CHICAGO - Robel Garcia is the Cinderella story that almost didn't happen.
If his comeback story already seems far-fetched - flamed out in the minors, latched on with the Italian national team despite being a native of the Dominican Republic, made an accidental audition for the Cubs and staged a meteoric rise to the majors - consider these two things:
1. The Cubs scout who saw Garcia play for Team Italy in Arizona last fall almost decided against telling his bosses, thinking they might laugh at him.
2. Garcia wasn't even supposed to be in Arizona in the first place. He nearly had been left behind in Italy.
But more on that nearly missed connection later. First, there's the matter of the close call with the Cubs.
"His age (25 at the time) was totally against him, so I was almost at a point where I wasn't even going to mention it," said Cubs area scout Gabe Zappin, who was checking out the Reds' instructional league game in Arizona against Team Italy on Oct. 4, 2018, when one of Italy's infielders caught his attention. "I just felt like I'm going to make that phone call and (they will) be like, 'Hey, man, this kid's 25 years old and he's been out of the country for five years.' Like, 'Why are you calling?' "
But Garcia made a strong impression.
"I mean it was within a half-hour, this kid makes a big-league play (on defense), then turns around a 97 mph fastball and hits it into the desert," Zappin said. "I was just like, 'How do I not say something?' "
So he made the call.
"When I came to the instructional league, I told myself this is my chance, this is my opportunity, I need to make the best of it," Garcia said through Cubs interpreter Johnny Acevedo.
Garcia, whose full name is Robel Estiwal Garcia Rodriguez, was born in Las Matas de Farfan, the birthplace of many major-leaguers, including Juan Encarnacion, Odalis Perez and former Cubs pitcher Roberto Novoa.
"In Las Matas de Faran, baseball was a way of life," Garcia said. "I would always go to the stadium with my uncle. ... He was never able to sign with a major-league team, but I was always at his hip every time we would go to the stadium."
Garcia, who had a lot of support from his dad, started playing when he was 8. His parents couldn't afford a baseball glove, so he made his own.
"Growing up there, especially around that time, it was really difficult to find spikes, to find good gloves, and it wasn't until I was 12 that I found my first pair of spikes and my first glove," he said. "My very first glove was actually made out of (cardboard) when I was like 7 or 8 years old."
Garcia used it to catch tennis balls - which kids used instead of baseballs. "I was actually pretty good at it," he said about fielding with a cardboard glove. "When you're a kid, you just learn how to stop everything, so I just figured it out."
At 14, Garcia moved to Santo Domingo to attend a baseball academy and attracted the interest of international scouts.
Ramon Pena, then the Indians' chief Latin American scout, signed Garcia at 16 in 2010.
There were high hopes for Garcia in Cleveland. But over four seasons in the Indians minor-league system, it was a slow march to nowhere.
Garcia struck out a lot - 30% of his 1,201 minor-league at-bats - and never made it above Class A.
"It was kind of a slower process," Garcia said. "I didn't develop as a ballplayer as fast as I or the organization would have wished."
The transition overwhelms many young players from Latin American countries, said Jimmy Gonzalez, who managed Garcia with the Tennessee Smokies, the Cubs' Double-A affiliate.
"Sometimes they fail on the field because they miss their home, their parents, they feel like aliens, and they don't understand what's being said," Gonzalez said.
By 2014, Garcia had run out of chances with Indians brass, and the Class A Mahoning Valley Scrappers released him on March 28.
"It was a very difficult time," Garcia said. "I had just gotten released on my birthday, but it's part of the game and I had to accept it and keep moving forward."
He moved to Verona in 2016 to be with his wife, Daniela Perez, and two children. Perez was born in the Dominican Republic but moved to Italy with her family as a baby. Garcia met her through his sister, whose husband is his wife's brother.
"There weren't a lot of opportunities in Santo Domingo to develop my baseball skills," Garcia said. "Secondly, my wife and my kids were in Italy. That made that decision fairly easier for me."
In June 2016, he signed with Italy's independent-league Imola Redskins, then played for Fortitudo Bologna the next year. He helped Bologna win the 2018 Italian Baseball League championship.
When current Team Italy manager Gilberto "Gibo" Gerali first saw Garcia taking batting practice with Bologna, he had no idea who Garcia was.
"The ball was exploding off his bat, incredible bat speed, and I thought he must have been a new import player for them," he said via email.
He later invited Garcia to join the national team.
"I had him play third base, short and at the Super 6 (tournament) in Holland, I found out he could play the outfield too," Gerali said. "He is a smart kid and has a quality: He listens to everybody."
Garcia has dual citizenship in Italy and the Dominican Republic.
When it came time to select the roster Team Italy would send to Arizona for a series of games against instructional league teams, "I chose mostly young players and Robel wasn't among them," Gerali said.
