MIAMI — One of baseball’s shortest, fiercest, most expensive competitions began with a little eavesdropping.
It was a March morning in 2014, in the Los Angeles Dodgers‘ spring training clubhouse, and Juan Uribe was giddy. He spoke openly on the phone with his car guy about purchasing a $250,000 Ferrari 458 Italia and customizing it in a way that would make him the envy of the players’ parking lot.
Hanley Ramirez, conveniently within earshot, wouldn’t stand for it.
He quickly hopped on his phone and purchased the same model, in white, and added a new body kit, wheels, sound system and seats. The Ferrari was finished — and on Instagram — before Ramirez’s teammate and countryman could finalize plans for his own.
Uribe was enraged and inconsolable. This was what he feared when he first introduced Ramirez to a man named Alex Vega, who customizes cars for nearly 300 professional baseball players. Ramirez always had the best, most expensive and distinctive automobiles when he played for the Miami Marlins. But then he was dealt to the Dodgers in the summer of 2012 and found a worthy adversary in Uribe.
“Hanley keeps bothering me about meeting you,” Uribe told Vega one day. “Please, just don’t do his cars like you do mine.”
In less than five years, Ramirez has had 32 cars customized at Vega’s shop, The Auto Firm. And several of those purchases have been fueled by his unrelenting desire to irritate the lovable, excitable Uribe.
Ramirez bought the 458 only because he knew how badly Uribe wanted one. When Uribe countered with the 458 as a convertible, shooting the price up by about $30,000, Ramirez purchased a convertible Lamborghini Aventador, a car with a sticker price of nearly $500,000, then dropped another $30,000 in customizations.
The exhaust pipe spit fire.
“Let him spend his money,” Uribe finally told Vega. “I’m not playing this game anymore.”
THE FIRST ITEM you’ll notice in Alex Vega’s office is a painting of his late father, Ceferino, giving you the middle finger.
One of Vega’s longtime clients loved his father so much that he commissioned a local artist to paint the portrait shortly after Ceferino died last August. Vega beams as he talks about the joyous energy his father brought to the shop.
He sits behind a glass desk with two iPhones by his side that never stop buzzing. On the wall in front of him are four plasma TVs displaying images from 64 cameras that keep a watchful eye on his five-month-old, 29,000-square-foot facility, 30 miles west of South Beach.
Vega’s new shop is more than three times larger than his old one, with a barber’s chair on the second floor and enough garage space for his 24-man crew to customize more than 20 cars at a time.
After all, he needs to supply the demand.
A January 2016 feature story in The New York Times brought Vega nationwide attention. Yoenis Cespedes‘ spectacle during the ensuing spring training — when he showed up at Mets camp in a different customized car six straight mornings — sparked a media frenzy around Vega’s work. An upcoming series on Velocity — “The Auto Firm with Alex Vega,” premiering July 5 — won’t hurt his profile, either.
“I thought it was insane. But when he first got the car, the first thing he did is he saw the lollipops and smiled like never before. You could see all the gold.”
Alex Vega on Lil Wayne’s request to have holes for lollipops installed in the seats of his Rolls Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe.
On a busy day, usually right before spring training, roughly 80 cars will pack his shop. On this day, a relatively slow one, there’s: a Mercedes-Benz Metris van that will become a private jet on wheels for singer Marc Anthony; a Polaris General for rapper Akon that is central to his “Lighting Africa” initiative; a Rolls-Royce Wraith for power forward Carlos Boozer; and a Porsche Panamera that belongs to shortstop Alexei Ramirez, one of Vega’s best clients and closest friends.
Vega, 42, fell in love with cars watching “The A-Team,” “Knight Rider” and “The Dukes of Hazzard” as a kid. He yearned to follow in the footsteps of his father, a Cuban immigrant who spent most of his adult life working as a salesman at a local Firestone. Instead, he built an empire.
Vega started The Auto Firm near the end of 2010 and now has somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 clients in sports and entertainment alone.
