In a run-down Mexican border town, far from the manicured fields of spring training, one of the most remarkable bids for a Major League Baseball job is unfolding.
For the past month, 32-year-old Cuban right fielder Alexei Bell has been training on a parched diamond in Mexicali, just over the border from California, hoping to defy the odds and land an MLB contract.
If Bell is successful, he will become the first player in nearly 60 years to leave Cuba legally and play in the majors, without having to defect.
Bell spent last season toiling for the Quebec Capitales of the independent Can-Am League, under a unique agreement the Canadian team struck with the Cuban government. It was a test case for a similar deal Cuba eventually wants to strike with MLB amid renewed diplomatic relations with the United States. But last month, after several years of lobbying the Castro government, Bell was granted his unconditional release from Cuban baseball. It was a reward for his years of loyalty, and because Cuba no longer needs the aging slugger on its national team.
"We respected his right to leave legally," Heriberto Suarez, president of the Cuban Baseball Federation, said in a recent interview.
Now, with the clock ticking on his career and his big-league dreams still burning, Bell is out to prove to the scouts he has something left.
"I feel liberated," he said after a recent workout, with his agent translating. "The door has opened. Now I can see the path to get to my goal."
Had Bell left Cuba following the 2008 Summer Olympics, when he won the tournament's batting crown with a .500 average, he'd be a wealthy man today. But he turned down offers from the New York Yankees and Philadelphia Phillies because he was unwilling to defect and leave his family behind. Since then, age and injuries have affected his production – he knows this may be his last crack at the majors.
Last month, Bell's agent, Charisse-Espinosa Dash, a New Jersey lawyer who has represented several Dominican players making the jump to the majors, held an open showcase for scouts to watch Bell train.
In Mexico, where Bell's hitting exploits on the international stage are well known, the one-day event was billed as the "Big Show" in one local paper. Thirteen teams sent scouts, including representatives of the Blue Jays, Yankees, San Francisco Giants, Boston Red Sox and Kansas City Royals. They came to see if Bell bears a resemblance to the dangerous hitter he once was – a superstar at home who remains the only player to hit 30 home runs and 100 RBIs in Cuba's 90-game National League season.
Such showcases are a rite of passage for international free agents. When MLB teams gather in Florida and Arizona for spring training each year, many of their scouts are on the road, crisscrossing Mexico, Dominican Republic and Venezuela to attend these tryouts. They are searching for undiscovered talent, the next big thing. After watching a player train for as little as 45 minutes, they file a report back to the parent club that can make or break a career, determining whether the player deserves a closer look, an invite to training camp or an expedited offer.
There are few rules to the format: When Yoenis Cespedes defected from Cuba in 2011, his agent produced a video of him training in the Dominican Republic. Simply titled The Showcase, it was designed to whet the appetites of scouts who'd never seen him play. The clips of Cespedes – now with the New York Mets – doing Herculean standing jumps, bench presses and a battery of floor exercises turned the video into an online sensation, mostly because it was so unusual.
Live showcases are far more focused affairs, crafted carefully by agents who know what the scouts want to see: batting practice, hitting against live pitching, fielding drills and a 60-metre sprint.
On the morning of his showcase, Bell awoke at 7 a.m. to read the Bible and pray. Some scouts had already made trips to Mexicali in previous weeks to see him train in private, but Bell knew the one-day tryout carried extra significance. Fail here, and the door to the majors could easily slam shut.
The scouts arrived bearing the tools of their trade: stopwatches, camcorders and notebooks. Some were grizzled veterans with grey hair and poker faces; others looked to be in their mid-20s, fresh from their college playing days. Several spat chewing tobacco as they watched Bell stretch.
There is considerable gamesmanship employed when evaluating talent. Scouts are open and jocular with each other, inquiring about families, old friends, quality of hotel rooms and where to get a beer. Yet rarely do they discuss the player at hand.
"If I say anything," said one scout from an American League club who insisted on anonymity, "then his price might go up. So I can't really talk."
