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Eighty-one-year-old Placido Diaz Millo lives with his wife Yolanda and a hyperactive terrier named Pinky in a comfortable South Miami home that smells of delicious chicken broth. He loves offering guests anything — café, Coke, jugo, crackers — because for once in his life, he can.
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," Placido explains 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."
Police officers took naval officer Placido on Nelson's eighth birthday — August 29, 1962 — after an evening his son had spent watching American flicks on a cineplex screen in the Vedado district of Havana. 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 Fidel 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 build (foreboding) and the brain (clear of distractions) 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.
In May 1988, the stubborn plantado 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, worshipping the craft of umpiring and his own stature within it. He was paid 38 pesos, or $1.35, a game but 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. "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."
Placido understands why his son always refused to join him in libertad. "We're the same," he says. "I decided to stand by my politics no matter what happened. He stood by baseball."
Crammed into the back of a Toyota coupe, alongside his Cuba Olympics travel bag full of umpiring gear, Nelson has no idea where he's headed. "We're going far, huh?" he observes at one point.
We're going to Fort Lauderdale, he's told, but Nelson hasn't heard of it.
It's been a familiar feeling since he came to Miami. Friends set up games for him and give him rides or very detailed directions to the field; he shows up, umpires, collects a check, and heads straight home.
With a thinly veiled motive, New Times offered to drive Nelson to his cover photo shoot. A reporter drives, a translator rides shotgun, and he's stuck in the back, forced to answer questions — to finally cough up the truth. There's no way he can be so doggedly Zen, no way he can have no real opinion on Fidel, no way he can be so emotionally indifferent in a life marked by tragedy, loss, and dilemma.