By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
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."
Fidel'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. 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 in his 30s, he might have had a shot at the Major Leagues. Now he was heading toward a very uncertain future.
Maritza says Nelson runs his home like he's in uniform on a ball field: all boomed orders and unquestionable, unilateral decisions. For years, his steady hand had steered his family right. But even the best umpire makes a mistake sometimes.
Making it to the bigs, Nelson says, is still his sueño. 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.
"The schools are these quasi-military institutions for young men," says New York Times reporter Bruce Weber, who recently published a book about umpires. "Some of them take to it. The others don't and sort of mentally drop out."
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 Division 1 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 Miami relatives who speak not a syllable of gringo, hasn't taken any steps toward becoming bilingual. His sister believes that's a pipe dream: He's medio bruto, remember? "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 nursery, 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."
Nelson emerges from the bathroom in full World Baseball Classic regalia — black hat and shirt adorned with the tournament's colorful pinwheel logo, pressed slacks, polished umpire's shoes, and a mask dangling from his fingers — and he suddenly just looks right, even against the incongruously arty backdrop of a photographer's studio.
He stands, head held high, in front a paper green screen. English be damned. Reporters be damned. This is take-no-shit, poke-you-in-the-chest Nelson Diaz.
A photographer asks him, through a translator, to make a few calls, and Nelson takes off like a shuttle. "Eaz-out!" he booms at a phantom play as muscle memory takes over, his elbow leaving a dent in the green screen. The calls come rapid-fire and without prompting, as if an endless chorus line of invisible base runners is being mowed down at the plate. "Eaz-out! Eaz-out! Eaz-out!"