But during a Super 6 game, one of the players destined for Arizona broke his wrist sliding into second base, and that opened the door for Garcia.
"I had to play my way onto that roster," Garcia said. "When I got here (in the U.S.) I had to have the same mindset, to keep working as hard as I have, if not harder, to get to where I am now, because of how hard I had to fight to get on that roster to get the invite to the instructional league."
During Italy's series in Arizona, after Zappin first spotted him, Garcia kept playing well in front of scouts. Cubs assistant director of pro scouting Andrew Bassett offered him a minor-league deal.
"I was just really emotional," Garcia said. "I could feel it all over my whole body when I saw a scout from the Cubs coming up to me and telling me that, 'Hey, we've been watching you play. We're really impressed. We want to give you this opportunity.' I was just over the moon."
The Cubs signed him Oct. 31.
Gerali hoped scouts would notice Garcia and others from his team. "To be honest, I wasn't sure Robel's defense was good enough, but I thought his bat would overshadow the glove," he said.
Garcia got to minor-league spring training and started raking homers and extra-base hits, the Smokies' Gonzalez said.
"The joke was he might go to Triple A. No, no, no, I'll take him at Double A," Gonzalez said he pleaded to Cubs brass. Garcia was assigned to Tennessee on April 1.
It was clear from the day Garcia walked in the door that he had a professional's polish about him, Gonzalez said. He sought out the team's nutritionist and strength coach for extra advice and took on a leadership role with younger players, things prospects don't typically do.
Gonzalez threw batting practice to Garcia every day and marveled at his determination. "It's not just one thing but a bunch of things that would make (him) better. He wasn't saying that; that's what he was showing. Not everyone can have that mentality. Some just want to hit."
During his first game with the Smokies on April 4, Garcia had a setback: a hamstring injury that sent him to the injured list. Gonzalez has seen players knocked off their stride when something like that happens.
"His IL stint passes - Game 1, home run," Gonzalez said of Garcia's return April 15.
In fact, Garcia hit six home runs in 78 at-bats for Tennessee and slashed .295/.391/.590. He had 23 hits in 22 games.
"He's shown plate discipline, power from both sides of the plate, multiple positions, all of those things," Gonzalez said.
Garcia said that during his time in Knoxville, he worked on laying off curves and changeups, knowing pitchers want to attack him with breaking balls.
He was promoted to Triple-A Iowa on May 8 and had a slightly longer run there, racking up 50 hits (25 for extra bases) in 50 games (178 at bats). He hit 15 homers and slashed .281/.352/.596.
With buzz building around Garcia, he got the call to Chicago on July 3 but arrived in Pittsburgh too late to do more than pinch-hit and strike out against the Pirates.
But in his next game on the Fourth of July, talk about fireworks.
He singled, tripled and homered, going 3-for-5 and falling a double shy of the cycle.
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"What is going on?" thought Zappin, who received plenty of texts from fellow scouts that day.
After the game, Garcia told reporters, "I don't have the words to describe how big it is, but it feels very good."
Garcia's longest home run came July 22 in San Francisco, where he hit a 454-footer into McCovey Cove.
Strikeouts have been an issue at every level. Garcia has 22 in his 54 major-league at-bats (40.7%). Does his free swinging concern former coaches such as Gonzalez?
"Not at all," Gonzalez said. "Javy Baez did the exact same thing."
Cubs manager Joe Maddon said proof of what Garcia can become will be evident once pitchers face him a second time and have a chance to figure out his weaknesses.
"It's really tough for young players these days," Maddon said. "Normally they have at least this break-in period where the other team doesn't know them, but they know them from the very first minute now (because of video and analytics).
"He has responded well, pretty quickly. I'm eager to watch how this continues."
Garcia has found a steady role at second base, particularly after the team optioned Addison Russell to Iowa. Garcia also can play third and short and spent a couple of games for the Cubs in left field.
Gonzalez sees a future for him as a utility player.
There were moments, though, that Garcia couldn't picture himself anywhere on a major-league field.
"Honestly, the process was really trying and difficult at times," he said. "There were times when I was really down on myself, thinking, 'Man, I'm not going to get this chance, I'm not going to get this opportunity.' ... I just had to keep that focus and keep that attitude, and the heart that I have and the passion that I have for this game, in order to get where I am now."
And after traveling all the way to Italy just to get back to American baseball, Garcia has no plans to go anywhere else anytime soon.
"It's a really good vibe here," he said. "The guys have been nothing but supportive."
His wife and two kids, a boy and girl both under 5, go to all of his games at Wrigley Field. But it's his son who's most excited, caught up in Robelmania.
"When I hit my first home run, my wife recorded a video of him cheering me, saying, 'Go Robel! Go Robel!' So he's loving it."
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