By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By David Minsky
By Michael E. Miller
On a dirt field on a hazy Tuesday afternoon in Miami Lakes, a game of teenage baseball is under way. The kids, acne-pocked and wearing sleeveless T-shirts in place of jerseys, nonchalantly dangle their bats as they saunter to the plate. They make mud with their spit and dig into the elaborate stances of A-Rod or Pujols, imagining themselves as Major Leaguers.
But in this summer contest between the Falcons and the Thunder, two teams of mostly Cuban 15- and 16-year-olds, there are probably no future big-leaguers. There is, however, one star on the field.
Umpire Nelson Diaz stands, with the perfect posture of a drill sergeant, behind first base during the pitcher's windup. When bat hits ball, Diaz springs toward the infield to give himself a direct view of a play at first base. The ump's "out" call is a karate move: a grand, reared-back punch into the air accompanied by a left-leg kick and a banshee moan. His "safe" call is crisp and emphatic, a full-body exhalation.
Despite a barrel-chested ogre's frame, a boxer's flattened face, and a head nearly devoid of hair, he steals ninja-like across the field. Nelson accomplishes the hallmark of every good umpire: He commands the game while remaining in the background.
His partner, a bookish-looking man named Bienvenido, whose day job is as a county employee, seems to consider movement to be above his pay grade. He's probably right: Nelson and Bienvenido will each make about $50 for tonight's double-header.
For many of the fathers in the stands and a few of the young players, seeing Diaz on their field is a strange sensation. They grew up watching him officiate games on television in Cuba, where he was the baseball-mad island's most prominent umpire. Among the international contests he oversaw in his 26-year career: three Olympics, both World Baseball Classics, several Pan-American Games, and the much-hyped exhibition contests between Cuba's national team and the Baltimore Orioles. He worked fields shared by demigods of béisbol cubano — and future Major Leaguers — such as half-brothers Liván and Orlando Hernández, José Contreras, and Aroldis Chapman. For him to appear suddenly at this kids' game, flying around the field and punching players out, is a bit like Baryshnikov crashing a grade-school rendition of The Nutcracker.
Miguel Fiandor, dad of center fielder Chris, speaks of Diaz in a hushed tone as he watches him from nearly empty bleachers: "You can tell he's a professional umpire the second he steps on the field. Most of the umpires we see are jumpy. They don't like to run. This guy's the real deal."
Between innings, Nelson swaggers to the chainlink backstop. His baby-blue collared jersey is adorned with the flag patches of Cuba and Brazil — souvenirs from a contest he umpired between the two nations. In rapid-fire Spanish, he declares that Bienvenido, bless his heart, is simply not at his level. Then he asks, "You guys saw that that guy knew me?" nodding with a smug eyebrow arch toward Fiandor.
The man who six months ago couldn't walk down the street in Havana without being stopped by fans now thrives on such little moments of recognition. For three decades, Nelson bit his tongue as he worked games for the Cuban Baseball Federation, pet organization of Fidel Castro, the dictator who imprisoned Nelson's father for 27 years. When the insults finally grew too much and Nelson fled to South Florida, the man who had umpired in front of crowds of 50,000 found himself working games attended by a dozen parents.
He suffers the same frustration felt by hundreds of Cuban doctors and lawyers relegated to Cuban restaurant kitchens and gas stations. As Nelson's sister, Barbara Diaz, puts it: "In Cuba, he's Nelson Diaz. Here, he's just one more."
But even the kids scuffling through the Miami Lakes ball game notice there's something wrong with this picture. "I'd love to see him in the Major Leagues," says Ernesto Punales, a lanky, faux-hawked, 16-year-old Falcons pitcher and shortstop. As a boy growing up in Cuba, he knew Nelson Diaz as a folk hero ubiquitous on government-televised games, a celebrity in a country that has few. "He doesn't belong here. At all. At all."
Meanwhile, Nelson, still in uniform, slinks behind the wheel of his brother-in-law's Nissan and heads to his makeshift abode — an efficiency in his sister's South Miami home.
Ernesto is still saying, "At all. At all."
Police officers took Nelson's father, Placido, on August 29, 1962. Nelson says he doesn't remember much about the raid, just being awakened in the middle of the night along with 4-year-old Barbara and the olive-colored uniforms of cops with guns at their waists.
It was the job of Nelson and Barbara's tough-as-nails mother, Nieves Blanco — "Snow White" in Spanish — to explain: Dad had plotted against Castro. Now he might never come back.
Nelson, an aspiring catcher who was named for Cuban baseball moonlighter Rocky Nelson, suddenly found himself thrust into his father's shoes. The family fled the turmoil of Havana to the smaller town of Güira de Melena. "He was very strong," Barbara says. "It was just the three of us for all those years."
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."
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."
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.