Given to him in 1994 by the International Baseball Federation (IBAF), 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 savors his own glory: His cell phone voicemail greeting says you have reached "the umpire Nelson Diaz." Taking a shot of Bacardi every time he declared himself "the top umpire in Cuba" in casual conversation would have you bending over Barbara's bidet-outfitted toilet in no time. And when pressed, Nelson admits that, yes, he is the best in the world, period.

He has a couple of all-encompassing codas: Never fraternize with the players. Baseball comes first, then family, then nothing else. And conversation is largely unnecessary.

Nelson poses with his daughter Islen and wife Maritza.
C. Stiles
Nelson poses with his daughter Islen and wife Maritza.

Nelson, wearing a Lycra-tight T-shirt and embroidered jeans, sits with a yogi's posture on a leather couch in his sister's baroque living room as he claims he had a "very normal childhood." In two hours, he never mentions that Fidel's goons stole his father in the middle of the night. He is loathe to share his opinion on Castro or his politics, only vaguely saying, "Imagine, he was a powerful dictator for 50 years." He makes little effort to explain what made him stay in Cuba or what finally made him leave.

And, like any decent baseball star from the island, Nelson apparently fibs about his age. He claims to be 52 when simple math — by all family accounts, his father was arrested on Nelson's eighth birthday in 1962 — reveals he is at least 55.

But he does admit his greatest fear: that he will have to give up baseball. And that going from umpiring the world's most important games to bumbling high-school matches does bite 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."

Nelson's wife Maritza used to have a rule when she took their daughters to watch games he was umpiring: If he flubs a call, we're going home immediately; go straight to your room and don't tempt his wrath. "His reputation was that he never made a mistake," she explains. "He tortured himself if he wasn't perfect."

In the spirit of self-flagellation, Nelson recorded and rewatched every game he worked to see if he had blown any calls. Asked to recall his most haunting mistake, Nelson, who comes alive when he recollects baseball scenarios, sets up the story the same way he does all such tales: by stating the place and year.

Pinar del Río, Cuba. 2007. The hometown Vegueros were hosting La Habana in the playoffs of the Cuban National Series, the country's equivalent of the Major Leagues. In the ninth inning, with La Habana down by one run, the team's top star, Juan Carlos Linares, tried to beat a fielder's throw home. Nelson, working the plate, perfectly placed himself to see Linares attempt to dive under the catcher's tag.

The split-second play was enveloped by a miniature dust storm kicked up by the convergence of cleats. But Nelson's brain processed it: Linares's hand missed the plate. The ump punched him out emphatically. La Habana lost that game and went on to lose the series.

That night, in front of the TV set in his living room, Nelson watched Linares's hand clearly plant itself on home plate before the catcher applied the tag. Nelson didn't eat or sleep for a week. "I was so upset," he says. "I am not going to forget that until the day I die."

He experiences flashbacks of that pit-of-the-stomach sickness when he considers the plight of Jim Joyce, the usually excellent umpire who this past June blew a no-doubter at first base to rob Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga of a perfect game. Joyce's gaffe, as well as several other blown calls, might lead to the rise of expanded instant replay in Major League Baseball.

Checking calls with cameras would have saved Nelson from his self-imposed fast in 2007, and it would have kept Joyce's call from the ledger of baseball history's greatest mistakes. But like most umpires, Nelson is steadfastly against the rise of the machines. Expanded instant replay would mangle the "essence of the game," he says, and undermine the umpire's all-important "dominion on the field."

But Nelson heard about Joyce's controversy only from gabbing relatives. 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."

The Diaz men — Nelson's father Placido and sons Nelson Jr. and Noslen (yes, that's an anagram) — are like life-size superhero figurines who burst from the same brawny mold. The same hulking frames atop ballet-size feet, the same bulging eyes and gleaming foreheads. The same tics and gestures. And the same utter lack of hyperbole.

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