoval's girlfriend, Yulimar Martins, on the cheek; and invited them to his office to talk.

"Spring training is when business gets the craziest, because everybody wants to show up with something new," Vega said. "I'm already getting calls. I'm already preparing cars."

For many baseball players, visiting Vega appears to be an annual offseason pilgrimage. Vega owns the Auto Firm, a garage in Doral that customizes cars about 17 miles from South Beach. Vega helps players acquire luxury cars that cost as much as a small home, and he claims to have more than 300 baseball clients, from the wealthiest stars to minor-leaguers.

Before Sandoval arrived that day, Vega walked around the garage, pointing out cars and their owners. There was the white Ferrari that Hanley Ramirez was intending to give his wife as a gift. There was Jorge Soler's Jeep, which looked like a tank, and next to it was Starling Marte's Jeep, which would soon look the same. Out front was one of Vega's fastest-selling vehicles, a custom Mercedes limousine van. This one belonged to Yoan Moncada, a top prospect of the Boston Red Sox. Vega said he had sold the same model to Juan Uribe, Yoenis Cespedes, Ramirez, Ivan Nova and Starlin Castro.

The back of the limousine features a bar on one side, two reclining chairs, a wraparound leather couch, two big-screen televisions and a home theater system. It seats seven people comfortably, costs about $175,000 and is meant to host a party on the go.

"It's like you're in a hotel room," Vega said. "They can smoke tobacco, the cigars. They can drink, they can party with their friends, and nobody knows they're in there."

Vega planned to show off the limo as long as he had it there — with baseball players continually popping in, he figured that some of them would be interested. His best clients own at least several cars, and they buy new ones at about the same pace that one might buy new shoes.

When Sandoval and his girlfriend drove off in their gray Range Rover, they left behind the Porsche they had arrived in so that Vega could sell it. Sandoval had bought and customized the car two years before. The odometer read 15,563 miles. Inside, Sandoval left three CDs in the stereo, $3.26 of change in a cup holder and a rosary hanging from the rearview mirror.

The front room of the Auto Firm is decorated with signed jerseys from clients like Cespedes, Jose Abreu and Nelson Cruz, with some of the jerseys including messages to Vega.

Inside Vega's back office there is more memorabilia, and on one wall he has posters from Scarface, superimposing his own face onto the body of Tony Montana, the fictional drug kingpin played by Al Pacino.

"It's just because everybody says I rule Miami," Vega said, smiling. "It's the best movie ever made."

The son of Cuban immigrants, Vega, 41, was born and raised in the Miami area. His love of cars started when he watched his father work as a Firestone salesman. Vega hoped that a customer would someday bring in a car as cool as the ones he saw on television.

During his last year of high school, Vega got a job at Firestone, too, changing tires. Soon, he was promoted to sales. In his late 20s, he opened his first shop, and for about the next 15 years, he built his client base among Miami's wealthy elite.

Naturally, that included athletes. His first baseball client was Alfonso Soriano, in 2005. Soriano had seen a Hummer that Vega had personalized for the rapper Rick Ross and wanted one like it.

"Once you do that car and they take it to the field, the other players see it," Vega said. "They're like, 'Who did your car?' And then word of mouth started spreading."

When Cespedes defected from Cuba, his financial adviser introduced him to Vega, who sold Cespedes a Mercedes. Sandoval met Vega through his agent in 2009, when he was establishing himself.

"It's like a sign when you get to the big leagues," Sandoval said. "The first thing you want to get is a nice car to drive around. Every year, I try to get a new one."

After Cespedes became a star, he bought a Lamborghini Aventador, a car that Vega estimated cost $400,000. Then Cespedes asked for $75,000 in renovations. Cespedes wanted an entirely redone interior, a custom wheel design, and exhaust piping that would spit fire.

"It was like if you got a Lamborghini and rebuilt it all over again," Vega said. "There are other players that have Aventadors. ... He said, 'If I'm going to do something, I want something no one has ever had.' "

Some of Vega's clients seem more competitive about their collections than their playing statistics, which is why they want to show up to spring training with something new and flashy.

When Uribe and Ramirez were teammates with the Dodgers, Vega said, they engaged in a feud in which they kept sending exotic cars to Vega, trying to one-up each other.

"They did it literally to mess with each other," Vega said.

Uribe tried ending it by buying a Mercedes limousine van, the one that cost $175,000.

He posted an Instagram video of himself sitting in one of the reclining chairs, a cigar in his hand, broadcasting a message for Ramirez in Spanish.

The gist of it: Top this.

And, Vega added, "Hanley came right away and bought a van."

 
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