By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
The exhibition's real excitement came in the fifth inning of the second game, when a man charged the field carrying a sign reading, "Freedom — Strike Out Against Castro." Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez was enraged. He chased the man, body-slammed him, and then repeatedly punched him until Baltimore left fielder B.J. Surhoff peeled the umpire off.
After the game, Valdez preened in front of reporters, declaring, "Above all, I am Cuban."
When they returned home, Valdez was greeted at the Havana airport by Castro, who toasted him as a hero. Valdez was awarded a new car and house, Nelson says. In the popularity contest that is Cuban politics, Valdez was Castro's new favored child. "That moment made all the difference," Placido says. "That was the point where Cesar's stock starting going up, and Nelson's stock went down."
Nelson still spent the next decade working major tournaments. Despite an annual wage that topped out near $250, his was a relatively cushy existence, living the hotel life on the road and driving a white 2001 Fiat at home. But Nelson worried about his adolescent daughters having to navigate a country where betrayal is traded like currency. And his wife had long ago made up her own mind. Says Maritza: "If it was up to me, we would've left 20 years ago."
In 2007, Nelson's 74-year-old mother, Nieves Blanco, learned she had cancer. Nelson appealed to the Cuban government to allow him to visit her in South Miami. He was rejected, and she died within three months.
Nelson began telling close friends that he was thinking of finally taking his wife and daughters to Miami. From a Beijing hotel room during the 2008 Olympics, he called his father in Miami and asked him to put in a legal claim for them to join him in the States.
In the confidence sieve that is Cuba, the government soon knew of his plans. The baseball federation refused to send him to Japan to work the 2009 World Baseball Classic and that year unceremoniously "retired" Nelson from the sport.
He and his family spent that autumn giving away their belongings to friends and relatives. The government took the Fiat and their house.
When Nelson told his fellow umpires — brothers in blue after decades spent together on ball fields and cross-continental flights — they acted "horrible" toward him, he says. "They said I was a traitor to my country."
Castro's darling, Cesar Valdez, condemned him most vociferously. It wounded Nelson, says Maritza. "There are no friends here. There are no real men here," she recalls her husband seething as they packed a few suitcases before catching a commercial flight to Miami International Airport. Placido had legally claimed Nelson, Maritza, and their daughters, so the Cuban government allowed them all to leave for America. Said Nelson: "I should have made this decision a long time ago."
Nelson had refused to defect for the sake of his career. But as it turned out, the Cuban Baseball Federation had stolen his prime and then tossed him away. If he had defected with his father, he might have had a shot at the Major Leagues. Now he was heading toward a very uncertain future.
Today, Nelson lives with his sister and her husband in a South Miami home. In the part of the home now cordoned off for Nelson, his wife, and their two daughters, there are bronze medals from the Olympics in Sydney, Athens, and Beijing, tokens for umpiring those games; Lucite baseballs mounted on stands made of tiny baseball bats; towering bowling-style trophies given to him by various governments — Venezuela, Brazil, and at least a dozen from Cuba — for tournaments officiated; a Sharpie-inscribed wooden shard from a grateful Cuban province; and the crown jewel: a simple, faded medallion, laser-written with his name and the inscription "International Umpire of the World." Given to him in 1994 by the International Baseball Federation, the sport's global governing body, it is the Nobel Prize of umpiring.
Nelson flits childlike around the hallway as he shows off these prized possessions, his deep-blue Cuban Olympics travel bag, and his selection of jersey shirts adorned with tournament logos from around the world. He regularly declares himself "the top umpire in Cuba," and when pressed, Nelson admits that, yes, he is the best in the world, period.
He has refused to watch professional baseball on television or in person since he defected. He even turned down New Times' offer to take him to a Florida Marlins game. He'd be busy all week, he lamented, and the next week too. "He can't bear to watch professional games," Maritza explains. "It's too painful for him, because he feels like he should be on the field."
His greatest fear is that he will have to give up baseball. And going from umpiring the world's most important games to bumbling high-school matches bites at his soul.
"It's really hard for me to go from where I was to where I am now," he explains in a tumbling cadence. "But I really have nothing else to do, so I have to keep doing it. Everything I have ever done throughout my entire life has been baseball."