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Making it to the bigs, Nelson says, is still his dream. But there's only one way into the six-figure-salaried, first-class-flying, 70-member tribe of Major League officiators: through two Florida umpire schools. The students at the Wendelstedt Umpire School in Ormond Beach and the Jim Evans Academy in Kissimmee are predominantly boys fresh from high school, desperate to stay out of suits and ties.
It's tough to imagine a 50-something man who already considers himself the best umpire on the globe gelling in a place like that. And after the customary ten-year trip through the Minor Leagues, Nelson would be past normal retiring age by the time he made it to the Majors.
For this umpire without a country, his career in the Olympics, World Baseball Classic, and Pan American Games is over for the foreseeable future. He could still become a top officiator in college ball — where umps are paid as much as $250 a game — says friend and umpire evaluator Gus Rodriguez: "He's definitely one of the most skilled umpires in the world. The greatest obstacle in his way right now is that he's unable to speak English."
But Nelson, cocooned among relatives who speak not a syllable of gringo, hasn't taken any steps toward becoming bilingual. His sister believes that's impossible. "He barely speaks Spanish," Barbara says. "How's he going to learn English?"
With summer's end, Nelson's amateur gigs — he averages about eight or nine games a week and recently worked five in one day — will dry up. But the idea of him getting a 9-to-5 job — stuffing himself into a cubicle or slapping a headset onto his bald, sunburned cranium — strikes those who know him as a tragic and bizarre concept. Moments of silence follow when his relatives are asked what Nelson might have been if he hadn't become an umpire. "Maybe the guy bringing balls to the field?" Barbara offers after deep contemplation.
Reality will have to pry the ball/strike counter from Nelson's clenched fist. Maritza has found a job at a South Miami daycare center, and his daughters are helping out financially. He shrugs heavily when asked how long he'll continue to umpire: "As long as I can hold out."
He can handle the heat, Nelson grumbles as he stuffs a protective cup down gray slacks. But it's never this damned humid in Cuba.
He's in between a Tuesday-morning double-header. His partner for the day, a graying fellow named Jim Cowen — chatty even on the field, he calls plays with "You got him there!" or "Didn't get that one!" — strips beside him. Cowen, a three-decade lifer, is explaining how the only thing keeping an old man like him on the field on a day like this is the love of youth ball. "I'm happy if I get enough to cover the gas from Boca," he chirps. "Nobody works amateur games for the money."
Cowen apologetically glances at his partner before realizing Nelson can't understand him anyway. The veteran pair smoothly managed the 9 a.m. game without two words of conversation. "Umpiring," Cowen remarks, "is a universal language."
In his on-field dealings with players and coaches, Nelson knows Umpire's English. Ask him, "What's the count, Blue?" for example, and he'll immediately signal the balls and strikes using his fingers. He calls pitcher's mistakes in Spanish: "¡Bola!"
Says Cowen: "Even the Cuban coaches have been giving me shit about him not speaking English. I remind them: 'Hey, two years ago, neither did you!' "
At today's sun-blasted twin bill, the handful of parents find shade under trees beyond center field and beneath tin bleachers. It's the sort of game where the right fielder can be heard asking the center fielder between pitches: "What's the score? Five to one? Four to one? What's the inning?"
Today, 2,000 miles and a galaxy away in Anaheim, is Major League Baseball's All-Star Game. It will feature a six-man on-field officiating crew. But it's just another day in purgatory for the self-proclaimed world's best ump. He doesn't like to talk on game day. Before the game begins, he walks a few steps and sits rigidly on a rolled-up chainlink fence beneath a tree, stares silently at the empty baseball field ahead of him, and waits for game time.
Danielle Alvarez contributed reporting to this article.