Umpire Nelson Diaz escaped Cuba but now faces life without baseball

Umpire Nelson Diaz escaped Cuba but now faces life without baseball
C. Stiles
Nelson Diaz shows off his moves.

On a dirt field on a hazy Tuesday afternoon in Miami Lakes, a no-level 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, he springs toward the infield and performs a quick pirouette to give himself a direct view of a play at first base. His "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.

Nelson Diaz, who once umpired Olympians and Major Leaguers, now works no-level youth games around Miami.
C. Stiles
Nelson Diaz, who once umpired Olympians and Major Leaguers, now works no-level youth games around Miami.
C. Stiles

Despite a barrel-chested ogre's frame, a boxer's flattened face, and a head nearly devoid of hair — Nelson looks a bit like Judge Mills Lane on growth hormones — 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 to greet New Times. 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. He sticks two fingers through the fence for a prison-style rendition of a handshake. In rapid-fire Spanish, he declares that Bienvenido, bless his heart, is simply not at his own 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 his resident 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 fanático Fidel Castro, the dictator who imprisoned Nelson's father for 27 years. When the insults finally grew too grievous and Nelson fled to Miami, 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 Calle Ocho 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."

For ten years, Barbara urged her older brother to defect. When boxes full of Nelson's trophies began arriving from Cuba at the SW 74th Court house she shares with her contractor husband, Humberto Hernandez, she knew he had finally made the decision.

Today, the awards line a hallway in the part of the home now cordoned off for Nelson, his wife Maritza, and their two daughters, Islen and Yaritza. There are bronze medals from the Sydney, Athens, and Beijing Olympics, 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."

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