By Ryan Yousefi
By Chuck Strouse
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By Michael E. Miller
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It doesn't work. Nelson stares straight at the headrest in front of him and gives neutral answers. Castro is a dictator. Baseball is great. Was he angry when Placido chose political principle over family? "No. I always understood what my father was doing."
Eventually, the interrogation makes him testy. He's tired of these brats dead set on discussing feelings. Asked what it is about the sport of baseball that appeals to him, Nelson impatiently barks, "Emotion! The play at the plate! The home run! The perfect game!"
Then he clams up until he's let out of the car.
Havana's Estadio Latinoamericano. 1991. Nelson was working 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. Next thing he knew, he was in the screaming, bulbous red face of the U.S. team's coach, Ron Polk.
So Nelson poked him in the chest. And Polk exploded. A Dutch umpire rushed in and bear-hugged 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.
So they were especially pleased when one of his colleagues went jungle commando on the ass of a Fidel-protesting Miami Cuban.
Baltimore's Camden Yards. May 1999. The first game of the exhibition double-header between the Cuban all-star team and the Baltimore Orioles had been weird — including the sight of Fidel Castro, adorned in guerrilla green, seated behind home plate between billionaire Orioles owner Peter Angelos and MLB commissioner Bud Selig — but this was the surreal main event.
Played on American soil, picketed in Little Havana, and breathlessly anticipated in Big Havana, this game was the crescendo in an overblown pageant of clashing motives.
To MLB brass, the games were an olive branch, as well as a complicit opportunity to scout forbidden talent. To Cuba, this was the Bay of Pigs in cleats, a chance for its $10-per-month athletes to embarrass Baltimore's $80 million lineup in an American stadium. To the Major Leaguers, the games were an unpaid nuisance.
To Cuban coaches and players, it was a glimpse into big-league environs they evidently desired: Seven of them never caught the return flight home.
To Nelson Diaz, 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 IBAF's top umpire evaluator, 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. They stayed in a different Baltimore hotel than the Americans and weren't allowed to socialize off the field. "It was a really strange environment," Rodriguez says. "But once the game starts, you just play ball."
Cuba, which had lost to Baltimore in extra innings in the first game, pounded out 18 hits and pummeled the oligarchs 12-6 this time around. But the game's real excitement came in the fifth inning, when a man charged toward short center carrying a sign reading, "Freedom — Strike out against Castro." Three protesters — all from Miami, of course — had already been arrested for running onto the field an inning earlier, and Cuban umpire Cesar Valdez was enraged. He chased the lone intruder, 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."
His American colleagues found the display disgusting, as did Nelson. "It was unnecessary. That's what security is there for," he says. "Of course it was political. Cesar is more of a politician than he is an umpire."
When they returned home, Valdez was greeted at the Havana airport by Fidel 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."