When the showcase begins, Bell stands in deep right field, on a patch of grass that has been mowed just for the occasion. It stands out from centre field, where the weeds grow ankle deep.
A man in a Florida Marlins windbreaker hits a series of ground balls that Bell scoops up and hurls to third base and home plate. The scouts watch his arm and the arc on the ball. Bell's first throw hops into third, but subsequent attempts are better. The scouts remain silent. Most came to see him hit, and they soon get their wish.
The hitting portion of any showcase begins with light batting practice. It mostly serves as a warmup, but a few scouts watch intently, trying to gauge the ease and fluidity of the player's swing. This proves unexpectedly difficult, though, because the local Mexican pitcher hired to serve up easy pitches appears too nervous to throw a strike.
After a half-dozen pitches miss the zone entirely, the scouts began to groan and the young man is relieved of his duties. Bell seems unfazed. A man wearing jeans takes the mound in relief. "Going to the bullpen already?" one scout asks sardonically.
If Bell wasn't nervous coming in, he should be now. He's never seen this new pitcher before and he must acclimatize quickly. He'll only get a limited number of pitches to make an impression. After a few line drives to centre field, Bell settles in and smacks a home run over the fence in left field. His agent looks relieved.
Bell is now warm and the scouts are waiting for more. A minor-league pitcher from Mexicali named Marvel Manriquez takes the mound and begins throwing fastballs. After a mix of line drives and ground balls, Bell begins to find his rhythm. A long ball lands on the warning track in centre field, followed by a home run that soars over a clump of agave plants beyond the right-field fence.
A National League scout says he's come to see how Bell's hits carry. Does he launch balls into the sky or do they crest early and barely leave the park? It's the question scouts ask about any hitter, but for Bell it is particularly important. Power is his calling card – he once hit two grand slams in a single inning in Cuba. But that skill diminishes with age.
As Bell swings away, scouts line the baselines with camcorders focussed, zeroing in on his mechanics. Some are less concerned about where the ball lands than the rotation of his torso at the plate.
Pitch by pitch, he finds a groove, smacking a home run to centre field that bounces off the roof of a house across the street. Somewhere around the 30th pitch he faces, Bell clobbers the first of three consecutive home runs, and almost notches a fourth. By the time Manriquez walks back to the dugout, Bell has hit 15 out of the park. The scouts remain silent, other than a few who debate the actual distance to the outfield fence. An American league scout suggests to Bell's agent he may want to see the player hit at the club's spring training facility, to get a better idea of the distance on the ball.
The last event is a 60-metre sprint. Using a tape measure, the catcher gamely measures out the appropriate distance from home plate. But before Bell lines up to run, the Yankees scout questions the distance. He explains that he once attended a showcase where a player ran what turned out to be a few metres short of 60-metres. Not surprisingly, his time was great. But the stunt didn't go over well.
The scout checks the distance and places an orange cone at exactly the 60-metre mark. Bell, who is a stocky 5-foot-7 with choppy speed, takes off from home plate as a half-dozen Mexican players gathered on the sidelines shout "Vamos! Vamos!"
When Bell crosses the line, the scouts check their times among each other, comparing stopwatches: 6.70, 6.65, 6.72. Three scouts cluster together and speak in hushed tones. Bell returns to the dugout to chug water.
Few showcases end with a contract offer on the spot. The scouts will return to their clubs to discuss what they saw and figure out whether an offer is warranted. Which means Bell must wait to see if his historic bid will come through.
Later at dinner, Espinosa-Dash reminds Bell he only needs one offer to make the big leagues. There are only so many contracts to go around, but he is hopeful.
"When it comes to my age, they were able to see for themselves the shape that I'm in," Bell says.
Before he can sign, Bell must be cleared by MLB for free agency, an administrative step that is expected in the coming weeks. At that point, he can start talking to teams about a deal.
It's been a long road – in less than a year, he's gone from Cuba to Quebec City to a border town in Mexico, where America is so close he can see it on the horizon. Had he walked away from Cuba six or seven years ago, Bell could have asked for the world. Now, all he can ask for is a shot.