Photos of Vega with Lil Wayne, Flavor Flav, Vin Diesel, Floyd Mayweather, Usain Bolt, Yasiel Puig, Warren Sapp and Chad Johnson fill his desktop. Personalized jerseys from Bobby Abreu, Roscoe Parrish, Nelson Cruz, Carlos Santana, Fred Taylor, Yonder Alonso, Leonys Martin and Pablo Sandoval line the walls of his waiting room.
His brand — Avorza, a combination of Vega’s initials and the word “forza” — appears in music videos. His Instagram account boasts nearly 430,000 followers.
Sheepishly, he admits he wants to customize a car for the Transformers movie franchise.
Really, though, he aspires to build his own line of cars.
“Baby steps,” Vega said. “It can happen any day.”
TO UNDERSTAND THE scope of Vega’s popularity, one must first grasp the importance of the automobile to the affluent.
“There’s an image that everybody has to uphold,” former NFL receiver Chad Johnson said. “When you feel you’re of a certain status, you have to drive a certain car and look a certain way.”
For many, the car is a fuel-injected symbol of prosperity. And it isn’t merely about having the right car; it’s about having the most unique one. That’s where Vega comes in. He refuses to customize a car the same way twice.
For Johnson, who said that he’s “cheap as f—” and now only drives Smart cars, Vega installed a humidor in his center console. For Akon, who has had about 30 cars customized at Vega’s shop, he turned a Ford F-650 truck into a mobile studio. For Boozer, who washes his cars twice a week, he installed subwoofers underneath the trunk mat of his Range Rover.
For Lil Wayne, he took a Rolls-Royce Phantom Drophead Coupe, swapped out the beige interior for black and punched holes in the leather to store lollipops.
“I thought it was insane,” Vega said. “But when he first got the car, the first thing he did is he saw the lollipops and smiled like never before. You could see all the gold.”
“The way he treats us, it’s very genuine. He’s always looking out for people. And you build a relationship with him, not as a friend, but as a family member.”
Mariners DH Nelson Cruz
Vega took apart Cespedes’ Polaris Slingshot — adding 20- and 22-inch wheels, air suspension, a new exhaust system and LED lights — and started a trend. He started another with Uribe’s 2012 Jeep Wrangler when he stuffed it with 55 speakers.
“Just his creativity, man,” Boozer, who spent last year playing in China, said when asked why Vega is so popular. “A lot of people do cars, but Alex sets himself apart. You sit down with him, tell him what you want to do to your car, and he’s able to do it in a way where you put your fingerprint on it, but it would be like a one-of-one. That attracts buyers like me and anybody else because you want your car to stand out. And nobody else can say, ‘I’ve got the same thing.’ No you don’t.”
Many wealthy Americans — amid heated competition and bitter jealousy — swap out their cars like others change their shoes.
And in Miami, cars mean everything.
“It’s a lifestyle city, and everybody is there to showboat their lifestyle,” Akon — aka Aliaume Damala Badara Akon Thiam — said. “You can really be in Miami and take your lifestyle to a whole other level and be inspired by someone else’s piece or property or car or whatever. It’s like friendly competition out there.”
AKON WAS VEGA’S first celebrity client. The rapper reached out around 2003, just as Vega was starting to make inroads among Miami’s wealthiest. Akon had seen Vega’s work in magazines and asked him to customize his 6-series BMW, which he would later pay for with the funds from a soon-to-be-released single, “Locked Up,” which peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Akon is like many others who made Vega their first call when they hit it big. It’s under these circumstances that Vega occupies an unexpected space in the baseball world: As a voice of reason for Latin players, many of whom grow up poor and struggle with a sudden emergence of wealth.
Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig wants to buy a half-million dollar Lamborghini, but Vega won’t let him. The two spent an afternoon last month texting back and forth about the maximum amount Puig should bid for a 1957 Chevy Bel-Air that resembles the one he drove in Cuba.
“He does good work, and on top of it all, he’s a very good person,” Puig said in Spanish. “He worries about us like a family member would.”
