By Terrence McCoy
By Allie Conti
By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
But as Nelson hit his teens, his prospects as a player faded, and it became clear he wouldn't survive on brains alone. "He wasn't very smart," Barbara allows with a chuckle. He's "medio bruto" — halfway stupid — she says.
So it was provident that Nelson discovered umpiring in his 20s. He enrolled in the 45-day course at Escuela Rafael De La Paz, the arbitros' academy named for a Cuban pioneer of the trade. Nelson, it turned out, had the foreboding build and the clear-of-distractions brain of a born ump. He was the on-field cop, enforcing not the whims of a despot but the just mores of the weathered rule book in his back pocket. To Nelson, who missed his dad's revolutionary genes, baseball was an escape from the high-tension nerves and fraught decisions of life in Cuba.
Even as Nelson started his own family, having two sons with a former phys-ed student named Odali, Placido remained in prison. He refused to submit to a criminal's uniform, for decades wearing only loincloths made of torn bedsheets, and so was denied visits. And he spat on the carrot of "political rehabilitation" — the acceptance of Communism — that would have set him free, even as his wife begged him to comply. After one final ultimatum, Nieves Blanco separated from Placido and remarried. Placido later married Yolanda, a cellmate's sister.
Placido spent 27 years as a political prisoner in rancid prisons throughout Cuba. Father and son can count on one set of stubby fingers the number of times they saw each other during that span. But today, in their own quiet way, they understand each other better than anyone else. "Everybody in Cuba has to live a double life," explains Placido, now 81 years old, when asked if he felt betrayed by Nelson calling Castro's béisbol as he floundered in prison. "He never denied me. He was always proud to have a political prisoner for a father."
In May 1988, Placido was freed through an international agreement and shipped to Miami for refuge. Virtually all of Nelson's relatives — his mother, sister, sons, grandparents, cousins, and, eventually, grandchildren — ended up in the United States.
But Nelson remained a rock in the tide. He started another family, marrying Maritza, the daughter of a cigar roller, and having two girls, Islen and Yaritza.
He was a monk of baseball, worshiping the craft of umpiring and his own stature within it. He was paid 38 pesos, or $1.35, a game, but he experienced a phenomenon mythical to most Cubans: travel. He worked tournaments throughout Latin America, the United States, China, Australia, and Japan. He wasn't about to jeopardize it all to stand behind his father's politics. "I had the ability to travel in and out of the country," he says. "I had a car and a house. I was comfortable. I had it made."
In 1991, Nelson worked first base in a Pan American Games semifinal between the United States and Puerto Rico. He called a balk — one of baseball's most subjective infractions — on an American pitcher. The U.S. team's coach, Ron Polk, ran out, red-faced, to scream at Nelson. So Nelson poked him in the chest. And Polk exploded. A Dutch umpire rushed in and put a bear hug on the coach before the situation escalated further.
"He started pushing me. That never happens in U.S. baseball," Polk seethed after the game, which the U.S. team lost. "I spent more time yelling at him not to touch me than I did arguing the call."
Today, Nelson is vaguely apologetic. "It was my fault," he says of the squabble with the coach, "but it's not my fault that they lost."
But when he returned to Havana, instead of being punished, Nelson was recommended for more international tournaments. Cuba might be the only country where an umpire could be rewarded for losing his cool. Nelson's bosses, it seemed, liked the sight of the buff compadre pushing around the whiny American.
Placido, who now lives with Yolanda and a hyperactive terrier named Pinky in a comfortable South Miami home, understands why his son always refused to join him in South Florida. "We're the same," he says. "I decided to stand by my politics no matter what happened. He stood by baseball."
In May 1999, Nelson accompanied the Cuban all-star team to Baltimore for a double-header exhibition against the Orioles. To Nelson, the Baltimore game was the "biggest honor" of his life. Confirming his elite status, he was given the role of plate umpire and crew chief of a six-man umpire team divided evenly between Cubans and Americans.
Cuban-born Gus Rodriguez, who had defected to the States as a child and is now the top umpire evaluator at the International Baseball Federation, was one of Nelson's colleagues on the American side. Rodriguez recalls that el gobierno was on high alert to prevent the defection of an umpire. The Cubans were provided with "interpreters" who doubled as monitors. The umps weren't allowed to socialize off the field with American umps. "It was a really strange environment," Rodriguez says. "But once the game starts, you just play ball."