In the winter of 2015, current White Sox prospect Yoan Moncada called Vega with a request to customize 10 cars. Vega told him to slow down and save his record bonus money — and they began with just a couple of cars.
Eight years earlier, Vega met with another young Cuban infielder — Alexei Ramirez — who wanted to buy four cars right away. Vega advised him to stick with two more practical luxury models, an S-Class Mercedes and a Cadillac Escalade, and get the exotic sports cars later. With his next deal, a $32.5 million extension with the White Sox, Ramirez bought a $100,000 Porsche Panamera and spent another $60,000 customizing it.
“The way he treats us, it’s very genuine,” Mariners designated hitter Nelson Cruz said in Spanish. “He’s always looking out for people. And you build a relationship with him, not as a friend, but as a family member.”
Vega remembers his first car, a 1979 Buick Regal that he bought from his neighbor for $700. He cleaned pools and worked at a local pizza shop to save for it, then customized it, sold it, and at 16, realized what he wanted to do with the rest of his life.
He remembers how quickly he soared as a salesperson in the auto industry — starting at Firestone — and how quickly some of his early business partnerships turned sour. His path makes him feel a certain sense of responsibility to his customers.
“The reason I’m the way I am is nobody ever gave me a check, cash, nothing, to do what I’ve done,” Vega said. “I started everything from my mind, my hard work. And when you come from nothing to build what you have, and you go through all the sacrifices, and people constantly are coming at you to take that away from you, you relate to these kids.”
BOXING LEGEND FLOYD Mayweather has been known to fill his Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van with about two dozen bicycles of all kinds — mountain bikes, road bikes, children’s bikes. They serve a distinct purpose: When stopped in Miami Beach, Mayweather will randomly step out of his van, grab a bike and start riding, forcing his security team to chase him.
When Mayweather first met Vega at his shop late one night, he came with an entourage that doubled as a cheering section. Mayweather asked that the interior of a Jeep be redone with alligator skin.
Real alligator skin.
Mayweather wanted it red, yellow and black, almost impossible to find.
And he wanted it done within the week.
“That week, nobody slept,” Vega’s 22-year-old son, Alex Jr., said. “Everybody lived here.”
ALEX JR. HAS worked at the shop since high school. When his daughter was born, one of the first congratulatory calls came from Boozer. Akon flew back to Miami to meet the baby.
“I have pictures of Akon feeding her,” Alex Jr. said, shaking his head. “She’s never going to believe this s—.”
Alexei Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval made Alex Sr. the godfather to their children. Hanley Ramirez would spend much of his offseason time at the shop, just to eat lunch with Vega’s father. Cespedes once invited Vega’s entire crew to his farm in Vero Beach, Florida, a few days before the start of spring training. He killed his best cow and fed them all.
The Latin players call Vega “Pipo,” a term of endearment usually reserved for family members.
The most loyal clients sometimes refer to him as “Scarface.” At his old office, a giant “Scarface” poster — with Vega’s face superimposed onto the fictional Tony Montana’s body — took up almost an entire wall. Michael Jordan — the Michael Jordan — once marveled at it.
“I almost pissed my pants, bro,” Vega said. “That was my highlight.”
Last fall, Usain Bolt, in the middle of setting records at the Rio Olympics, called the shop wanting to spend $45,000 customizing a Jeep. When given the name of the eager customer on hold, Vega asked: “Does he play baseball or football?”
Then he Googled him.
“I said, ‘Yo, give me his number,'” Vega recalls. “I call him and he goes, ‘Alex?! Alex Vega?!’ ‘Usain?! Usain Bolt?!'”
Bolt wanted a car that represented his native Jamaica, so they decked out another Jeep Wrangler in green and yellow. They integrated a suspension lift kit, reworked the interior, added an assortment of lights, installed 28 speakers and weaved Bolt’s iconic logo throughout.
At the height of his powers, Bolt wanted a car done by Vega and no one else.
“How would I even think that this guy was even following my work?” Vega said. “It’s very mind-boggling, but at the same time, this was always my dream — to build the baddest cars in the world for the biggest names.”